‘Like Waze, but for toilets’: The start-up hoping to solve Paris’s public urination problem

A new application that rewards businesses for making their toilets accessible to the public and helps users to find them is being rolled out in a Paris suburb. If everything goes to plan, the ICI Toilettes app could make its way into the capital – right in time for the Olympics.

Public urination is high on the list of critiques of the French capital, along with rats, noise, and people not picking up their dogs’ business. Referred to in France as le pipi sauvage, or “wild peeing”, the propensity for public urination – which is technically illegal and mainly male – is explained by many factors, though a lack of available public toilets is a fundamental one.

Over the years, Parisian leaders have proposed a number of innovative solutions but, so far, to no avail. In 2018, for instance, certain arrondissements (districts) introduced bright red, eco-friendly uritrottoirs, public installations whose name was a portmanteau of the French words for “urinal” and “sidewalk”. They were criticised for being too visible and only useful for men, and then vandalised by protesters.

The newest scheme to combat the ongoing problem comes from a start-up from the western city of Nantes called Urban Services.

ICI Toilettes (“Toilets HERE”) has two main functions. First, it is a geolocation application that helps users locate public toilets and allows them to update the status of the facility if it is in disrepair. This helps members of the public find the closest functional bathroom in real time and keeps local authorities informed about the state of the city’s sanitation infrastructure.

“It’s like Waze, but for toilets,” says founder and Urban Services CEO Thomas Herquin, referring to the crowd-sourced traffic app.

The app’s second function is to create a network of local businesses that extend their facilities to the public, all of which are visible on the application. This expands the city’s sanitation capacity by making certain bars and restaurants de facto public toilets. These “partners” are given €100 each month by the local authorities for their participation – ICI Toilettes says this is one-twelfth the cost of setting up and maintaining a public restroom.

First launched in 2021 in Nantes, the application has now made it to the populous suburb of Montreuil on the eastern edge of the capital. The service is set to be rolled out in Grenoble and Urban Services is currently in talks with Saint-Denis, the municipality just north of Paris.

The big prize, Paris, is also in view, as France makes a big investment push before the 2024 Olympic Games. In late September, the start-up was awarded a conditional grant by the ministry of tourism. Urban Services stands to earn between €100,000 and €200,000 if it manages to set up a network of 100 partner retailers in Paris by June 15, 2024 – a number Herquin says will raise the capital’s public toilet capacity by 25%.

The idea for the app came to Herquin when he was searching for ideas to enter a start-up competition in Nantes that he ended up winning. For market research, he surveyed people on what they thought were the biggest problems they face while commuting. The first was their ability to charge phones, the second, and much more difficult to resolve, was access to sanitary facilities.

Herquin maintains that the restaurants and bars that share their toilets should be considered “complementary” to what is already in place in the city. However, he adds, his application does provide its own benefits.

“According to our research, 85% of women do not use public toilet facilities for several reasons (like hygiene and comfort) so we offer them another option,” says Herquin.

Public urination, Herquin points out, is a serious issue with serious financial consequences. “In Paris alone, 56,000m2 of walls and doors are ruined by urine every month. That can be very costly,” he says.

On whether his business has the potential to help resolve the issue, he is less certain. “The main people who require our services are women. Men seem to have found a solution already, although it is not very clean,” Herquin says.

“But we do hope, with time we can help change the culture.”

What’s more, ICI Toilettes gives people the confidence to go and ask businesses to use their bathrooms, a feature that will particularly serve tourists who are unfamiliar with the French language or their customs related to restrooms.

In Montreuil, finding the ICI Toilettes sticker is increasingly easy. The service has now been adopted by 10 businesses.

For Putsch café in central Montreuil, signing up with ICI Toilettes doesn’t seem to have changed much except for an extra €100 in the cash register each month. “I know some restaurants can be strict, but we’ve always been open,” says Laurine Ragot, a server at the café. “But we have seen an increase since the app, especially women and people with children desperate to pee.”

Putsch, a cafe in Montreuil that has signed up for ICI Toilettes, November 9, 2023. © Gregor Thompson, FRANCE 24

ICI Toilettes is a welcome change in a city where authorities have long been criticised for the lack of public sanitation infrastructure. Women’s association Maison des femmes de Montreuil recently described the situation as a “hygiene scandal” in French daily Le Parisien.

Since signing on with Urban Services in June, “Montreuil has gone from seven public toilet facilities to 17,” says Montreuil’s Deputy Mayor Luc Di Gallo.

For now, the businesses signed up to ICI Toilettes are concentrated in the city’s centre. The plan is to increase this number and distribute participating establishments more equally throughout the city.

But ICI Toilettes is no silver bullet, says Di Gallo. People cannot access the app without a smartphone, and it wouldn’t be a viable option for businesses near busy areas like markets, which are unlikely to sign up because they could be inundated by the public.

“For instances like this, it’s probably better to build public toilets that can [serve] significantly more people.”

As part of a larger strategy, the response from the public has been “extremely positive”, says Di Gallo, adding that it makes the city more inclusive by meeting the needs of “women, the elderly and disabled people”, who have described the difficulties they encounter when out in public with no access to facilities.

