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.
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.