The State of Television, by Rich Paschall

When the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC, he began his speech as one might expect. He offered praise for the “noble profession” of broadcasting. He told the group, “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.” It was a good beginning for the new Chairman giving his first speech. Then he added: “But when television is bad, nothing is worse.”

He challenged the group to watch their own channel, “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.”  Then the Chairman offered his brutally honest opinion. “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.” It is a line that has echoed through the FCC ever since.

In 1961 we had a 19 inch “portable” black and white television set. They called it portable because it had a handle on top so you could pick it up and carry it. It had a cathode ray picture tube along with a number of smaller tubes inside. It was really heavy. Putting a handle on top did not make it portable. We kept it on a TV stand with wheels. That’s what made it portable.

Our television received the three major networks via channels 2, 5, and 7. The local independent television station WGN-TV was on channel 9. It was particularly popular with us for covering Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball home games. It also carried our favorite kids’ programs. There was Educational Television on Channel 11, a member station of National Education Television (NET). Channel 11 (WTTW) had limited broadcast hours. That was it. There were just 5 VHF channels, no cable, no satellite, no internet.

The stations did not always come in clearly. This meant I had to get up and adjust the television antenna. After I got the picture to come in as good as possible, I would start to walk away from the TV, only to reverse course and adjust the “rabbit ears” some more.

Martin, Tennessee 1960’s. The pole on the upper left is the antenna.

When my grandparents moved to Martin, Tennessee, they had to have a tall antenna to bring in stations from Paduch, Kentucky, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri. As long as CBS was clear, they were satisfied. My grandmother watched one soap opera in the afternoon and my grandfather watched Walter Cronkite in the evening. There was not much else to see in the “vast wasteland” of television as far as they were concerned.  Of course, in 1961 in the south, and for many years after, you could see The Porter Wagoner Show. I recall pretending to watch that a number of times, but I digress.

Newton Minow was a young lawyer and chair of the local NET station in Chicago when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Federal Communications Commission.  They felt strongly that television needed to be better, especially in the Cold War era. They also felt children’s programming needed to improve as well.

It was sixty years ago this month that Minow surprised the FCC with his honest assessments of the television industry. The “vast wasteland” speech generated a lot of publicity and some would say it changed television.  Well, it startled some executives, anyway.

Minow pushed the All-Stations Receivers Act in 1961 requiring all televisions sold in the US to receive UHF as well as VHF channels. This led to more stations. He also helped start non-profit educational television, which we know today as PBS. Minow thought his most important accomplishment was legislation that would pave the way for telecommunication satellites.  He told President Kennedy, “communications satellites will be much more important than sending man into space because they will send ideas into space.”

While Minow was exerting great influence over television, not everyone was fond of him as chairman. Years later it was noted that the creator of Gilligan’s Island named the shipwrecked boat the SS Minnow as a jab at Minow’s tenure.

So what does the telecommunications lawyer think of television today? He believes that because television is vaster it is less of a wasteland.  Nonetheless, there are problems today. “We’ve enlarged choice, and at the same time I think we have a serious problem in our news reporting where facts and opinion are mixed up together, where we no longer have agreement on what is a fact.” There is no such thing as “alternative” facts.

Minow believes the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated, requiring broadcasters to present both sides of an issue. “If you don’t agree on facts I don’t see how you can have a civilized discussion,” Minow said. Recent history will bear out the veracity of that statement.

Source: “The Scathing Speech That Made Television History,” by Lily Rothman, time.com, May 9, 2016.
Still a ‘Vast Wasteland’? Newton Minow Reflects on the State of Television,” by Marissa Nelson, news.wttw.com, May 10, 2021.

Categories: Communications, Government, Rich Paschall, Television

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18 replies

  1. TV is still a vast wasteland. Just vaster.
    Most channels, including cable, should still sign off every evening for a few hours.
    Most news channels re-hash the same stories all day any way. Why not give it a rest for a while?
    And reality TV is as scripted as a soap opera.
    Who the hell watches that crap anyway?
    There is some great TV out there, but 75% is a waste of electricity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting piece, thanks for posting. I also totally agree with Marilyn’s assessment of Rupert Murdoch. I believe he’s a US citizen now. Nevertheless I am sorry we inflicted him on the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do not watch any TV, Marilyn. I do see it as a complete waste of time. I’m even suspicious of the news channels and I take what they say, with their bias opinions, under careful consideration and filtration. There are some good movies out there, especially the older ones. I loved West World as a girl and there are a few others like Lord of the Rings [but NOT The Hobbit which was a shameful attempt at profiteering], on the whole though I watch very few movies. I do read a huge amount of books, you just can’t beat a book in my humble opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been involved with news, newswriting, reporting, and being married to a reporter for a long time. Never did Garry go out to persuade anyone of anything. He and his colleagues did their absolute best to tell the truth to the best of their abilities. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian magnate from Hell, created Fox Not News and ruined it, though to be fair, the networks’ determination to make news profitable left them open to exploitation. But if you watch news, you CAN check various sources and you CAN find out the truth.

      Essentially, if the theory sounds absurd it IS absurd. Also not true. There are lot of supposed “alternative” truths based on something that you wouldn’t believe in a science fiction novel, so why on earth would anyone believe it?

      The world isn’t flat. Good is good. Evil is evil. We all have a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. More people need to use their own commonsense rather than waiting for it to be dished up by another source. Other than Fox, which is a world of its own, reporters get up and work hard all day and often long hours under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to find truth. We do not have accept insanity when our own commonsense tells us otherwise.

      Garry spent more than 40 years digging through nonsense to find truth and in my own way, so have I. I really hope we didn’t do it for nothing.

      Books are wonderful. I read constantly whenever I’m not writing or taking pictures, but books are art. They are a joyous escape, but truth is not art. That somehow we have been brought to a place where people aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t makes me wonder how hard they are LOOKING for truth.

      I have a hat and a matching shirt, both of which say: “Make Americans Intelligent Again.” I didn’t write it. I wish I had. We may not agree with each other about what to do with the facts, but facts really EXIST.

      The world IS round and it’s not a matter of opinion.

      Liked by 2 people

      • HI Marilyn, you have stated your thoughts very well here and I agree with you. You can find truth but you do have to look for it. You can’t just believe everything you read regardless of the source.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not only that, but you really SHOULDN’T believe one source. Even honorable sources make mistakes. Reporters do their best, but they are human and errors are inevitable. Garry always wanted at least three separate unrelated sources before he would put it on the air. Sometimes Channel 7 was less picky, but he was very careful. And anyway, if he made a mistake — even if they pushed him into publishing before he was ready — they’d STILL have blamed him. The guy with his face in the camera always takes the hit. Channel 7 was not a nice place to work for anyone, so you knew that no matter what the cause, the reporter and maybe the cameraman (though less likely — they had a better union) would take the hit. It has probably gotten worse since Garry left.

          Liked by 2 people

          • That must have been stressful for Garry, Marilyn. There certainly don’t seem to be any implications for false and erroneous news reports here in South Africa. The articles are often flawed and retractions are printed on the back pages as opposed to the incorrect story which usually graced the front page.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember when he made that speech. I was 15 and a senior in high school. It was a big deal. How strange to realize that so much has changed and he is still involved!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised to see him on the local PBS station a few months back asking people to support Public Televison. I had no idea he was from Chicago. His best accomplishment, I think, was getting the funds to put Sesame Street on the air. He would name other things.


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