In Depth

Does Minow Still Think TV Is a 'Vast Wasteland'? Former FCC Head Says the Agency Succeeded by Expanding Choice, but With Choice We've Lost the Shared Experience of the Medium

By Rance Crain
Advertising Age

When Newton Minow was reviewing an early draft of his famous "vast wasteland" speech of 50 years ago about the sorry state of TV, the initial version read "vast wasteland of junk." He crossed out "of junk" as being redundant, but he had no conception that the phrase would be remembered 50 years later.

Mr. Minow is perhaps the most famous of those who've ever headed the Federal Communications Commission because of that speech he delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters--his first as an FCC commissioner.

Mr. Minow said a lot of things and made a lot of good points, but what resonated then, and what continues to resonate to this day, was his characterization of the TV landscape as "a vast wasteland."

Here's how he put it: "When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not magazines or newspapers--nothing is better.

"But when television is bad, nothing is worse," Mr. Minow said. He invited his audience to sit down in front of their TV sets from sign-on to sign-off. "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

"You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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 endless commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all boredom."

Today, 50 years and hundreds of cable and satellite channels later, the $64,000 question is: Is TV today just a vaster wasteland?

"It's vaster, certainly," Mr. Minow said. But it also gives viewers a "wider range of choice. That was the main thing I tried to do. At the time I was at the FCC there were two-and-a-half commercial television networks, there was no public television, no satellite. The choice was extremely narrow. Many cities had only one television station, some had two, a few had three, New York and Los Angeles had seven. But that was it. The most constructive thing the FCC could do was to expand choice. And in that we certainly succeeded."

A segment of his speech called for broadcasters to get tougher with advertisers (or as the Ad Age headline put it, "Sell better shows or let ads go"). "You can tell your advertisers, 'This is the high quality we are going to serve--take it or other people will. If you think you can find a better place to move automobiles, cigarettes and soap--go ahead and try,'" Mr. Minow told the NAB meeting.

After he left government, he became a director of Foote, Cone & Belding, which handled the Hallmark cards account, and Mr. Minow said Fairfax Cone, the head of the agency, was "very proud that Foote Cone not only created the commercials but also created the programs and did a spectacular job. So I think sometimes we went too far in divorcing the advertiser from programs because in the early days of television we used to have great dramas sponsored by Philco, Kraft. They were proud to have their names" on the opening billboards. "Now the advertiser and the program are divorced, and I'm not sure that's always the best thing for the public."

Mr. Minow, currently senior counsel at law firm Sidley Austin and the vice chairman of the Presidential Debate Commission, said one of the downsides of so many choices on TV today is that "we've lost the common shared experience. I think it's increased the polarization of opinion. And now you have news appealing to particular ideologies, the left and the right, whereas before it was more in the middle. So that's a downside. On the other hand, the possibility that people can find something of their particular interest on television is much greater than it was before."

In his speech, Mr. Minow, in his litany of bad TV programming, mentioned violence three separate times. He said it was the worst problem at the time "and sadly, I think it still is."

TV, he added, "often forgets how children are affected by seeing so much violence."

After his 1961 speech, Mr. Minow received calls from Jack Kennedy's father and Edward R. Murrow. But none from the president himself.

Ambassador Kennedy said the speech was "the best speech since Jack's inaugural address. And he said, 'You keep it up, and if anybody gives you any trouble you call me."

In his call later that night, Mr. Murrow announced that Mr. Minow had stolen his speech--that he'd given a similar speech the previous year to news directors in Chicago. "I went back and read his speech later, and I said to myself, if I had known about it I would have just repeated his speech because he was just saying the same thing I was."

After adding the "vast wasteland" coinage, of course.