Monday, May 16, 2011

Wandering the Wasteland

Fifty years ago this month, Newton Minow, newly minted chairman of
the Federal Communications Commission, strode to the podium at the
National Association of Broadcasters convention and declared that
television was a “vast wasteland.”

More specifically, he told the nation’s broadcasters to “sit down in
front of your television set when your station goes on the air and
stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet
or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set
until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a
vast wasteland.”

“There was no standing ovation,” he recalled recently. “Instead, the
producer of "Gilligan's Island" showed what he thought of my speech
by naming the sinking ship after me — the SS Minnow.”

His “vast wasteland” speech became legendary and the tag has been
affixed to television programming every since.

But a half-century later, does it still ring true?

Does television remain the repository of banality? Or was Minow
expecting too much from what is essentially escapist fare, much as
radio had been. Does “vast wasteland” describe the area between a
typical viewer’s ears? Or was he arrogant, projecting a patrician
perspective on popular culture?

Oddly enough, there was a lot to like in early TV. For every “My
Mother the Car,” there was “The Hallmark Hall of Fame.” In fact,
there was more quality drama on the air then than now. For every
Soupy Sales, there was a Steve Allen. There were giants in the
newsroom: Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David

To many, it was the Golden Age of Television.

Yet, as Minow points out, network news was 15 minutes in length.
Commercials were rampant, exceeding the broadcasters’ own code of
standards. Black political candidates were often denied television
time for their campaigns. Los Angeles and New York did not have
noncommercial stations.

Minow shook his verbal fist at “a procession of game shows, violence,
audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally
unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism,
murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters,
more violence and cartoons.”

Now, of course, we look out at a landscape filled with--and an
audience thrilled by --dancing B list celebrities, dramas about
forensic snoops and their coroner sidekicks, reality shows about pawn
brokers, swamp dwellers, pack rats, crab catchers and meter maids in
addition to high-decibel opinion shows masquerading as news.

This is progress?

Minnow, writing recently in Chicago Tribune, was surprisingly upbeat.
Television “is certainly vast, far vaster than we could have imagined
in 1961. And parts of it are a wasteland, but most of what I hoped
for has far exceeded my most ambitious dreams. And the promise and
possibility of television is so vast that we can only guess where it
will take us next.”

That is a generous assessment. Because whatever positive changes have
occurred in the last 50 years are not because broadcasters became
more enlightened. There are simply more of them. So now if you don’t
want to be subjected to “Two-And-a-Half Men,” you can watch CSPAN. If
you don’t want to watch “American Idol,” you can browse Home and
Garden TV. If you don’t want your news interpreted by Bill O’Reilly,
you can watch Al Jazeera.

In addition, TV was in its infancy when Minow spoke. It improved with
age, a natural evolutionary process.

When Minow urged the television industry to pursue excellence, his
boss, President John F. Kennedy, was essentially delivering the same
message, challenging the country to soar to greater heights.

It would appear that Minow was merely parroting the administration
line, no matter how well intentioned it may have been.

In the end, Minnow’s sabre rattling changed little. On his watch,
network news grew and prospered and many credit him for helping to
foster its growth. But according to the Museum of Broadcast
Communications, many believed that beyond news, the Minow FCC enjoyed
few tangible policy accomplishments.

It’s safe to say, many of the things Minow found objectionable still

And 50 years from now, another Newton Minow will look out at the
broadcast industry and in all likelihood find a lot to dislike. The
only difference will be that broadcast offerings will appear in your
living room as three dimensional holograms.

Thanks to technology, you will feel like you’re actually living in
a vast wasteland.

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