“Of course, we also hope that those who degrade our public spaces will now be more inclined to use a toilet,” Di Gallo says.

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Take a look inside the new Raffles hotel in London

History seeps from the walls of the Old War Office in Whitehall, London, Winston Churchill’s former workplace.

Once the beating heart of Britain’s military empire, the headquarters from which some of the most consequential decisions in modern U.K. history were made, the building is now forging a new future as one of the capital’s leading luxury hotels: Raffles London.

A painstaking eight-year renovation has seen the Grade II* listed Edwardian Baroque building — located on the site of the Palace of Whitehall and a stone’s throw from Downing Street — shake state secrets for mystique of another kind, as the first European location of the iconic Singaporean brand.

It’s the magic combination: the building, the location and the name, Raffles.

Fiona Harris

Communications director, Raffles London

“It’s the magic combination: the building, the location and the name, Raffles,” Fiona Harris, Raffles London’s communications director, told CNBC Travel.

The hotel’s opening last month marks a full circle moment for the Raffles brand, whose name and original location pay homage to Sir Stamford Raffles, the British diplomat who founded modern Singapore.

The building’s new owner, the Hinduja Group, which purchased a 250-year lease from the Ministry of Defense in 2016, started as a trading company in colonial India in 1914 and is now a global conglomerate.

CNBC Travel took a tour of the £1.4 billion ($1.7 billion) redevelopment — here’s a look at its 100-year transition from control center of the British empire to luxury stable for international visitors to the U.K.

An emblem of British history

Pivot to the future

London’s new luxury wave

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Meta, Alphabet and 10 under-the-radar media stocks expected to soar

The media landscape is going through a difficult transition, and it isn’t only because streaming is such a tricky business.

Companies such as Walt Disney Co.
Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.
and Paramount Global
have made heavy investments in streaming services as their traditional media businesses wither, only to find that it is harder than it looks to emulate Netflix Inc.’s
ability to make money from streaming.

Some of the companies are also saddled by debt, in part resulting from mergers that don’t hold the same shine in the current media landscape.

Needless to say, this is the age of cost-cutting for Netflix’s streaming competitors and many others in the broader media landscape.

Below is a screen of U.S. media stocks, showing the ones that analysts favor the most over the next 12 months. But before that, we list the ones with the highest and lowest debt levels.

All the above-mentioned media companies are in the communications sector of the S&P 500
which also includes Alphabet Inc.

and Meta Platforms Inc.
as well as broadcasters, videogame developers and news providers.

But there are only 20 companies in the S&P 500 communications sector, which is tracked by the Communications Services Select Sector SPDR ETF

High debt

Before looking at the stock screen, you might be interested to see which of the 53 media companies are saddled with the highest levels of total debt relative to consensus estimates for earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) for the next 12 months, among analysts polled by FactSet. This may be especially important at a time when long-term interest rates have been rising quickly. Dollar amounts are in millions.



Debt/ est. EBIT

Total debt


Debt service ratio

Total return – 2023

Market cap. ($mil)

Dish Network Corp. Class A

DISH 1,245%






Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. Class A

MSGS 1,125%






Paramount Global Class B

PARA 656%






Consolidated Communications Holdings Inc.

CNSL 651%






TechTarget Inc.

TTGT 629%






Cinemark Holdings Inc.

CNK 616%






Cogent Communications Holdings Inc.

CCOI 548%






E.W. Scripps Co. Class A

SSP 529%






AMC Networks Inc. Class A

AMCX 492%






Live Nation Entertainment Inc.

LYV 466%






Source: FactSet

Click on the tickers for more about each company, including business profiles, financials and estimates.

Click here for Tomi Kilgore’s detailed guide to the wealth of information available for free on the MarketWatch quote page.

The debt figures are as of the end of the companies’ most recently reported fiscal quarters. The debt service ratios are EBIT divided by total interest paid (excluding capitalized interest) for the most recently reported quarters, as calculated by FactSet. It is best to see this number above 100%. Then again, these service ratios cover only one quarter.

Looking at the most indebted company by quarter-end debt to its 12-month EBIT estimate, it would take more than 10 years of Dish Network Corp.’s
operating income to pay off its total debt, excluding interest.

Shares of Dish have lost more than half their value during 2023, and the stock got booted from the S&P 500 earlier this year. The company has seen its satellite-TV business erode while it pursues a costly wireless build-out that won’t necessarily drive success in that competitive market. Dish plans to merge with satellite-communications company EchoStar Corp.
in a move seen as an attempt to improve balance sheet flexibility.

It is fascinating to see that for six of these companies, including Paramount, debt even exceeds the market capitalizations for their stocks. Paramount lowered its dividend by nearly 80% earlier this year as it continued its push toward streaming profitability, and Chief Executive Bob Bakish recently called the company’s planned sale of Simon & Schuster “an important step in our delevering plan.”

