Randall Stephenson’s Legacy: Backing Media in Partisan Era

Just hours after AT&T announced that its CEO Randall Stephenson would be stepping down in July after 13 years, President Donald Trump called Stephenson’s departure “great news!” in reference to WarnerMedia’s ownership of CNN, which the president often clashes with.

“Randall Stephenson, the CEO of heavily indebted AT&T, which owns and presides over Fake News @CNN, is leaving, or was forced out. Anyone who lets a garbage ‘network’ do and say the things that CNN does, should leave ASAP. Hopefully replacement will be much better!” Trump tweeted April 24 on social media.

Stephenson’s departure comes as AT&T grapples with shrinking pay-TV subscribers at DirecTV and AT&T U-verse, an online TV misfire with DirecTV Now (rebranded as AT&T TV), and $163 billion in debt — a figure that grew by $5.5 billion earlier this month following a third-party loan during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some have speculated the DOJ’s repeated attempts to nix AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner (and formation of WarnerMedia Entertainment) in 2016 stemmed from the president’s public animosity toward CNN.

“CNN’s job is not to be popular with the president,” Stephenson said at the time of the merger. “CNN’s job is really simple: It’s the job of all media: to hold people in power accountable.”

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Strong words from a CEO who often criticized government regulation, welcomed Trump’s corporate tax cut and was frequently accused of telling Wall Street that he preferred taking care of shareholders over consumers.

Indeed, in the first quarter (ended March 31), AT&T’s dividends paid for common shares totaling $3.7 billion (up 47% since 2017) and the company repurchased 142 million of its common shares for $4.7 billion.

Stephenson made headlines in 2017, when, as National Chair of the Boy Scouts of America, he criticized Trump’s address at the Boy Scouts of America’s annual Jamboree in West Virginia.

Trump had turned his speech into a partisan political rally, criticizing Obamacare, reiterating his 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton, reportedly asking for greater loyalty from scouts and their parents and criticizing former President Barack Obama for not attending the Jamboree — a tradition among presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.

“Anyone knows his speeches get highly political — we anticipated that this could be the case,” Stephenson told The Associated Press. “Do I wish the president hadn’t gone there and hadn’t been political? Of course.”

Stephenson’s dogged defense of CNN continued despite some concern on Wall Street the global network founded by billionaire Ted Turner could undermine AT&T’s businesses going forward.

“This is one of those issues you just ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?'” Stephenson said at a Wall Street Journal forum as reported by The Dallas Morning News. “And then you do the right thing.”

Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson, said Stephenson leaves behind a company that transformed from telecom operator to media conglomerate.

“But the jury is still out if the transformation is for better or worse,” Moffett told CNBC.

Netflix’s ‘Crip Camp’ Doc Required Re-creating the Sound of Summer Camp in the ‘70s

Viewers often neglect to appreciate how important sound is to a production. At its most effective, a soundtrack can be as important to the experience of a film as the picture.

For the Netflix/Higher Ground documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, it was crucial to match home movie footage from a summer camp in the 1970s, and sound supervisor Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach was tasked with creating a soundtrack that evoked the times.

Crip Camp, which began streaming on Netflix March 25, chronicles the history of a ramshackle summer camp down the road from Woodstock that galvanized a group of teens with disabilities to help build a movement. Executive producers include President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan, and Oscar nominee Howard Gertler.

The film is co-directed and produced by Emmy Award winner Nicole Newnham and film mixer and former camper Jim LeBrecht.

Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach (left) and co-director/former camper Jim LeBrecht.

“During the spotting session, the sound team, along with sound designer Bijan Sharifi, and I spent a lot of time talking with Jim about what certain moments would have sounded like and how he’d like us to approach it. Jim played a huge role in the conceptual work, mixing and enhancement of audio,” said Bloomfield-Misrach. “Our philosophy for the sound design on Crip Camp was to enhance the audience’s experience as much as possible, without it ever sounding artificial. We absolutely kept everything as true as possible. Things like bird sounds that we added needed to be confirmed as authentic to a particular region, or certain insects that might be prevalent in upstate New York during the summer. We also had to distress the Foley and SFX to make sure it sounded consistent with the camera footage from the appropriate decade.”

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The key was to restore, augment and amplify the sound without making it noticeable.

“Pretty much every archival scene in the film, of which there are many, has some degree of additional sound design in it,” said Bloomfield-Misrach. “It was our job to help the viewer feel close to those scenes, so a lot of work was put into adding a closeness or intimacy to the sounds of the film, while making sure that all of our work was invisible. You never want an audience to notice sound design in a documentary.”

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One of the biggest challenges, he said, was re-creating the sound of a manual wheelchair rolling on a wood-slat deck in the 1970s. The sound design department took a manual wheelchair and drove around until they found a public boardwalk made of wood.

