The media is still covering Trump’s campaign rallies. They just don’t realise it.

Within all the soul-searching that took place after Trump’s election win in 2016, one of the consistent themes was anger around disproportionate air-time owing to The Donald’s celebrity status.

Cable news outlets were eager to broadcast Trump rallies at length. At the time, it was hard to blame them: they were an undeniably gripping spectacle, even to those who despised him. Other candidates would see their rallies broadcast, sure, but only for as long as viewers could keep stay awake.

On top of this, programmes would trip over themselves trying book Trump onto their shows. The campaign relished in this attention, and took to offering phone interviews, a scenario which made it easier to appear on more shows, and much harder for interviewers to interject. (And with no cameras, it’s easy for aides to feed Trump information – a technique enthusiastically adopted by certain under-the-kosh technology companies, incidentally.)

All told, the pull of Trump added up, according to one estimate, to $5.6bn-worth of “free airtime” during the 2016 campaign.

That won’t happen again, broadcasters said. Here’s a report from Newsweek last month, marking that change of mood:

News coverage of President Donald Trump’s Orlando, Florida, rally Tuesday showed cable news networks and the media in general appear reluctant to give him the same $5.6 billion of free airtime he received during the 2016 election. Both CNN and MSNBC dropped live coverage of the president’s Orlando rally even though Trump had not finished his speech to the raucous crowd.

Fox News was the exception – it carried the rally in full. Fox News gonna Fox News, as they say. But, as far as the other broadcasters were concerned, they weren’t going to just let the cameras roll like they used to.

But, and excuse me for sounding like a stark-raving YouTuber, here’s the real truth the media doesn’t want you to know. It is covering Trump campaign rallies. Perhaps with even more fervour than in 2016. They’re just… different.

There were several this week: a White House Social Media Summit that didn’t involve a single social media company, but did include a Trump stump speech – carried live – in front of his biggest, most influential supporters. Everyone covered it, myself included. In case you missed it, you can watch it in full on the Washington Post’s YouTube channel.

Then on Friday, the campaign – and the cameras – moved to McAllen, Texas, where Vice President Pence took a tour of a migrant detention center. Pictures, beamed on cable news all day, included young children watching television on a bench, and grown men who seemed uncomfortable, but ultimately able to handle themselves. Pence remarked to reporters that he was not surprised by the trip as the system is overwhelmed.

Mission accomplished: a rally event designed to portray conditions as fine, actually, and to suggest the was – as ever – too many migrants. As the footage is seen all over the country tonight, on every channel, Trump knows the message will be this: “I told you there was a crisis.”

And then, it’s the weekend.

Trump told reporters on Friday that ICE would carry out raids to round-up and deport illegal immigrants, adding there was no need for it to be “secret”. This despite warnings from former officials that making plans public, even vaguely, “puts officers in a disadvantage and the agents that are out there in harm’s way”.

So why do it? It’s a campaign rally. In fact, it’s better than a rally. Speaking to the LA Times, public policy Professor Roberto Suro put it this way: “One audience is supposed to feel like something is happening, and the other is supposed to be scared to death.”

**

I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to this issue. It’s the media’s duty to cover what a nation’s leaders are doing – and as President, there will be no avoiding giving Trump 2020 more air time than any other candidate.

His political opponents will need to think deeply, and innovatively, about how to handle that, while editors, producers and reporters will need to keep learning how to fulfill their obligations, while simultaneously finding ways to call a spade a spade.

On the French tech tax

I appeared briefly on PRI’s The World earlier today to talk about the implications of France’s new tech tax, and the subsequent investigation by the US. Listen to it here.

Ultimately, France seems keen to make this the starting point for global tax reform, rather than standing alone (for now) in taking on this issue. Next month’s G7 meeting in Paris will be the next significant step.

Before that, though, eyes will now be on the UK, which has expressed interest in bringing in a similar tax. Will a country desperate to seal new trade deals for a post-Brexit world be as willing as the French to provoke the Americans?