You are probably curious about debt levels for the largest U.S. media companies. Here they are for the biggest 10 by market cap:



Debt/ est. EBIT

Total debt


Debt service ratio

Total return – 2023

Market cap. ($mil)

Alphabet Inc. Class A







Meta Platforms Inc. Class A

META 47%






Comcast Corp. Class A

CMCSA 266%






Netflix Inc.

NFLX 197%






T-Mobile US Inc.

TMUS 378%






Walt Disney Co.

DIS 263%






Verizon Communications Inc.

VZ 370%






AT&T Inc.

T 378%






Activision Blizzard Inc.

ATVI 93%






Charter Communications Inc. Class A

CHTR 434%






Source: FactSet

Among the largest 10 companies in the S&P Composite 1500 communications sector by market cap, Charter Communications Inc.
has the highest ratio of debt to estimated EBIT, while its debt service ratio of 89% shows it was close to covering its interest payments with operating income during its most recent reported quarter. Disney also came close, with a debt service ratio of 88%.

Charter Chief Financial Officer Jessica Fischer said at an investor day late last year that “delevering would only make sense if the market valuation of our shares fully reflected the intrinsic value of the cash-flow opportunity, if debt capacity in the market were limited or if our expectations of cash-flow growth, excluding the impact of our expansion were significantly impaired.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Lansberry, Disney’s interim CFO, said during the company’s latest earnings call that it had “made significant progress deleveraging coming out of the pandemic” and that it would “approach capital allocation in a disciplined and balanced manner.”

Disney’s debt increased when it bought 21st Century Fox assets in 2019, and the company suspended its dividend in 2020 in a bid to preserve cash during the pandemic.

When Disney announced its quarterly results on Aug. 9, it unveiled a plan to raise streaming prices in October. Several analysts reacted positively to the price increase and other operational moves.

Read: The long-simmering rumor of Apple buying Disney is resurfacing as Bob Iger looks to sell assets

The largest companies in the sector, Alphabet and Meta, have relatively low debt-to-estimated EBIT and very high debt-service ratios. Netflix has debt of nearly twice the estimated EBIT, but a high debt-service ratio. For all three companies, debt levels are low relative to market cap.

Low debt

Among the 52 companies in the S&P Composite 1500 communications sector, these 10 companies had the lowest total debt, relative to estimated EBIT, as of their most recent reported fiscal quarter-ends:



Debt/ est. EBIT

Total debt


Debt service ratio

Total return – 2023

Market cap. ($mil)

New York Times Co. Class A

NYT 0%






QuinStreet Inc.

QNST 18%






Alphabet Inc. Class A







Shutterstock Inc.

SSTK 26%






Yelp Inc.

YELP 31%






Meta Platforms Inc. Class A

META 47%






Scholastic Corp.

SCHL 54%






Electronic Arts Inc.

EA 73%






World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Class A

WWE 93%






Activision Blizzard Inc.

ATVI 93%






Source: FactSet

New York Times Co.
takes the prize, with no debt.

Wall Street’s favorite media companies

Starting again with the 52 companies in the sector, 46 are covered by at least five analysts polled by FactSet. Among these companies, 12 are rated “buy” or the equivalent by at least 70% of the analysts:



Share “buy” ratings

Aug. 25 price

Consensus price target

Implied 12-month upside potential

Thryv Holdings Inc.

THRY 100%




T-Mobile US Inc.

TMUS 90%




Nexstar Media Group Inc.

NXST 90%




Meta Platforms Inc. Class A

META 88%




Cars.com Inc.

CARS 86%




Alphabet Inc. Class A





Iridium Communications Inc.

IRDM 80%




News Corp. Class A

NWSA 78%




Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.

TTWO 74%




Live Nation Entertainment Inc.

LYV 74%




Frontier Communications Parent Inc.

FYBR 73%




Match Group Inc.

MTCH 70%




Source: FactSet

News Corp.
is the parent company of MarketWatch.

Finally, here are the debt figures for these 12 media companies favored by the analysts:



Debt/ est. EBIT

Total debt


Debt service ratio

Total return – 2023

Market cap. ($mil)

Thryv Holdings Inc.

THRY 227%






T-Mobile US Inc.

TMUS 378%






Nexstar Media Group Inc.

NXST 358%






Meta Platforms Inc. Class A

META 47%






Cars.com Inc.

CARS 223%






Alphabet Inc. Class A







Iridium Communications Inc.

IRDM 306%






News Corp. Class A

NWSA 261%






Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.

TTWO 272%






Live Nation Entertainment Inc.

LYV 466%






Frontier Communications Parent Inc.

FYBR 453%






Match Group Inc.

MTCH 287%






Source: FactSet

In case you are wondering about how the analysts feel about debt-free New York Times, it appears the analysts believe the shares are fairly priced at $42.60. Among eight analysts polled by FactSet, three rated NYT a buy, while the rest had neutral ratings. The consensus price target was $43.93. The stock trades at a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 27.7, which is high when compared with the forward P/E of 21.7 for the S&P 500

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Lukas Gage’s viral video audition haunts the ‘hot labor summer’ actors’ strike sweeping Hollywood

In November 2020, the actor Lukas Gage was auditioning for a role via video link when he heard the producer make some disparaging remarks about the size of his apartment.

