THE MAN, THE TUBE, THE WASTELAND
It was another night in the wasteland, already vast and growing moreso.
On May 9, 1961, America's three TV networks served up the usual fare. Sitcoms -- "Father Knows Best" and "Dobie Gillis." Suspense --"Alfred Hitchcock Presents," And Western after Western -- “Laramie," The Rifleman," "Wyatt Earp," "Stagecoach West". . . Across America, 180 million watched, unaware that TV had just earned the bleak label it still wears.
When the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission stepped before 2,000 broadcasters in the nation's capital that afternoon, the usual drivel was expected. Newton Minow was an unknown Chicago lawyer with no media experience. And the FCC, though reviewing station licenses every three years, had never denied one. A station license, executives joked, was "a license to print money," so how could the FCC chair upset them?
After praising broadcasting as "a most honorable profession," Newton Minow dropped his bombshell. "When television is good," he said, "nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. . . "
In an instant, the TV men switched from black and white to full color. The president of ABC turned beige. CBS' program director flushed red. The FCC chair continued.
"You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. . . Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can't do better?"
Ratings, Minow said, were no excuse. "You know, newspaper publishers take popularity ratings too. And the answers are pretty clear: It is almost always the comics, followed by advice to the lovelorn columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on the front page of all newspapers; the editorials are not replaced by more comics; and the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn."
As the father of two girls, Minow spoke for children. "If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school. What about your responsibilities? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children?"
Minow finished to polite applause. At a reception, however, the TV men avoided him. "A young smart Alec" one said, while another called him "a naive young man who has read all the books but hasn't had to meet a payroll." The press, however, picked up "vast wasteland." Minow received 5,000 letters, all but a few in support. "They tell me TV is a good baby-sitter," an Oregon woman wrote him. "I would just as soon hire Al Capone to babysit."
But TV execs struck back, spreading the specter of big government. Minow had repeatedly renounced censorship, yet the Wall Street Journal saw "grave implications in Mr. Minow's speech," and the Chicago Tribune called him "the cultural Khrushchev." Then in 1964, CBS played a little joke, christening the lost ship on "Gilligan's Island" the S.S. Minnow. By then Minow had, as the New York Times noted, "hung up his gloves ending his two-year slugging match with the broadcast industry."
Before resigning in 1963, Minow was thwarted again and again. His hope for children’s TV sank when new educational shows garnered little advertising and never aired. His plan to streamline the FCC went down in Congress. JFK urged Minow on. "You keep this up! This is one of the really important things." But Minow could not fight TV's power in Washington. "I have no illusions about the influence the industry wields in this town," he said.
Resigning to work for Encyclopedia Britannica, Minow left an FCC that went right on rubber stamping licenses, and he left a single phrase. But his legacy was more than two words.
Minow championed a bill mandating UHF on all TVs, quintupling the broadcast dial and enabling the creation of PBS. His push for children's TV inspired "Sesame Street" and other shows. He urged JFK to broaden the space program to include communications satellites that would "send ideas into space." And decades on, Minow played a minor role in history when his Chicago law firm hired two young Harvard grads, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. The two met in Minow's office.
Now 91 and still active, Minow remains surprised that "vast wasteland" has become "part of the American lexicon. It has come to identify me. My daughters threaten to engrave on my tombstone: ON TO A VASTER WASTELAND."
In the meantime, TV’s wasteland, enriched by an occasional oasis, spews on. We'll have more crap in a minute. Now this.