A Vaster Wasteland

In 1961, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters and told them it was time for television to “grow up”.

The bigwigs of broadcasting were not delighted by this dressing down from a bureaucrat. The most benign (and delightful) reaction to Minow from the TV industry came when the producers of Gilligan’s Island named the cast’s ill-fated boat after him.

You can listen to the whole thing if you want, but here’s the famous quote (the long form):

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.

Fifty years after making these comments, Newton Minow wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the anniversary of his famous speech. He bemoaned the fact that so much emphasis was placed on the words “Vast Wasteland”. He thought the most important word pair in the talk was “Public Interest”.

But there you go. The result proves his argument. Regardless of what you think you mean to say, opportunistic interpreters will find the most provocative and lucrative part of your statement, and that is what we will peddle. And by “we”, I mean the bazillions of us who make up what some call “the media”. Minow’s original critique focused mainly on the offerings of three measly networks. Big deal.

My preferred method of trivializing significant things is to celebrate them with a silly, sing-songy poem. Why should Newton Minow be spared?

Newton Minow watched TV
and said he was appalled it
did not deserve its public, and
a wasteland’s what he called it.

A two-word slam. A snide remark.
A snotty little slight
That for 50 years has stung
And made us wonder – was he right?

A scolding seldom wins the day.
A snob is just a snob.
And to wag his finger at the box
was Newton Minow’s job.

He did his part. He turned his phrase.
He sang his little song.
But seeing how the landscape changed
We know he got it wrong.

Because Minow didn’t know about
“Apprentice”. The poor guy!
He had not beheld a Hasselhoff
Or seen a CSI

In ’61 no one had watched
Mob Wives or Jersey Shore.
But today we gladly take these shows
To have and to abhor.

The ‘wasteland’ part is accurate
today as in the past
but he blew it when he called
his paltry ‘60’s circus “vast”

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