Broadway Hears Static Over FCC Proposed Auction Of Bandwidth For Wireless Mics

The days when audiences heard “to be or not...brrzzz bzzchchch! Pick-up at three-four and…brrzzzchh!…Lex!… brrzzzchh!…‘tis nobler…” may be returning, as the FCC finalizes plans to auction off chunks of the microwave spectrum currently used by Broadway shows, news organizations, sports franchises and others who depend on wireless microphones for static-free communication. Executives from those groups this week received several hundred pages of FCC documents outlining its plan to begin auctioning off space in the 600 MHz range next March. Subsequent auctions are planned in the 500 MHz and 700 MHz ranges of the broadcast spectrum as well.

Translation: In an effort to raise billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury, the FCC is planning to sell bandwidth to the highest bidders – likely to be providers of smartphones and the like. The result could be narrower — and more crowded — space for smaller users, the consequence being a higher risk of static interference of the sort that sometimes disrupted Broadway performances in the early days of wireless mics.

After initially freaking out over the possibility of degraded communications both among backstage personnel and performers onstage, Broadway executives breathed a collective, if moderated, sigh of relief this week after receiving the FCC documents. The gist of them, according to Tom Ferrugia, director of government affairs for the Broadway League, the trade group representing Broadway landlords and producers, is that entities using 50 or more wireless mics may be protected at least in the short run. Broadway shows commonly use more than that, with musicals sometimes employing as many as 100 wireless mics on big shows.

“Based on our preliminary reading, there’s a license category of 50 or more that provides an additional layer of interference protection,” Ferrugia told Deadline. He added that he and his counterparts in other industries are still going through the papers and that there are many more considerations to take into account. He said they have been united in communicating with the FCC on the proposed auctions.

Selling off bandwidth could result in wireless mic users being crowded into buffer zones between assigned frequencies, which could leave them vulnerable to static or dropped signals. Although the technology has advanced considerably, so has dependence on the microphones as orchestras become louder, sets become more complex and computer driven, and audiences more demanding of clear, uninterrupted amplified sound. Where once only the stars used them, now entire choruses, for example, are seen with the headgear.

The 50-user plan could still leave smaller theaters, and especially resident nonprofit companies, in the lurch, even though they’re equally dependent on the technology. One possibility being considered is that groups within a defined area will be able to aggregate their numbers in order to achieve the 50-mic minimum.

“There’s real anxiety about how this will play out,” one major Broadway player said, asking for anonymity because he did not want to speak for the industry as a whole. They’re all trying to remain calm and work with the FCC.

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