FCC Chief Scolded Networks Over 'Vast Wasteland' of TV

Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech challenged broadcasters to do better
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 6, 2023 5:10 PM CDT
FCC Chief Scolded Networks Over 'Vast Wasteland' of TV
Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies before a Senate subcommittee in November 1961.   (AP Photo, File)

Newton N. Minow, who as Federal Communications Commission chief in the early 1960s famously proclaimed that network television was a "vast wasteland," died Saturday. He was 97. Minow, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, died Saturday at home, the AP reports. Though Minow held the FCC post for just two years, he left a permanent stamp on the broadcasting industry through government steps to foster satellite communications, the passage of a law mandating UHF reception on TV sets, and his outspoken advocacy for quality in television. "My faith is in the belief that this country needs and can support many voices of television—and that the more voices we hear, the better, the richer, the freer we shall be," Minow once said. "After all, the airways belong to the people."

Minow was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in early 1961. On May 9, Minow laid down his famous challenge to TV executives in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, urging them to sit down and watch their station for a full day "without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you." He told them: "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. 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."

As he spoke, the three networks were just about all most viewers had to choose from. Pay television was barely in the planning stage, PBS was several years away, and HBO and niche channels such as Animal Planet were far in the future. The speech caused a sensation. "Vast wasteland" became a catch phrase. Jimmy Durante opened an NBC special by saying, "Da next hour will be dedicated to upliftin' da quality of television. ... At least, Newt, we're tryin'." Minow became the first government official to receive a George Foster Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting. CBS President Frank Stanton, on the other hand, calling Minow's comments a "sensationalized and oversimplified approach" that could lead to ill-advised reforms "on the ground that any change is a change for the better."

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Minow said a broadcasting license was "an enormous gift" from the government that brought with it a responsibility to the public. His daughter, Nell Minow, told the AP in 2011 that her father loved television and wished he would have been remembered for championing the public interest in programming, rather than just a few words in his much broader speech. "His No. 1 goal was to give people choice," she said. During his tenure, Congress approved funds for educational television and measures to foster communications satellites. Minow recalled telling Kennedy that such satellites were "more important than sending a man into space." In a 1991 interview, Minow said; "In 1961, I worried that my children would not benefit much from television But in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it."

(More obituary stories.)

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