Chuck Ross

Guest Blog–Vast Wasteland My Ass, Part Two. Strange Bedfellows: ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ ‘Playhouse 90’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’

Apr 26, 2011

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Norman Horowitz, and a follow-up to a blog entry he wrote that can be found if you click here. 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  on our TVBizWire, wherein Minow said that the wasteland of TV has become even "vaster" today.]

By Norman Horowitz

It was in the early 1960s that I went to see the head of programming at a New York station and screened a lovely five-minute children’s program called “Pick a Letter.” The potential buyer watched with great interest and then told me that he would not buy it. He explained, “Norman, if a kid starts to watch it in less than a minute he will switch off and watch a cartoon.”

He said 5-year-olds have a “bullshit detector” and if they get a sense that you are trying to teach them something they will change the station. It was a valuable lesson for me to have learned.

Since then I have always believed in the notion that you could “put it on, but you could not make them watch what you put on.”

When I wrote about Newton Minow and his “vast wasteland“ declarations the other day in a piece I called “Vast Wasteland My Ass,” I annoyed many people. By articulating my position in more detail I will probably annoy those that I annoyed before a bit more and annoy an entirely new group of people.

While at CBS in the late sixties I met Monica Simms, who was then head of children’s programming at the BBC. She was a bright and charming woman and we spent some “out of the office” time together.

I had booked three tickets–for my wife, Monica and myself–to whatever the “hot” Broadway show that was in fashion at the time, and Monica asked if it was possible to change the tickets and go and see “Oh! Calcutta!” instead. I am still recovering emotionally from sitting in the first row of the theater with my wife and Monica and watching an “X”-rated performance.

I was unable then or now to connect the woman who was in charge of children’s programming at the BBC wanting to see and enjoying that notorious play.

I was with Screen Gems in the early seventies in London and Monica invited me to her home for dinner. There were about a dozen people there including a bunch of very senior BBC producers and programmers.

The after-dinner and wine conversation predictably centered around the “inadequacy” of American television that provided their audience with “what they wanted to see,” in contrast to the BBC that gave their audience–at least to a certain extent–“what they should see.”

Of course I am oversimplifying both positions, yet it is reasonable for me to describe the conversation in that way.

I would describe myself as a “content libertarian,” ergo a believer in freedom of thought and expression.

I am and have been in favor of the commercial nature of programming in our country in that it offers the opportunity–for the most part–for the viewers of television to “vote” with their remote controls on what they want to see and not what ANYONE ELSE thinks that they should see.

My mother abhorred my reading comic books and listening to “The Green Hornet” on the radio, yet it was what I chose to read and listen to. There was what many would have you believe “better” stuff for me to read and to listen to, yet I chose what I read and listened to FOR MYSELF.

We have allowed the “elitist” Newton Minows of the world to advocate “what is good, better or best” on television, which is wonderful as long as they are not with the FCC or any other regulatory body. Minow was chairman of the FCC when he famously made his "vast wasteland" remarks. 

Sadly, Minow has been characterized as a “virtual saint’ by many, yet his commentary about American television is to me a reflection of his–as well as many others’–elitist attitude toward television content. For me there is no difference between the programming of “Playhouse 90” and "The Beverly Hillbillies” except that they will appeal to different audiences.

Minow was recently reported to have said “…the most constructive thing the FCC could do was to expand choice. And in that we certainly succeeded." The quote to me is indicative of what is/was off-base with him. The FCC’s role should be to exercise a “content neutral” position, not one exemplified by Minow’s “snobbishness.”

I will conclude by stealing from something I wrote more than two years ago, with a few changes.

My comments are directed to all of the arbiters of public taste in the world.

I have a history of being annoyed by those who like to define things as "good" or "not so good." It is not for others to determine what people should listen to. To "expose" people to different music is a good thing. Judging them for not choosing to like what you have presented is not a good thing.

Now, the following you may put under the category of “too much information” about me, but it is to emphasize my point.

Here are some of my "likes" that are not for everyone or anyone, just me. I have been very fortunate in having been exposed to so many things; nevertheless I do like what I like and do not need anyone to tell me what I should like.

I like Broadway musicals—particularly Stephen Sondheim among others—but not opera.

I like silly movies like “Blazing Saddles” and “Where’s Poppa”—but not “The Godfather.”

I like coleslaw, ketchup, salt, Guldens mustard, French fries, and fried onion rings. I do not like a Waldorf salad, beets, steamed artichokes, sushi and sashimi.

I like the Carnegie Deli in New York, and dislike most French restaurants in Los Angeles. I have grown to love large grain caviar, yet have never fancied crepes.

I have nodded off during concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—but have always stayed awake at a Bette Midler or Mandy Patinkin concert.

As someone involved in the sale and production of movies and television content, I abhor (a good word that I seldom use) it when so many look down their noses at many movies and television programs and determine what is "good" or "not good" for people to eat or listen to, or watch or read.

Please do not deify Newton Minow and those of his ilk that will have you enjoy only what they deem acceptable.#


  1. Minow was recently reported to have said “…the most constructive thing the FCC could do was to expand choice. And in that we certainly succeeded.” The quote to me is indicative of what is/was off-base with him. The FCC’s role should be to exercise a “content neutral” position, not one exemplified by Minow’s “snobbishness.”
    Exactly how is expanding choice (I.e. More channels) content based? Article is crazy. Author is railing against his own personal demons.

  2. Thanks for being so direct in your assessment, Norman. In the ad agency business, we argue whether TV is a wasteland, but not whether it is vast. http://admajoremblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/changing-role-of-tv.html

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