“These poor people who live in these tiny apartments,” the producer said. “I’m looking at his background and he’s got his TV and …”

Gage, who at that time had had a four-episode arc on HBO’s “Euphoria” among other small roles, interrupted the producer — British director Tristram Shapeero, who later apologized for his remarks — to let him know that he was not muted and that Gage could, in fact, hear him.

“Yeah, I know it’s a sh—y apartment,” Gage said. “That’s why — give me this job so I can get a better one.”

Shapeero replied, “Oh my god, I am so, so sorry … I am absolutely mortified.”

Putting together an audition tape can often take up an entire day and involve setting up a studio space for sound and lighting.

“Listen, I’m living in a four-by-four box, just give me the job and we’ll be fine,” Gage responded.

Gage kept his sense of humor, but he also decided to post the video on his Twitter account to show how actors are sometimes treated from the moment they audition for a role — and perhaps to remind people to make sure you’re on mute if you’re trash-talking someone on a Zoom


It’s three years later, and members of the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild are on strike, looking for more pay, better working conditions and stricter rules around things like the use of actors’ images in the age of artificial intelligence and the lack of residuals from streaming networks.

The perils of the online audition

Meanwhile, Gage’s 2020 online audition is resonating again.

For a working actor — who, like the majority of SAG-AFTRA members who may not be an A-list star — simply getting in front of a producer as Gage did can be a long and difficult process. And since the start of the pandemic, the nature of auditions has changed dramatically. This has come to symbolize the uphill struggle actors face from the moment they hear about a role.

In May, Ezra Knight, New York local president of SAG-AFTRA, asked members to authorize strike action, saying contracts needed to be renegotiated to reflect dramatic changes in the industry. Knight cited the need to address artificial intelligence, pay, benefits, reduced residuals in streaming and “unregulated and burdensome self-taped auditions.”

In the days of live auditions, actors would read for a role with a casting director. But several actors told MarketWatch that it’s become harder to make a living in recent years, and that it all starts with the audition tape, which has now become standard in the industry.

By the time Gage got in front of producers, for instance, he had likely either already delivered a tape and was put on a shortlist to read in front of a producer, or the casting director was already familiar with his work and wanted him to read for the part.

But an audition tape can often take up an entire day to put together, actors say. When the opportunity to audition arrives, actors typically have to drop everything they’re doing — whether they’re working a side hustle or taking time off or even enjoying a vacation.

Cadden Jones: “All the financial responsibilities have fallen on us. The onus is on us to create our auditions.”

Cadden Jones

They need to arrange good lighting and a clean backdrop — Gage’s TV set became a distraction for the producer during his audition — set up the camera, and scramble to find a “reader” — someone to read the other roles in the scene, preferably another actor.

Then the actor has to edit the audition to highlight their strongest take and upload it. There are currently no regulations on the amount of pages a casting director can send to a candidate, and actors say there’s often not enough time to properly prepare.

“Unfortunately, it’s been going in this direction for some time now,” said Cadden Jones, an actor based in New York who has credits on shows including Showtime’s

“Billions” and Amazon Prime’s

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“This was the first year I did not qualify for health insurance in decades,” she told MarketWatch. “I just started teaching.”

To put that into perspective: Members of SAG-AFTRA must earn $26,470 in a 12-month base period to qualify for health insurance. The median annual wage in the U.S. hovers at around $57,000, based on the weekly median as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jones and her partner, Michael Schantz, an actor who works mostly in theater, are starting a communications consulting company to increase their income.

“Most if not all of my actor friends have had to supplement their income since the pandemic,” she said. “We’re in trouble as a community of actors who used to make a good living doing what we do. It’s not like any of us lost our talent overnight. I, for one, am very glad that we’re striking.”

But Jones said that, with the auditioning process taking place mostly online since the onset of the pandemic, casting agents — who work for producers — are able to see more people for a given role, making the competition for roles even more intense.

‘This was the first year I did not qualify for health insurance in decades.’

— Cadden Jones, an actor based in New York

“We don’t go into casting offices anymore,” Jones said. “All the financial responsibilities have fallen on us. The onus is on us to create our auditions. It’s harder to know what they want, and you don’t have the luxury to work with a casting director in a physical space to get adjustments, which was personally my favorite part of the process — that collaboration.”

She added: “Because the audition rate accelerated, the booking rate went down dramatically for everybody. But don’t get me wrong. Once the strike is officially over, I want all the auditions I can get.”

SAG-AFTRA has proposed rules and expectations to address some of the burden and costs actors bear when it comes to casting, including providing a minimum amount of time for actors to send in self-taped auditions; disclosing whether an offer has been made for the role or it has already been cast; and limiting the number of pages for a “first call” or first round of auditions.

Before the negotiations broke down with the actors’ union, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents over 350 television and production companies, said it offered SAG-AFTRA $1 billion in wage increases, pension and health contributions and residual increases as part of a range of proposals related to pay and working conditions.