The picking apart of Netflix

This piece, by CNBC’s Todd Haselton, looks at AT&Ts plans for expanding HBO’s on-demand offering – a move that will pull even more content off Netflix. This is the final paragraph of Haseton’s piece:

The service is just one of many new streaming products set to launch in the coming years. Disney’s $6.99/month Disney+ will launch this November and will include 18 of Pixar’s 21 movies, Marvel films, 30 seasons of the Simpsons, Disney animated movies and the Star Wars franchise of films.

I’m starting to wonder if Netflix’s approach, the most walled-garden of all the on-demand players, is beginning to be a weakness.

Its decision to neither become a portal service, with add-on channels like HBO for an extra fee, nor allow itself to be part of someone else‘s portal, risks leaving Netflix isolated.

Its Originals are successful, but incredibly expensive to keep producing year-after-year. Netflix is putting incredible pressure on that part of its business, as its back catalogue is being whittled away: Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, The Office, Friends – all going or gone as competitors have started to go it alone, making their own channels which are then made available through portals like Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

How long can Netflix keep up the investment its making in Originals? Good question – and one this piece in The Information examined recently, suggesting the company might be getting a little more budget-conscious:

[Ted Serandos, Netflix head of content] told the group that spending on film and TV projects, particularly big budget movies, needed to be more cost-effective, according to people familiar with the meeting. Netflix has long measured the efficiency of its TV shows and movies using a ratio of their cost to a measure of viewership that gives more weight to new subscribers and those viewed at risk of canceling, say former employees. Mr. Sarandos made clear that in the future big-budget projects should bring in lots of viewers, a shift from the past when they might have gotten a pass if they were expected to get buzz and build industry credibility. 

In other words: acting like a normal TV company, even down to ordering pilots of shows before going ahead with a full series.

The Information ultimately concludes that the big spending isn’t over yet, but investors might want to question how long it can continue:

This kind of programming blitz has helped Netflix maintain subscriber growth—it hit 149 million global subscribers in the first quarter, up 25% on a year earlier. But it has also kept the company spending more money than it brings in, requiring it to continue borrowing money. Last year, for instance, Netflix had a cash shortfall of $3 billion and has projected that will increase to $3.5 billion this year. Netflix has said it expects this cash burn to decline starting next year.

Connecting Glasto

Good quick read on Wired UK about the logistics behind getting the Glastonbury Festival – a temporary town of around 200,000 people – connected to mobile networks:

The key part of each site is the antenna. In most built environments, antennae are installed on rooftops, but this isn’t possible in a field. Instead, they are raised five to ten metres high on lattice towers. This year, EE is trialling a pneumatic system that uses air pressure to push the antenna up on a telescopic pole, reducing the risks incurred by engineers climbing and rigging the towers. The sites are delivered on trailers two weeks before the festival and each has its own power generator. The network is monitored at all hours by an operation centre based in Bristol, and an engineer stays on-site with a set of spare parts.

The piece was written before this year’s festival. Apparently the biggest spike in data traffic in 2017 (2018 was an off year) was during the Barry Gibb “legends” slot.

Hah hah hah hah stayin’ online, stayin’ online…

Smartphones might be making our skulls develop spikes

Zaria Gorvett, writing for BBC Future, on how a “curious spiky growth” on the back of the head, once a rare condition, is becoming increasingly common:

What the scientists found was striking. The spike was far more prevalent than they had expected, and also a lot more common in the youngest age group: one in four people aged 18-30 had the growth.

Why could this be? And should we be concerned?

Shahar thinks the spike explosion is down to modern technology, particularly our recent obsession with smartphones and tablets. As we hunch over them, we crane our necks and hold our heads forward. This is problematic, because the average head weighs around 10 pounds (4.5 kg) – about as much as a large watermelon.

Really puts a whole new meaning to the phrase “we saw a spike in user engagement”, doesn’t it?

Spielberg’s new TV show can only be watched after midnight

As people like to say these days: I am totally here for this. Steven Spielberg is working on a horror series for a curious new streaming platform called Quibi, and it will involve a particularly creative twist, Variety reports:

[Spielberg] wanted viewers to only be able to watch the program after midnight. Given that phones can track where it is at the moment — and keep tabs on when the sun rises and sets in its area — Katzenberg and Whitman challenged their engineers to come up with an idea for how to view the show when it’s spooky out.

