Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9, 1961:

Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" Speech

Presidential appointees occasionally say or do something as memorable as any president, and a case in point is Newton N. Minow, 15th chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to which he was appointed by President Kennedy on March 2, 1961, aged only 35, probably on the strength of his acquaintance with Bobby Kennedy.

About two months later, he made a splash at the National Association of Broadcasters convention. His speech at that event, known as the "Vast Wasteland"speech, took the broadcasters to task for the state of broadcast television. More than 45 years later, "vast wasteland" is still a term associated with the broadcast medium. But it was a nuanced characterization:

"Like everybody, I wear more than one hat," Minow said. "I am the chairman of the FCC. I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of Playhouse 90 and Studio One.

"I am talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as The Fabulous Fifties, The Fred Astaire Show, and The Bing Crosby Special; some were dramatic and moving, such as Conrad's Victory and Twilight Zone; some were marvelously informative, such as The Nation's Future, CBS Reports, and The Valiant Years. I could list many more -- programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better.

"But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you 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.

"You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it."

He is still alive now at 81, a partner in one of the most powerful communications law firms in the United States, Sidley and Austin. Interestingly, in his later years, Minow played a role in shaping the televised presidential debates, which he co-chaired in 1976 and 1980. He currently a director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the entity that succeeded the League of Women Voters in sponsoring the presidential debates.

1 comment:

Nell Minow said...

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I have forwarded it on to my dad, who will appreciate your kind words about his speech and his current activities. He has just completed work on a book about his experiences in the planning and organization of every Presidential debate in US History (we like to tease him that he was there for Lincoln/Douglas but that was a Senate debate). Thanks and best wishes.