Those proposals included limitations on requests for audition tapes, including page, time and technology requirements, as well as options for virtual or in-person auditions, AMPTP said. The producers’ group characterized their offer as “the most lucrative deal we have ever negotiated.”

Michael Schantz: “How does the broader culture value storytelling and the people who make stories?”

Michael Schantz

Jones said she doesn’t blame the casting directors. It’s up to the producers, she said, to be more mindful of how the changes in the industry since the advent of streaming, the decline in wages adjusted for inflation, and poor residuals from streaming services have taken a toll on working actors.

Bruce Faulk, who has been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1992, said that for work on a one-off character part or a recurring role on a network show, he might receive a check for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in residuals. And — crucially — he knows how many times a particular show has aired.

Residuals are fees paid to actors each time a TV show or film is broadcast on cable or network television. They are based on the size of the role and the budget of the production, among other things. For shows that air on streaming services, however, residuals are far harder to track.

What’s more, residuals decline over time and can often amount to just a few cents per broadcast.

Actor Kimiko Glenn, who appeared on episodes of Netflix’s

“Orange Is the New Black,” recently shared a video on TikTok showing $27 in residuals from her work on that show.

Faulk sympathizes. “A lot of checks from HBO

for ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Gossip Girl’ I get are for $33,” he said. “I never know how many people watched me on ‘Gossip Girl’ in the three episodes I’m in. All we know is whatever the streaming services decided to announce as their subscriber numbers.”

Like Jones, Faulk said this will be the first year he won’t qualify for SAG-AFTRA health insurance, which covers him, his wife and his son. This is despite him having worked enough over the past 10 years to qualify for a pension when he turns 67. “Mine is up to $1,000 a month now,” he said, noting that the pension will keep increasing if he keeps getting acting work.

Schantz, who had a three-episode arc on NBC’s

“The Blacklist” in addition to his other TV, film and theater credits, finds the recent shifts in the landscape for actors somewhat difficult to reconcile with the way people turned to TV and film during the loneliest days of the pandemic.

“One of the most concerning things I can think of right now is the conversation around value. How does the broader culture value storytelling and the people who make stories?” he said. “The arts always tend to fall to the wayside in many ways, but it was striking during the pandemic that so much of our attention went to watching movies and television. There’s obviously something inside of us that feels like we’re part of the human story.”

Actors battle other technology

While big companies like Disney
HBO, Apple
Amazon and Netflix make millions of dollars from films and TV series that are watched again and again, Schantz said that actors are unable to make a living. “No one wants to go on strike,” he said.

Those five companies have not responded to requests for comment from MarketWatch on these issues.

Since his audition tape went viral, Gage has booked regular work, and he found even greater fame when he went on to star in Season 1 of HBO’s “White Lotus.” In 2023, he will star in nine episodes of “You,” now streaming on Netflix, and in the latest season of FX’s “Fargo.”

Earlier this year, he told the New York Times: “I had never judged my apartment until that day.” He added, “I remember having this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach afterward, like, why am I judging where I’m at in my 20s, at the beginning of my career?”

‘There’s enough Bruce out there where you could take my likeness and my voice and put me in the scene.’

— Bruce Falk, a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1992

But advances in technology are not just hurting actors in the audition process. A debate is raging over the use of AI and whether actors should be expected to sign away the rights to their image in perpetuity, especially when they might only be getting paid for half a day’s work.

“AI is the next big thing,” Falk said. The industry is concerned about companies taking actors’ likenesses and using AI to generate crowd scenes.

“Even an actor at my level — that guy on that show — there’s enough Bruce out there where you could take my likeness and my voice and put me in the scene: the lieutenant who gives you the overview of what happened to the dead body,” he said. “At this point, I could be technically replaced. We have to get down on paper, in very clear terms, that that can’t be done.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers also said it agrees with SAG-AFTRA and had proposed — before the actors’ strike — “that use of a performer’s likeness to generate a new performance requires consent and compensation.” The AMPTP said that would mean no digital version of a performer should be created without the performer’s written consent and a description of the intended use in the film, and that later digital replicas without that performer’s consent would be prohibited.

“Companies that are publicly traded obviously have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, and whatever they can use, they will use it — and they are using AI,” Schantz said. “Yes, there are some immediate concerns. Whether or not the technology is advanced enough to fully replace actors is an open question, but some people think it’s an inevitability now.

“To let companies have free rein with these technologies is obviously creating a problem,” he added. “I can’t go show up, do a day’s work, have my performance be captured, and have that content create revenue for a company unless I’m being property compensated for it.”

Schantz said he believes there’s still time to address these technological issues before they become a widespread problem that makes all auditions — however cumbersome — obsolete.

“We haven’t crossed this bridge as a society, but God only knows how far along they are in their plans,” he said. “All I know is it has to be a choice for the actors. There has to be a contract, and we have to be protected. Otherwise, actors will no longer be able to make a living doing this work.”

