Some count it as one of the most important American speeches of the second half of the 20th Century right up there with Eisenhower’s Farwell Address, Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and the most famous orations by Martin Luther King. But it was not delivered by a towering political figure or a game changing visionary. It was spoken by a semi-obscure bureaucrat. It was not given before cheering thousands, before Congress, or broadcast to millions. It was delivered in a hotel ballroom to a roomful of conventioneers at a trade association gathering. The demeanor of the speaker was more professorial than oratorical. But man, did it shake things up.
The speaker was Newton Minow a bespectacled 35 year old lawyer and liberal Democratic Party activist who had just been named by President John F. Kennedy to be the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The venue was the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961 in Washington, D.C. The convention program announced the title of the address as Television and the Public Interest. But it is remembered and quoted from to this day as the Vast Wasteland speech.
Minnow scolded the squirming broadcasters like a petulant school marm:
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 each of you to sit down in front of your own 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. 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. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it…
… Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television. Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.
It was a scolding that went the equivalent of viral in those quaint days. Gleeful print editors splashed reports all over front pages of newspapers and magazines including highly influential and widely read Time. The editorial pages from the New York Times to the Weekly Podunk Hay Seed clucked and shook their gravest heads. Preachers thundered from Sunday pulpits. PTAs and women’s clubs met and passed resolutions demanding action. Academics scrambled to find ways to fund new research to further prove how depraved TV was making American culture.
Now days we tend to look back on those innocent times of just three broadcast networks and some usually down-at-the heels local independent stations which ran mostly very old movies, re-runs, cheap syndications like Whirly Birds or Highway Patrol, wrestling and roller derby, and shabby kiddy shows with moth-eaten cartoons through the rosy lenses of nostalgia. We remember a handful of favorite westerns and sit coms and extoll the era for its “innocence.” Some even consider the early ‘60’s as the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of Television.
But it didn’t look like that back then.
In the long term, the speech hardly put a dent in crass, mindless, and violent television. But in the short term certain reforms and gains were made. Broadcasters responded with a beefed up Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters which had been first introduced amid earlier cultural criticism in 1951. The companies crossed their hearts and hoped to die if they weren’t responsible and moral. And they awarded themselves the Seal of Good Practice, displayed during closing credits on most shows. Other than rigid controls of curse words, any kind of reference to sex, and the insistence that married couples could only be shown in the bedroom in twin beds, the Code was toothless. It did little to discourage violence and nothing at all about the routine depiction of minorities in degrading ways.
More significantly the news divisions of the three networks hyped the speech almost as much as their print critics. At CBS Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite used it as leverage to win a long cherished expansion of the evening news broadcast from 15 minutes to half an hour and to increase a commitment to regular documentary programs. Other networks followed and two years after the speech more than 400 documentaries were aired on the three networks. NBC beefed up the hard news component of its Today program. The Sunday morning news interview programs were also expanded to half an hour. There was expanded news coverage generally of things like United Nations sessions and large numbers of reporters were assigned across the globe for international coverage.
The speech also helped spur the development of local educational television stations, which were encouraged by the FCC. By the mid ‘60’s some stations were expanding beyond the strictly instructional programing of their early years and adding some cultural, news, and public affairs programing in the evenings. By 1970 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting replaced the old National Education Television and modest amounts of federal dollars began to flow to affiliates for the creation of programing.
In the 53 years since the speech television options have exploded—the explosion of UHF stations, more networks, cable and satellite services, and now alternative options via the internet and smartphone applications. Although it can be argued that there is more high quality drama and smartly written comedy than ever—largely due to the relaxation of censorship rules that restricted adult themes and language—a quick survey of television option quickly reveals that the waste land is vaster than ever. Stultifying reality shows. A channel that once called itself the Arts and Entertainment Network which is now devoted to shows that simultaneously mock and exult redneck life style. Its once distinguished cousin the History Channel is full of UFO, conspiracy theories, and religious claptrap. A major cable “news” channel that is a fulltime propaganda machine for the far right and routine peddlers of actual fraud. More judge and courtroom shows than you can shake a gavel at plus a whole program dedicated to paternity tests. Endless re-runs not only of classic programs but any show that managed to survive for three seasons—enough to syndicate. Shopping channels. Infomercials. More sports channels than there are sports. You get the picture.
As for Newton, after his term at the FCC ended, he came back to Chicago where he lucratively still practices law. He was a member of the Board of Governors of PBS and its predecessor, NET serving from 1973–1980 and serving as its Chairman from 1978 to 1980. He is past-president of the Carnegie Corporation, an influential PBS sponsor, and the original funder of Sesame Street. He co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates and is a vice-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. He is also the Walter Annenberg professor emeritus at Northwestern University and has authored of four books and numerous professional journal and magazine articles. He and his wife also serve on numerous charitable boards. In other words, he is a pillar of the liberal establishment.
Ever since his big moment in the sun back in 1961 the press returns to speak with him about the current state of television. On the 50 anniversary of that speech, he gave another one on the same topic at Harvard. Although not as well publisized, he assessments were equally harsh, especially in the area of dumbed down and biased news.
Despite all of the praise, he received for his original speech, he had his detractors who charged him with being a dreaded egg head and elitist. The producers of the perinially popular Gilligan’s Island, just the kind of programing that drew his disdain, thumbed their nose at him. The S.S. Minnow, the tour boat that wrecked on a desert island, was named after the FCC chairman, not the fish.