Open Mic

Guest Blog: Vast Wasteland My Ass--Why Newton Minow Wasn't The Programming Shark He Thought He Was When He Coined That Famous Phrase

Chuck Ross Posted April 21, 2011 at 7:54 AM

[Editor's Note: This is a guest blog by our friend Norman Horowitz. Norman started in the TV business in 1956, when he was 24. He has been President of Worldwide Distribution for Columbia Pictures TV (Screen Gems); President of Polygram Television; and President of MGM/UA Telecommunications Co. A related article about the 50th anniversary of Minow's "vast wasteland" comments appeared earlier this week on our TVBizWire, wherein Minow said that the wasteland of TV has become even "vaster" today.]

By Norman Horowitz

It was almost 50 years ago that FCC Chairman Newton Minow delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he famously referred to TV as a "vast wasteland." You can click here to read the entire speech.


Here’s a relevant excerpt. It's a little long, but important so I can make my point: “Like everybody, I wear more than one hat. 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.


Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better? Well a glance at next season’s proposed programming can give us little heart. Of 73 and ½ hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours of categories of action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz, and movies. Is there one network president in this room who claims he can’t do better? Well, is there at least one network president who believes that the other networks can do better? Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your beneficiaries is long overdue. Never have so few owed so much to so many.


Why is so much of television so bad? I’ve heard many answers: demands of your advertisers; competition for ever higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material. These are some of the reasons. Unquestionably, these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers. But I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them.”


I have worked one way or another in the business of television for more than 50 years. I started at Screen Gems in the late fifties.


From 1958 through 1974, under John H. Mitchell, Screen Gems delivered classic TV shows and sitcoms such as “Father Knows Best,” “Dennis the Menace,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Monkees” and “The Partridge Family,” among many others.


I would suspect that Newton Minow would have put most of these popular programs in the “undesirable” category but I am not sure. Screen Gems Television was the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures.


John Mitchell was a sales and creative genius.


It seems like it was a century or more ago that John was asked by a journalist “[W]hy is there not more good television” and John brilliantly replied “Good for whom?”


In my years of selling television content all over the world I have thought that the United States has at least one of the best “democratic television” systems. We make content for commercial reasons, yet from time to time “greatness” emerges from the process.


Americans have control of their remotes and can choose to watch whatever they wish from a variety of sources. Many if not most are aware that their television sets contain an on/off switch that could allow them to read something or, heaven forbid, talk to one another.


More independent producers and deliverers of content would assist the process as well as a better-funded PBS, but I expect that Paul Ryan would disagree.


I am sure that Newton Minow is a man of good intentions, but we must be on guard against those who wish to influence the process in order to make it--in their view--better.


I remember when we produced “Celebrity Charades” at Columbia Pictures Television and I was asked if I was not ashamed. I replied “only if it fails.” And it did.


It is not now a good idea--nor was at the time--for anyone like Minow to “pontificate” about content. Complain about diversity YES, but not about content. Jump up and down about the non-delivery of adequate news and documentary content. It won’t help, but what the hell.


Long live trivial television!