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Franchising industry holds its breath as FTC takes a closer look at regulations

The franchising industry is bracing to see whether the U.S. will change how it regulates a structure that fuels brands from McDonald’s to Marriott.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission wrapped up a public comment period in response to its request for information on the sector and its business practices. The agency sought input from stakeholders, including franchise operators, workers and parent corporations, as it scrutinizes franchising practices.

The move suggested the FTC is potentially considering closer regulation of the sector — with big implications for some of the largest restaurant and hospitality companies in the U.S. and their employees. The agency declined to comment on any potential changes or when they could come.

Now the industry awaits an outcome.

The FTC told CNBC it received more than 5,500 comments on the inquiry, indicating “broad interest in ensuring fairness in franchising.”

“We are thoroughly reviewing each comment and are assessing next steps. All options are on the table,” an FTC spokesperson said in a statement. The agency’s statement earlier this year on its request for information said it “would begin to unravel how the unequal bargaining power inherent in [franchise] contracts is impacting franchisees, workers, and consumers.”

Franchising is a major contributor to the U.S. economy. The International Franchise Association, the industry’s leading advocate, says its membership covers more than 300 business format categories and some 800,000 businesses in the country that employ millions of workers.

A potential change to franchise regulations fits into the FTC’s broader oversight agenda, as the agency proposes banning noncompete clauses and considers whether the policy should apply to clauses between franchisors and franchisees. FTC Chair Lina Khan’s regulatory push has also targeted corporate giants like Microsoft and Activision, Twitter and Amazon.

Aside from potential rulemaking shifts at the FTC, the industry is also watching for changes to joint employer rules and local regulations like AB 1228 in California, both of which stand to shift more liability to parent companies of franchised businesses.

Industry watchers say an initial proposal from the FTC on franchise rule amendments could come as soon as the end of year. In its submission to the FTC, the IFA raised concerns about how the FTC could use the public comments to shape new rules.

“We are particularly troubled that the Commission might rely on those anecdotal accounts, including many made anonymously, to engage in a formal rulemaking process that would halt the growth of franchised businesses with overly restrictive regulation of franchise relationships, to the detriment of consumers, business owners and workers,” the advocacy group said.

IFA President and CEO Matt Haller said the group is concerned about “one-size-fits-all” regulatory changes. Customers want a consistent experience, but also one that evolves to meet their needs, he said.

“If the FTC limits the ability for franchisors to evolve their systems to meet customers’ demands, then that’s negatively going to impact franchisees, because customers will stop patronizing these businesses if they’re not able to get the products and services they want in a consistent and convenient fashion,” Haller said in an interview, pointing to successful operating changes that franchisors made during the pandemic as an example.

Some labor advocates hope potential oversight changes improve working conditions for franchised employees. In its submission, the Service Employees International Union and the Strategic Organizing Center had pointed words about franchising and worker relationships.

“The extractive franchise model, based on franchisors having meticulous control over – but virtually no responsibility for – numerous small businesses, results in lowmargin businesses under constant pressure to reduce costs and cut corners, in which labor costs are almost the only cost variable the franchisees control. Our evidence of worker harm demonstrates that workers ultimately bear the brunt of this exploitative system designed primarily to enrich the firm at the top – the franchisor,” the groups’ comments said.

Major brands that use the model including Marriott, Hilton, Yum! Brands and Sport Clips, along with franchisees, submitted commentary highlighting the positive aspects of franchising. Some urged the FTC not to make regulatory changes or treat the industry as one, as many concepts operate under the broader sector’s umbrella.

McDonald’s was among the large restaurant brands that saw comments submitted to the FTC from both operators and the corporation. The National Owners Association, an advocacy group of over 1,000 McDonald’s franchisees, encouraged its membership to submit comments to the FTC on both franchising and noncompete clauses found in its contracts.

Some owners have clashed with the fast food giant over changes its made over the last year to how restaurants are graded and how franchise contracts are renewed.

The NOA’s public submission said, “The McDonald’s system was, and could again be, the gold standard for the franchise business model. The comments and examples provided here by members of the NOA are meant to illustrate how time has not made the franchisee-franchisor model stronger, but sadly more adversarial, less cooperative, and severely fractured.”

In a statement to CNBC on the FTC’s request for public comment, McDonald’s highlighted the role its franchise system plays in boosting small business owners and creating jobs. McDonald’s said it shares the agency’s view that the model should benefit “everyone: customers, franchisees, workers, suppliers, franchisors, and local communities,” adding, “that’s precisely what our franchise system has done for over six decades.”

“Our franchise model thrives on having a common set of standards and requirements that ensure equitable treatment of franchisees, protection of franchisee investments and secured value for the McDonald’s brand,” the company said. “A one-size-fits-all regulation threatens the successful investments these small business owners have made in themselves and their communities.”

The National Franchisee Leadership Alliance’s Chair Danielle Marasco echoed that sentiment in a statement shared with CNBC.

“The NFLA, the only elected representative voice of McDonald’s franchisee organizations across the U.S., is opposed to any regulation that would undermine our franchise system and threaten our independent ownership rights,” Marasco said. “Since McDonald’s founding in 1955, our franchising model has successfully served the brand, franchisees, employees and the local communities we operate in.”

