McAdams On: More Fun With Numbers

BEMUSED, CALIF.: One learns very early in journalism school (yes, there were once such things) that numbers are imperative to a story. Prices give perspective. For example, had a certain mayor of Los Angeles limited his graft to a $12 ticket for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” rather than $21,000 for the Oscars . . . well, you do the math.

Aha! But you won’t, will you? Because there would be no such thing as journalism school if we were all a little better at math. Nooo. We would be designing IC schematics for devices that facilitate complete social isolation in return for astounding sums of money. (Another rule of journalism is to illustrate the significance of an amount. E.g., an “astounding” sum of money is a lot more than you make now.)

Journalists are not particularly known for their prowess with numbers. Once upon a time, they were paired with creatures known as “copy editors.” Copy editors died out en masse during the Great Media Consolidation of the ’90s. The few that remain are mostly at small-town newspapers, attempting to avoid the stylistic, factual, grammatical and spelling horror that is the Internet.

Neither is Washington, D.C. a hotbed of people who are sticklers for accurate details, i.e., copy editors. It is a hotbed of attorneys. Attorneys are people who could afford to go on to law school. Law schools are places where the mathematically disinclined go to make astounding sums of money with the crafty use of just words!!! (If you are in journalism school right now, please write that down where you will not forget it.)

Now, attorneys believe they are smarter than you. They may not be, but that doesn’t matter. Your Nobel Prize in physics is meaningless in the perceptual world of attorneys, because they are the original practitioners of “The Secret.” They visualize their smartness and so they are. Violà! They know, for example, that if they toss numbers around like confetti, you are not going to pick up a pencil.

And so it is with our friends in Washington who are agitating, nay, evangelizing--nay, an even more emphatic word--for the reassignment of TV broadcast spectrum for broadband. The folks at the Consumer Electronics Association, whose members stand to make a quadrillion dollars from the reassignment, launched a “Spectrum Crunch Clock” this week “to help Americans visualize the economic costs of delay in spectrum reform.” (Note: A quadrillion is a lot. “Visualization” denotes attorneys applying “The Secret.”)

The “clock” is actually a large red-letter graphic depicting an ever-increasing sum of money. This sum is allegedly how much money is being wasted because “intense lobbying by broadcast television stations has stalled progress on this vital program.” Except for broadcasters haven’t stalled squat. The process is pretty much in line with the agenda put forth by the Federal Communications Commission in April of 2010.

Broadcasters did manage to get an extra seven whole days to comment on the spectrum reassignment docket, because the original period closed the Monday after the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas. If seven days is all they got as a result of “intense lobbying,” someone’s not spending enough on cigars.

But again, we are working with attorney math, and not copy-editor math, which is how the CEA determined that this delay is costing the country $14,444 a minute. Because if you take the $33 billion number made up by other attorneys to express the value of the sought-after broadcast spectrum, and you divide it with pie,

carry the fore and multiply it all by magic ponies, you get $14,444 a minute. But you don’t know, do you?

Neither does the CEA, dog bless ‘em. Because the Spectrum Crunch Clock read $33,172,494,881 yesterday. Today, it says $8.4 billion and change, or roughly the payroll of 2,208 broadcast TV stations and networks according to the 2007 Economic Census, which also indicates nearly $36 billion in receipts for the survey period. Using the institutionally approved mathematics of Washington, D.C., that means stripping spectrum away from broadcasters will cost the country $3 billion.

Stayed tuned to McAdams On for more fun with numbers. Because I’m sure there will be.
~ Deborah D. McAdams