Fifty years after Newton Minow's famous address, is TV still a vast wasteland?

May 9, 2011

By Katie O'Brien

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Newton Minow called TV a 'vast wasteland' in his historic address to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Newton Minow's historic address to the National Association of Broadcasters. The Chicago attorney was serving as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. It was Minow’s first foray in that position.

Minow threw down a gauntlet, calling much of TV programming a vast wasteland. His speech changed the way Americans produce, consume and think about television. For WBEZ, Katie O’Brien surveyed the impact that sound bite had.

 

In the 50 years since Newton Minow called television a vast wasteland, the medium has morphed from an analog box with finicky bunny ears right into to the third dimension. When President John F. Kennedy chose the 34-year-old Newton Minow to chair the Federal Communications Commission, many thought that like the president, he was too young.

At a recent symposium observing the golden anniversary of the Vast Wasteland speech, Minow’s longtime mentee and writing partner Craig LaMay described a local lack of confidence in Minow’s credentials. Any ordinary underling might cut his losses. Let his charismatic, camera-friendly leader handle the big speeches. But Minow, a Chicago attorney, did not cower during his inaugural address. 

Scandal peppered the early days of television. The 1950s saw the Quiz Show and payola scandals. Minow’s FCC predecessor had been forced to resign for accepting lavish hospitality from broadcast executives. Many of the men in the audience that day expected to be read a riot act of sorts, a lecture on manners and morals. They got much more than they bargained for.

LaMay described their reaction. One studio executive was so angered, he named the cursed vessel that stranded passengers on Gilligan’s Island after the chairman. The public felt differently. The speech was lauded overnight and the term “vast wasteland” assumed its place in the American vernacular. Minow was pleased to have their attention, but those weren’t the pair of words he was hoping would endure.

Just days before Minow gave his speech, America launched its first citizen into outer-space. America’s potential was again limitless.

Minow didn’t only address them as chairman of the FCC. He was also a television viewer; and a husband and father of other television viewers. During their work together on Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy alerted Minow to TV’s growing influence over Americans.

Indeed its power had become a great responsibility. In 1961 there were more than 180 million pairs of eyes affixed to more than 56 million television sets. And the responsibility of broadcasters was to their interest—the public was their dictator. Not ratings and especially not advertisers.

In the United States, this is a matter of law. The license that allows a station to broadcast is not its own, nor is it the government’s; it is the American public’s. And with all great responsibility comes great privilege. The media has the power to influence the public, just as censorship has the power to silence it.

During the recent symposium, PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff said she strives to honor the privilege in the modern media landscape.

As a television critic and columnist for The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan watches more than the average 5 hours of television each day. Thanks in part to Mr. Minow, there has never been a time in her career when the medium was not considered a wasteful use of time.

She described it as a homegrown art form that we do better than anyone else in the world. And so, she challenged, when you think about television, think about what’s on TV. The impending doom that Newton Minow cast over broadcast television, Heffernan added, set up a productive tension in television, forcing artful competition.

In last month’s edition of The Atlantic, Minow mapped a plan for the next 50 years of television in this decidedly Vaster Wasteland. On Monday, Minow is meeting with the current chairman on the FCC; on top of his agenda, as always, is the public interest.

Special thanks to Northwestern University for providing access to audio from the symposium