“It also had to be abandoned for us to get a clean recording on it,” he said. “And then further distressing it to sound like an old recording — that took a little time.”

Finding a balance between the original sound recording and necessary amplification was a challenge, especially with footage recorded in the 1970s by teenagers.

“The footage of Jim at Camp Jened was all recorded with a 15-year-old’s handheld microphone,” said Bloomfield-Misrach. “There was a lot of handling noise, background noise, wind noise, and kids screaming into the mic for fun. That footage was the most challenging but also the most rewarding to clean up. We wanted to retain as much of the innocent nature as we could, but we also needed the audio to be intelligible. So we gave a lot of attention to that scene, to find the perfect balance between the two.”

Still, the team didn’t want to lose the character of the footage in forming the soundtrack.

“Imperfections are what make us human, and documentaries tend to have lots of imperfections in their production audio,” said Bloomfield-Misrach. “My team at IMRSV Sound understands the importance of retaining the raw character and humanistic feel that is captured in production. So for Crip Camp, it was the imperfections in the production audio that added so much character to the film. Keeping a lot of that in was very important. Often times we would minimize it or clean it up, but we’d prefer to keep in some of the film’s quirks, and in doing so, be true to the spirit of the film and its filmmakers.”

Obamas’ Production Company Announces Initial Slate for Netflix

Higher Ground Productions, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company in partnership with Netflix, announced its initial slate of upcoming projects, encompassing fiction and non-fiction productions; scripted, unscripted and documentary series; and full-length features and documentaries.

Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis are co-heads of the company.

The documentary American Factory, from Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, will be the first release on the slate. Acquired by Netflix in association with Higher Ground Productions out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary, the Participant Media film takes a deep dive into a post-industrial Ohio, where a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant and hires 2,000 blue-collar Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.

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“Bloom” is an upstairs/downstairs drama series set in the world of fashion in post-World War II New York City that depicts barriers faced by women and people of color in an era marked by hurdles but also tremendous progress.

Higher Ground is producing a feature film adaptation of author David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, for which he won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history.

The company is adapting a scripted anthology series from The New York Times’ ongoing obituary column “Overlooked,” telling the stories of remarkable people whose deaths were not reported by the newspaper.

“Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents” will be a half-hour preschool series from creators Jeremy Konner (“Drunk History”) and Erika Thormahlen. The show travel around the globe to tell the story of our food.

From Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of The Big Short and Moneyball, and based on his book The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, the non-fiction series “Fifth Risk” will aim to portray the importance of unheralded work done by everyday heroes guiding our government and safeguarding our nation.

Crip Camp is a feature-length documentary film in production that is supported by the Sundance Institute and acquired earlier this year by Higher Ground and Netflix. Just down the road from Woodstock, in the early 1970s, a parallel revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers that would transform young lives and America forever by helping to set in motion the disability rights movement. The film is directed by former camper Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.

The Obamas launched Higher Ground last spring.

“We created Higher Ground to harness the power of storytelling. That’s why we couldn’t be more excited about these projects,” President Obama said in a statement. “Touching on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more, we believe each of these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.”

“We love this slate because it spans so many different interests and experiences, yet it’s all woven together with stories that are relevant to our daily lives,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “We think there’s something here for everyone — moms and dads, curious kids, and anyone simply looking for an engaging, uplifting watch at the end of a busy day. We can’t wait to see these projects come to life — and the conversations they’ll generate.”

“President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and the Higher Ground team are building a company focused on storytelling that exemplifies their core values,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix. “The breadth of their initial slate across series, film, documentary and family programming shows their commitment to diverse creators and unique voices that will resonate with our members around the world.”

Trump Administration Pledges to Veto Net Neutrality Bill

As expected, White House officials April 8 said they would recommend President Donald Trump veto House Democrats’ efforts to revive net neutrality guidelines enacted in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama.

The current FCC, under Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai, reversed the guidelines, favoring so-called “light touch” regulation.

Following the 2018 midterm elections, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) introduced H.R. #1644 (Save the Internet) that would reinstate net neutrality classifying the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934.

The bill, which has 197 co-sponsors, seeks to stop Internet service providers from enacting speed lanes for higher-paying Web traffic and throttling third-party competitive services.

The legislation is up for possible vote in the Democrat-control House as early as April 9. If passed, it would be reconciled in the Senate and then sent to Trump for his signature or veto.

The White House (and many Republicans) argue that the current FCC last year sought to “restore Internet freedom” by adopting so-called “light-touch” regulation that it said enabled the Internet and entrepreneurs to “thrive” for nearly two decades.

In a tweet, the Office of Management and Budget said that since the FCC reversed its position on net neutrality, the United States has risen to sixth from 13th in global fixed broadband download speeds.

