50 Years Later: A Vaster Wasteland?
On May 9, 1961 FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, an appointee of President Kennedy's administration, delivered his historic speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC. The speech is best known for two words he uttered in reference to the programming found on TV stations nationwide: Vast Wasteland. The term became a cultural touchpoint for critics of television, and remains so to this day. Interestingly, in Mr. Minow's Archive of American Television interview, he discusses not only the origins of the speech itself, but how those loaded words ultimately overshadowed his larger overall message:
"To my way of thinking, that speech was badly misinterpreted. It didn’t condemn all of television. It said there are great things in television which are unique in uniting and serving the country, but you, the broadcasters, have got to remember that you are trustees for all of us. That you have got to pay more attention to your obligations to children. You’ve got to pay more attention to not only the bottom line, but to public service."
Minow's insightful video interview covers his two-year FCC chairmanship and his championing of the creation of public television as well as the implementation of satellite communications. The interview was conducted by Chuck Olin on July 21, 1999.
An excerpt from his 1961 speech is below, and you can listen to it in its entirety here.
"Governor Collins, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. ... my subject today is the television industry and the public interest.. I am the chairman of the FCC. But 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'm 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," "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 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.
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 will rapidly join the parade into space. International television will be with us soon. No one knows how long it will be until a broadcast from a studio in New York will be viewed in India as well as in Indiana, will be seen in the Congo as it is seen in Chicago. But as surely as we are meeting here today, that day will come; and once again our world will shrink.
What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our western bad men and good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting? What will the Latin American or African child learn of America from this great communications industry? We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas...
...I say to you ladies and gentlemen -- I remind you what the President said in his stirring inaugural. He said: Ask not what America can do for you; ask what you can do for America."¹ I say to you ladies and gentlemen: Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting. And ask what broadcasting can do for America.
I urge you, I urge you to put the people's airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom. You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You must help a great nation fulfill its future. Do this! I pledge you our help. Thank you."