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Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow reflects on the 60th anniversary of calling television a "vast wasteland"

  • On May 9, 1961, Minow, then-President John F. Kennedy's FCC chairman, delivered his famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters. "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better," he said. "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." Now age 95, Minow tells the Los Angeles Times: "When I was at the FCC, we thought the government’s role should be to increase choice for the viewer. Looking back at it, I’m not so sure that was such a great idea. Because of the proliferation of voices, you now have a huge number of outlets seeking attention, and many of them think the way to seek that attention is to go to the extremes.” As the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik notes, in the six decades since Minow's speech, "the landscape has become vaster, its average quality ever diminished. What was then a choice limited to three broadcast TV networks (and the third-ranked, ABC, then reached only about half the country) now encompasses much more. There are hundreds of channels available via cable as well as numberless sources of entertainment content, information, misinformation and disinformation streamed at users unrelentingly, night and day, via social media." ALSO: Gilligan's Island's S.S. Minow was named after Minow's "vast wasteland" speech.   

    TOPICS: FCC, Gilligan's Island, Newton Minow