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In Chinatowns across the U.S., tradition and history collide with luxury development

Just a few hundred people of Chinese heritage still live in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Many have been pushed out to cheaper and safer areas.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Penny and Jack Lee, now married, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s among the thousands of people of Chinese heritage who lived in apartments lining the main stretches of Washington, D.C.’s bustling Chinatown.

“Chinatown was very bright, vibrant,” Jack Lee recalled. “All of our recreations ended up being in the alleys of Chinatown.” They felt it was a safe haven, he said.

But the neighborhood didn’t stay the same for long. First came a convention center in 1982 that displaced many in the majority Chinese community. Then, in 1997, came the MCI Center, now Capital One Arena, a few blocks from the heart of the neighborhood. These developments, as well as luxury condos, caused rents to rise and forced grocery stores and restaurants to close. They also pushed residents to move to safer and cheaper areas, Penny Lee said.

Just a few hundred people of Chinese heritage still live in the neighborhood, mostly in Section 8 apartments for lower-income residents. There are now fewer than a dozen Chinese restaurants, as well as the long-standing Chinatown gate and non-Chinese businesses with signs bearing Chinese characters. Jokingly called the “Chinatown Block,” reflecting its diminished size, what’s left of the neighborhood is mere blocks from a wealthier area that contains the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall.

Chinatowns across the nation face a similar reckoning. In major Chinatown neighborhoods, luxury development and public-use projects have altered the fabric of these historic communities, according to more than two dozen activists, residents and restaurant owners. While some argue these developments accelerate local economies, many interviewed by CNBC say they destroy the neighborhoods’ character and push out longtime residents.

Some Chinatown residents benefited from the development boom, selling properties to developers or drawing more customers from increased foot traffic. Many others, meanwhile, have been driven out by higher rents, limited parking and increasingly unsafe conditions.

The changes in Chinatowns across the country look similar, though they’re unfolding at different timelines and magnitudes. Chicago’s Chinatown, in comparison with other Chinatowns with shrinking populations, more than doubled its Chinese population between 1990 and 2020.

“Those who are interested in preserving D.C. Chinatown should look toward its intrinsic value to tell the Chinese American story, the American story,” said Evelyn Moy, president of the Moy Family Association, which provides education and assistance to residents in Washington, D.C.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Cities already deeply affected by gentrification and high-end development stand as templates for how the shift may unfold elsewhere. For many, housing is the problem — and the solution.

“We can’t build our way out of the housing crisis, but we can’t get out of the housing crisis without building,” said Ener Chiu, executive vice president of community building at East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in California, which has built 2,300 permanently affordable homes in Oakland.

filed a lawsuit against the buildings’ developers and the city in October, arguing construction of the towers will create further environmental and health issues. The suit contends the developments violate the Green Amendment granting New York state residents the right to clean air.

Extell and JDS Development Group did not provide comment for this story.

Some residents have shown tentative support for the luxury buildings, saying they might make the neighborhood safer or bring in wealthier Asian residents who could boost Chinatown’s economy. Most who spoke with CNBC, however, expressed frustration over the rapid development of these megaprojects.

The Two Bridges fight is an experiment in looking out for residents’ livelihoods while “fighting against a very anti-humanity way of seeing a city,” said Alina Shen, the lead Chinatown Tenants Union organizer at grassroots community organization CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. “It’s a response to the fact that people who remain in Chinatown feel a deep pessimism for what’s happening and from literally being in the shadow of a ledge of a mega tower.”

The struggle with luxury developers has also involved the fight for secure housing.

Manhattan Chinatown’s housing stock is “really aged,” which has led to costly fires, according to Thomas Yu, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Chinatown’s housing stock is “really aged,” but sparse vacant land has made creating affordable housing difficult, said Thomas Yu, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, which has created 1,200 affordable housing units citywide. The development process for new units can take years, he said, and developers have rapidly sought out Manhattan’s Chinatown as the borough’s “last place with huge potential returns.”

Evictions, buyouts and deregulation of rent-stabilized housing have contributed to Chinatown’s population decline and illegal sublet situations, according to Yu.

Chen Yun, a tenant leader for CAAAV, said she had a landlord who for years refused to repair heating and hot water. She said she and her husband would boil pots of water at work and bring them home to bathe. They also dealt with a collapsed ceiling, she said. Yun spoke in Mandarin, translated by Shen and CAAAV communications manager Irene Hsu.

In 2005, Yun helped grow the Chinatown Tenants Union to help residents fight landlords and report faulty conditions. However, residents continue reporting similar housing issues, which Yun said has pushed some onto the streets, and more residents have mobilized to oppose developments they say could exacerbate these issues.

“No matter how beautiful or well-built these buildings are, [residents] simply can’t afford it, it’s not within their means, and these luxury buildings have nothing to do with us,” said Yun, who lost her job during the pandemic and spends much of her retirement money on rent.

Yu, of Asian Americans for Equality, said his organization is not against development but that more affordable housing should go up instead of solely market-rate buildings. Asian Americans have among the highest citywide poverty levels and have poor odds of finding secure housing, Yu said.