It said ongoing rollout of fiber technology benefited from a change in the law, underscored by an increase in capital investment by $2.3 billion.

“H.R. 1644 would undermine this success by repealing the FCC’s current rule,” the OMB tweeted. “If H.R. 1644 were presented to the President, his advisors would recommend that he veto it.”

 

 

FCC: Nearly Half of 22 Million Public Comments on Net Neutrality Fake

During the 2017 run-up to the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality guidelines enacted in 2015 during the Obama Administration, the agency solicited public comments on the proposed decision not to treat the Internet as a public utility.

The FCC on Dec. 14, 2017 voted 3-2 along party lines to nullify the Open Internet Order affirmed under previous chairman Tom Wheeler. In doing so, Internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter were no longer prohibited from charging online streaming services such as Netflix market rates for broadband access, among other issues.

In new FCC disclosures following Freedom of Information Act requests by The New York Timesand other media groups, it was revealed that nearly 11 million of the 22 million comments received online regarding net neutrality were fraudulent, including 500,000 comments received from Russian sources.

The revelation underscores the widespread influx and influence social media can have on more than national elections. Indeed, about 8 million fake comments originated from domain sites associated with FakeMailGenerator.com. Another 2 million comments used stolen identities.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in a statement to Congress, claimed that much of the “overheated rhetoric” against his proposed net neutrality rollback originated from fraudulent sources. In fact, most of the authentic comments reportedly consisted of form-letter responses.

Regardless, the New York State Attorney General’s Office in October opened an investigation to the fake comments, including subpoenaing public action groups on both sides of the issue.

 

California Inks Net Neutrality Bill; Trump Administration Sues

California Gov. Jerry Brown Sept. 30 signed legislation that returns key provisions of net neutrality law enacted by the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama.

Brown approved SB822 — dubbed the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018 — prohibiting fixed and mobile Internet service providers (ISPs) from engaging in actions concerning the treatment of Internet traffic.

The law prevents ISPs (including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon) from blocking lawful content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices, impairing (i.e. throttling) or degrading lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, application, service or use of specified practices known as “zero-rating,” which enable users to consume select content without impacting their monthly data caps.

It also denies ISPs from offering or providing services other than broadband Internet access service that are delivered over the same last-mile connection into consumer homes, if those services have the purpose or effect of evading the above-described prohibitions or negatively affect the performance of broadband Internet access service.

The Trump Administration responded with the Department of Justice filing a federal lawsuit claiming the state law violates provisions of the FCC’s rolled back net neutrality guidelines enacted under new chairman Ajit Pai.

“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce — the federal government does,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme and state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”

Pai, who was appointed to the FCC by Obama, and promoted to chairman position by President Trump, has long argued previous net neutrality provisions represented government overreach on private enterprise and thwarted capital investment.

The revamped FCC last December voted to reclassify ISPs as “information service providers.” That action — restoring lighter regulatory oversight — overturned the prior FCC’s 2015 ruling that classified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

“Not only is California’s Internet regulation law illegal, it also hurts consumers,” Pai said, citing “zero rating” data plans he said enable low-income consumers to stream video and music.

“They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace,” Pai said.

Eddie Kurtz, with Courage Campaign, a civil liberties group, applauded the signing of SB822.

“Governor Jerry Brown did the right thing by choosing to institute the strongest net neutrality rules in the country, sending a clear signal to Californians that guaranteeing access to the internet for all, helping California communities — particularly low-income communities — and  boosting small businesses is a priority for our state,” said Kurtz.

 

Netflix Worth More Than Comcast, Disney on Wall Street

Thanks to a record stock price, subscription streaming video behemoth Netflix quietly ended May 23 with a market value exceeding Comcast for the first time.

The same Comcast that owns NBC Universal, DreamWorks Animation and wants to own 20th Century Fox Film and British satellite TV operator Sky.

Netflix ended the day with market capitalization of $149 billion, which bested Comcast’s $147 billion market cap. Netflix opened May 24 up to $151.8 billion, which passed Disney’s $151.7 billion market cap.

With more than 125 million subscribers globally, Netflix continues to grow. The service expects to add 6.2 million subs in the second quarter ending June 30.

The service also continues to expand its creative product with the bow of “Dear White People,” “The Break with Michelle Wolf” on May 27, and announcement of future projects with former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The latter drew some pushback on social media, with several subscribers saying on Twitter they would cancel their service, according to Fortune.

Apparently, President Obama’s desire to “cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples and help them share their stories with the entire world,” being an affront to some.

Chief content officer Ted Sarandos said the Obamas are “uniquely positioned to discover and highlight stories of people who make a difference in their communities and strive to change the world for the better.”

And Wall Street agrees — for now.