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

Apr 21, 2011

[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!

10 Comments

  1. Thanks to Norman Horowitz for this thoughtful analysis. My first boss in TV was Mister Rogers. Fred famously delayed his plans to become a minister after seeing one pie fight too many in the earliest days of TV. He became a stage manager at NBC but left to help found the first public TV station — WQED in his native Pittsburgh.
    Fred was appalled by sensational programs, especially those which exploited children. Towards the end of his life we corresponded about Wife Swap and its imitators. But Fred rarely criticized TV. Instead he focused on giving his very best to preschool viewers on the Neighborhood. When he did speak publicly, it was about the opportunity TV gives us to enlighten and enrich the lives of our viewers. He likened it to a calling.
    That’s another thing that hasn’t changed since Minnow’s day. The internet makes it easier than ever to slam TV shows or the people who watch them. Snarky comments are easy. Making quality shows is hard.

  2. What can one say? Norman confirms and epitomizes the worst suspicions we harbor about TV (or should I say tv?) – that broadcast television programming decisions, for the most part, have been and will always be, by virtue of its structure, based on laziness, greed and paranoia. If broadcasters could get away with broadcasting just commercials and no programming they would. I’m sure many of them have erotic fantasies of selling dead air and calling a test pattern “a special”.
    To them, eyeballs are simply a commodity to be counted, parsed and sold; not educated, uplifted and enlightened. I’m willing to bet he’s an admirer of Jerry Springer, whose show I have always considered an obscenity.
    Norman doesn’t refute the “…vast wasteland” argument, he only confirms it. Go sell something, Norman. Sell something to that precious demo that your self-serving smugness helped you to loose to a truly democratic (so far) medium: the Internet!
    One can proudly prop up a dying model only so long before the shear effort becomes unbearable. Newton Minow was really about “changing channels”.

  3. Arthur: making quality shows is not hard. If you have quality writers, quality producers, quality talent and quality crew, it’s actually quite easy to make quality shows. What’s difficult is making quality shows on the cheap. The only thing studio executives care about AT ALL is the bottom line. They are not concerned with quality. TV is a business first. Unfortunately educating, stimulating, informing viewers means nothing to most of those in charge.
    Thumbs up to Jim’s comment about “that precious demo that your self-serving smugness helped you to loose” to the internet.

  4. Indeed, some of the most compelling documentary programming ever produced was produced independently, with passion and a committed, personal vision generally either not supported or on many cases denied in the so-called “official broadcast” world and always on shoestring budgets.

  5. P.S.:
    “Long live trivial TV” my ass!!!

  6. “Good for whom?”
    For most of the history of this country– certainly its most productive, accomplished period– people would not blush to suggest that some things were good for society as whole, and other things were not. They would have no trouble agreeing that hard work, thrift, literacy, honesty, etc. were good for society and self-indulgence, deviousness, sexual profligacy, drug use, unrestrained greed, etc. were not.
    It is apparently too “judgmental” to suggest such things anymore. Absent any unifying notions of quality, we have no choice but to outsource our critical thinking to a marketplace with the sole value of stoking appetites for merchandise.
    Admittedly, a lot of bad things persisted under the previous culture. Racism, homophobia, sexism are all reduced now, and good riddance to them. But that doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to look at the results of 50 years of “the wasteland”? Are you honest enough to compare grass roots literacy in popular magazines (Life, Look, Collier’s, the Post, etc.) in the 1950s– with their long columns of small print, articles presuming a general knowledge of history, geography, science, literature– with magazines today which are 80% photos with 20% large print text about celebrities. Compare our academic test scores before and after the wasteland, our unwed pregnancy rates, drug usage, etc. What is the effect– if any– of hourly exposure to extreme violence and extreme sex? Does being raised in a fatherless home make a difference to the long term quality of life?
    “Good for whom?” I’m not saying anyone has any certain answers, but is the question really that difficult to grapple with in good faith?

  7. Back in 1961, network news was 15 minutes long. There was no PBS. A few years later a broadcaster literally listed the Flintstones as educational programming. Newton Minow thought that in an era where the spectrum was limited, broadcasters who were essentially given a money machine when the government awarded them a license should have to pay back the owners of those airwaves with something more than whatever made them the most money. Minow’s top priority at the FCC was to expand choice and as a direct result of the policies he established we now have hundreds of channels and near-infinite content. He thought people deserved better than the kind of programming that shows contempt for the audience, created by the kind of person who thinks “my ass!” is witty.

  8. But how about the theory of LOP (Least Objectionable Program), Norman? Since TV execs knew that TV watching was habitual, they also knew they could win any time period with the least bad program, at least until Ted Turner road to town. Certainly this attitude was part of what Minnow was referring to and why his remarks have lasted.
    -David Fox

  9. Norman,
    In the current season of the 50th anniversary of Newton.Minow’s magnificent
    speech this period coincides with Passover which I feel has direct pertinence to what you wrote.It seems to me the clear intent and meaning of the speech has been “passed over” for half a century.Let me paraphrase Minow’s words about the speech, he stated that he wished the speech had been remembered for two other words which were the heart and soul of the speech.Those words were “public interest”.
    If one takes the time to read or listen it is clear that he was exhorting the broadcasters to live up to an agreement
    that they had already made to deliver
    content “…in the public interest..”.
    in exchange for this we the public would license them to use OUR airwaves,perhaps our greatest resource for their business
    and to serve us.
    It is not surprising that those who worked in the program supply business,mainly in the community i will call Hollywood (studios,etc.)have along
    with some others chosen to remember the speech only for it’s “vast wasteland” quote.It has become very clear to me why this is so,Hollywood never thought they had a stake in “the public interest” therefore they avoided that part of the discussion for far too long,even to this
    day.
    In closing let’s restate the essence and
    soul of Newton Minow’s 1961 speech. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate henceforth,to call it,
    “the Public Interest Speech”,because that’s what it was.
    Repectfully,
    George.Back

  10. Quality programming does not HAVE to be expensive.

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