Some argue luxury development is eliminating affordable housing opportunities by sheer proximity, as one of Chinatown’s ZIP codes was excluded from a city loan program for low-income areas since it also included the wealthy Soho and Tribeca neighborhoods.

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, residents and local organizations said there are two interrelated fights: one against luxury development, and another to build more affordable housing and maintain existing apartments.

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Some residents expressed feeling an intense divide between their local government and Chinatown — fueled in part by rezoning debates, not to mention a proposed $8.3 billion 40-story jail in the neighborhood.

Zishun Ning of the Chinatown Working Group has led protests against the proposed jail, as well as against the Museum of Chinese in America, which stands to benefit from the jail’s expansion via a $35 million government investment. Ning said the city government’s “big development” agenda has “pitted us against each other.”

The museum’s leaders said they’ve been scapegoated, as they weren’t included in development talks with the city but could not turn down the money.

a hotbed for condominium and affordable housing developments.

Though communities such as Flushing have long appealed to residents across many socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s recently attracted wealthier residents moving into new developments.

“One of the unique aspects of Flushing is what I call the 15-minute neighborhood, the idea that you can live, work, play, go to school, partake in open space, shop, sort of all within 15 minutes,” said Ross Moskowitz, partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, who represents several developers’ projects in the neighborhood.

And as more people move in, rents go up, meaning many residents who relocated to Flushing for cheaper rent have found themselves in the same battles with developers that they fled from, according to Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of Asian American Federation.

Chinatowns and the pandemic

Mei Lum is the fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co., the oldest operating store in Manhattan’s Chinatown, as well as the founder of the W.O.W. Project. She said there isn’t a robust next generation to “really problem-solve and think through these circumstantial, political, and contextual issues arising in the neighborhood.”

Noah Sheidlower | CNBC

Still, many small businesses are threatened by the changes. The new generation hasn’t frequented restaurants such as Hop Lee as often as older clientele due to differences in taste, said the restaurant’s owner, Johnny Mui.

“A lot of our businesses now, they’re more for a higher income bracket, and it’s just growing over the years slowly,” said Carry Pak, a Chinatown resident and CAAAV youth leader. “Having spaces where the immigrant community can still feel comfortable with being able to speak the language to street vendors or grocery vendors is particularly key.”

historically destroyed homes and attracted chain businesses that outcompete Chinatown businesses.

Plans for a new Oakland Athletics ballpark a mile from the city’s Chinatown, which prompted concerns from residents, fell through last month after the team purchased land for a new stadium in Las Vegas.

In Philadelphia, plans for a new arena have irked some Chinatown residents and business owners, who say developers and city governments have neglected the community’s needs.

“We as a community need to be opposing it as much as possible in case there’s legs to this idea that the arena is going to be built,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

Pia Singh | CNBC

A proposed $1.3 billion Sixers arena would sit blocks from the city’s Chinatown Friendship Gate. The privately funded arena is in the first stages of construction. Developers are working on gaining entitlements and approvals as the project moves toward its scheduled September 2031 opening date.

The development team expects the 18,000-seat arena to be a “major economic driver” for Philadelphians, projecting $400 million of annual economic output and 1,000 jobs.

Since the proposal was made public last summer, several Chinatown community members and residents petitioned the developers and city leaders to shutter the project. Experts previously said professional sports stadiums fail to generate significant local economic growth, and tax revenue is insufficient to make positive financial contributions.

The owner of Little Saigon Cafe in Philly’s Chinatown, a man known as “Uncle Sam,” leads a coalition of more than 40 association leaders against the arena development. Uncle Sam, a Vietnamese refugee, came to the city more than four decades ago.

“If the arena is built, it will destroy a community, destroy our culture,” he said.

“We’ll fight to the end. We’ll do everything we can to defeat this [arena] project,” said “Uncle Sam,” the owner of Little Saigon Cafe in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Pia Singh | CNBC

Private and government-led investments in public spaces have pushed out lower-income residents, said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. His organization empowers native Chinese speakers to voice their opinions to Chinatown’s elected officials, city representatives and Sixers development heads.

The Sixers did not respond to a request for comment on how the development would impact Chinatown.

Last month, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city would conduct an independent study on the arena’s impact on the community.

The 78, which will include high-rises, residential towers, office buildings and a riverwalk to the north of Chinatown. Some fear The 78 would raise rents and property taxes, as well as push out local businesses and residents.

Luu said The 78’s leadership team approached Chinatown leaders early in development to hear concerns and work to establish more affordable and accessible housing and commerce.

As high-end development occurs in the right locations, it can promote the local economy and encourage progress, said Homan Wong, an architect on the board of directors for the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. He said issues of parking and safety still hurt Chicago’s Chinatown but that the Chamber remains focused on working with developers to keep the community growing.

“The opposite of development would be decay,” he said. “The reality is that if you don’t move forward, you’re going to fall behind.”

— Noah Sheidlower reported from Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Pia Singh reported from Philadelphia. CNBC’s Rebecca Smith contributed reporting from San Francisco.