Silent Musicals: Why Smartphones Kill Theater

Tell Microsoft and the other big boys to back-off before they silence our musicals

I recently spent a few days with the members of The Broadway League at the biennial conference. This is where everything Broadway happens. A place where producers share tips, discuss issues relating to Broadway and Broadway tours and of course — make deals.

This year, Broadway’s movers and shakers gathered in Washington D.C. so that, in addition to the usual business, we could use our numbers to lobby federal legislators about some pressing issues that are poised to dramatically affect our industry.

Namely the Federal Communications Commission‘s (FCC) September ruling on “white space,” and what we all might soon experience as a result of that ruling and others coming down the pike soon.

White Space, the FCC & Microsoft

If you haven’t tuned in to the controversy surrounding “white space,” you’d better find your frequency soon.  It all has to do with frequency allocation of unlicensed bandwidth, lobbied for by the White Space Coalition (a group of 8 large corporations including Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung) to reallocate, the now defunct bands formally reserved for analog television signals.

It worked for Lon Chaney in Silent Films but NOT musicals

But what does this have to do with theater?

A lot. Recently a couple of producers took an FCC executive to the theater for a special private performance of Phantom of the Opera. Just as they were launching into one of Phantom’s big numbers “The PHANTOM of the opera is…” (SILENCE?)

All the microphones had cut out mid-song.

Yep, that’s right, they were illustrating what would happen to American theater if changes to the white space policies allowed for interference of the frequencies used by wireless microphones and backstage headsets at theater venues around the country.

That’s because releasing this unlicensed “white space,” could mean that in the not too distant future anyone walking by a theater with a smartphone type device could inadvertently interrupt the frequency used by the show and cut mics on the singers, musicians, and actors. Not only that, but backstage headsets could be interrupted as well. Imagine Spiderman flying above the audience with no way for the stage manager to tell fly operators when and where to bring him down. The performance and safety ramifications of this issue are huge and its impact broad and sweeping on the American entertainment industry. This wouldn’t just affect Broadway, it would affect every theater small or large in the country that uses wireless microphones or headsets.

Microsoft, Google, Samsung and the rest of the Big 8, want to use more and more bandwidth for smartphones and laptops. They don’t see why sharing bandwidth (and knocking out mic systems every once in a while) is such a big deal. I mean, just go see the show again right? Wrong.

No "Good Old Girl" here -- Dolly says No! to white space reallocation

Who’s in this fight with us?

Major sports franchises, mega churches, concert venues and musicians like Dolly Parton. Unlikely bedfellows, perhaps, but we all use “unlicensed” bandwidth, which means we aren’t currently protected from interference if the big tech companies start using our space.

What can YOU do?

Educating yourself on this issue through the Theater Communications Group’s FCC White Space page and watching as this story develops is a good start. It seems (if only temporarily) we are safe for the time being. Currently, the FCC is actively examining the whole gamut of white space and will be making decisions soon regarding the rules that will govern this unlicensed bandwidth. We need to make sure that theater isn’t left out when those next round of decisions get made. You need to get involved and make your voice heard. The future of American theater depends upon it.

When the cast of Les Mis comes to your town and belts out “Do you hear the people sing?”

You don’t want the answer to be, “No.”

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