Jewish World Review May 12, 2011 / 8 Iyar, 5771
Vast wasteland speech 50 years later
By Glenn Garvin
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | TV trivia: What's the dumbest show in television history?
A. "My Mother the Car," in which a small-town lawyer suffers an oedipal crisis at the hands of a used 1928 Porter.
B. The fairly self-explanatory Jerry Springer episode titled "I'm Happy I Cut Off My Legs."
C. The one FCC Commissioner Newton R. Minow put on for broadcasters 50 years ago this month.
The correct answer is C, and it's likely to remain so even in some decade in the dim future when we're all watching "The Real Housewives of Tucumcari, New Mexico." In a just universe, the words "bah, humbug" would conjure up not Ebenezer Scrooge but Minow for his infamous speech lambasting television as "a vast wasteland." It's not that Minow was entirely wrong — but instead of shaking his finger at TV executives, he should have been pointing it at himself.
Minow's much celebrated speech was delivered at a National Association of Broadcasters convention 50 years ago this month, soon after President Kennedy named him head of the FCC. Nervous TV executives were fearful he would lay into them over a still-simmering scandal about the rigging of quiz shows. Instead, he launched on a scathing attack on the entire medium of television.
"When television is bad, nothing is worse," Minow said, ripping the industry's programming as "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." He swore he didn't believe in government censorship, then threatened it anyway. "There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license," Minow said. "I say to you now: Renewal will not be pro forma in the future."
What made Minow think he had been appointed Minister of Television Criticism, and why he believed he had the authority to order TV networks to program ballet instead of wrestling, remain questions to this day. The FCC had been in business for 27 years and nobody had ever suggested it was in charge of elevating American culture. Many of the shows Minow ripped — Westerns, detectives, soap operas, quiz shows — had been a staple of radio programming for decades without arousing government complaint. (And imagine the furor if Minow had ordered the U.S. publishing industry to stop printing so many Zane Grey and Raymond Chandler novels.)
But there was one point on which he was unquestionably correct: Television programming was distorted by the lack of competition. Most American cities had only three TV channels from which to choose; smaller towns had just two, or even one. "With more channels on the air, we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to offer service to all parts of the public," Minow said. "Programs with a mass market appeal required by mass product advertisers certainly will still be available. But other stations will recognize the need to appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes. In this way, we can all have a much wider range of programs. Television should thrive on this competition, and the country should benefit from alternative sources of service to the public."
That sounds like Minow was predicting cable TV, the explosion of channels that would eventually allow viewers to watch almost anything they want, from Rachel Maddow to Bill O'Reilly, from music videos to Catholic theologians, from oversexed New York yuppie chicks to philosophical New Jersey mobsters, at any hour, day or night. Certainly the technology for cable existed and had been demonstrated at TV trade shows as early as 1951.
But cable wouldn't take off for another 20 years after Minow's speech. What prevented it was the FCC itself. Despite Minow's brave words, his agency had, from the beginning of television, been a lackey of the three big radio networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) who wanted to control the new medium. (One former commissioner would describe the early days of TV, when the FCC was writing rules that effectively granted the three networks a monopoly, as "the whorehouse era.") And it continued to do so while he was chairman.
The FCC ruthlessly regulated the microwave relay stations that cable systems need to pass along their signals. For years, it refused to license microwave companies that did business with cable. When the ban was lifted, cable was nonetheless blocked from the largest 100 TV markets and forbidden to offer original programming. The FCC openly said it wanted to prevent cable from "siphoning off" viewers from broadcast TV. When it became apparent that cable could evade the microwave rules by using satellites, the FCC tried to ban private communications satellites. It wasn't until federal courts and other agencies intervened that the FCC was forced to back off.
It's fashionable these days to view Minow's "vast wasteland" tirade as an example of successful government jawboning, a public scolding that resulted — eventually — in an explosion of programming creativity and diversity. The truth is that Minow made only a single significant contribution to television: The boat of the inept castaways of Gilligan's Island, the SS Minnow, was sarcastically named for him. They didn't have cable, either.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment by clicking here.
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald
© 2009, The Miami Herald Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services