The result: A clock will appear on phones, ticking down until sun sets in wherever that user is, until it’s completely gone. Then the clock starts ticking again to when the sun comes back up — and the show will disappear until the next night.

That’s… awesome? Really excited to see what he does with the idea. Quibi is due to launch next year, and is taking a different approach to production. Here’s how Variety describes it:

Short for “quick bites,” Quibi has raised $1 billion from investors for an April 2020 launch, with more funding to come, and is hoping to trigger a “third generation of film narrative,” following movies and TV. But don’t call it short form, Katzenberg said.

“What Quibi is doing, it’s not really short form,” he said. “We’re putting those sciences together. Chapters or act breaks that are 7 to 10 minutes long. They are specifically shot to be watched on the go. If you’re 25-35 years old, you get up and you’re on [a smartphone] for over five hours.”

I’m not sold on that as a separate service, but good luck to them, if only to see this post-midnight idea play out.

Getting back in when you’re locked out of WeChat

Even the BBC’s China correspondent — already a closely watched man, you’d imagine — was left more than a little unsettled by his latest experience with the Chinese surveillance state.

In this piece, Stephen McDonell details how, after posting, without captions, some pictures of a demonstration marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was locked out of WeChat:

[W]hen I tried to log back in, a new message appeared: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumours and has been temporarily blocked…”

That part isn’t surprising, to a point. What sends a bit of a chill, though, is what he has to do a day later in order to get back onto the service:

I was given time to try and log in again the next day after my penalty had been served.

When I did I had to push “agree and unblock” under the stated reason of “spread malicious rumours”.

So this rumour-monger clicked on “agree”.

Then came a stage I was not prepared for. “Faceprint is required for security purposes,” it said.

I was instructed to hold my phone up – to “face front camera straight on” – looking directly at the image of a human head. Then told to “Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese”.

Not a database you’d want to be on.

What’s also concerning, at a time when we think about the power and reach of tech firms, is McDonnell’s point that he had little option but to go through the steps — it’s very difficult to live in China without using the app.

The Guardian on Google’s ‘white-collar sweatshop’

The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong continues to stand up for the hidden tech working class, with a revealing piece about the contractors being used to power Google’s AI. She writes:

“It’s smoke and mirrors if anything,” said a current Google employee who, as with the others quoted in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “Artificial intelligence is not that artificial; it’s human beings that are doing the work.”

There’s a name for this: Ghost Work. I’m just working my way through a (so far) terrific book about it.

Craig Newmark on The MarkUp

The MarkUp, a tech publication mostly funded by Craig Newmark of Craigslist fame, has had a rocky start – its acclaimed editor Julia Angwin said a month ago that she was forced out, and criticised a change of mission at the publication which pledged to use data-driven journalism to hold tech firms accountable. Five more editorial staff followed her.

Today, Craig Newmark announced that Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson – the other two founders – had departed:

Coincidentally, I was at Newmark’s house today. I was there to interview him about his philanthropic efforts to save “the immune system” of democracy, as he puts it. (Journalism, in other words).

That interview will be on the BBC in various forms in due course, but here’s what he said about The MarkUp.

This evening, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Angwin is in talks to take over now that Gardner and Larson are out.

The Verge: Why the hell is the ‘race to 5G’ even a race?

Good point, well made by The Verge’s Nilay Patel. Why do people refer to the development and proliferation of 5G as a “race”?

[T]he stakes of this supposed race are wholly unclear. What happens if we win, besides telecom execs getting slightly richer? More importantly, what are the drawbacks to coming in second, or even third? Where is the list of specific negative outcomes of China building a 5G network a month, a year, or even five years before the United States? I’ve never seen it, and I keep asking about it.

Patel argues, convincingly, that the race is a construct – a way to create an atmosphere of urgency that means legislation is passed quicky, infrastructure is installed immediately, and consumers are charged as soon as possible:

This race is imaginary bullshit. It’s being foisted on us by huge telecom companies that know internet access is fundamentally a commodity and want something new to sell at high prices instead of competing to improve service and lower prices on the networks they have. After all, the United States “won” the “race” for LTE, but it bears repeating: our LTE networks are among the slowest in the world, and our prices among the highest. What did winning that race accomplish for the millions of people across the country that still can’t get a reliable LTE signal?