“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.” – Newton Minow on the State of Television, 1961

The Life and Legacy of Newton Minow, 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 who was 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. There was Educational Television on Channel 11, a member station of National Education Television (NET). Channel 11 (WTTW) had very limited broadcast hours. That was it. There were just 5 VHF channels, no UHF, no cable, no satellite, and 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 Paducah, 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 improve, especially in the Cold War era. They also felt children’s programming needed to be better.

It was sixty-two 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 and 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 exerted 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 did the telecommunications lawyer think of television in this era? He believed 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 believed 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.

Minow’s accomplishments could fill many lifetimes. He served in the army in WWII in a company that ran the first phone line from India to China. In the 1950s he served as a clerk for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Fred M. Vinson. He was active in the presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Minow to the post of Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. There he advocated for the public good. In 1969 Minow helped secure the funding to put Sesame Street on the air.

Newton N. Minow, Northwestern alumnus (Photo credit: Northwestern Now)

He wrote books, practiced law, served on boards, advised Presidents, served on commissions and was a tireless advocate for Public Television. One of his law associates went on to be President of the United States. That President, Barack Obama, awarded Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Newton Minow, one of Chicago’s favorite citizens, died at his home last week. He was 97.

“For people who tell me — academic intellectuals very often — ‘I don’t have a television set in my house,’ I tell them, ‘You’re not alive.’ ” – Newton Minow

Source: “The Scathing Speech That Made Television History,” by Lily Rothman,, May 9, 2016.
Still a ‘Vast Wasteland’? Newton Minow Reflects on the State of Television,” by Marissa Nelson,, May 10, 2021.
Newton Minow, FCC chairman who assailed ‘vast wasteland’ of TV, dies at 97,” by Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post, May 6, 2023.

Categories: Communications, Government, In Memorium, Law, Media, Rich Paschall, Television

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I didn’t realize he had recently died. If more of his changes had been maintained, the world would be better. I’m not sure I would have agreed as much back “then” as I do now, but we have lived to see how ugly the world can be when there IS no fairness.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Minow’s passing was big news here, of course. It was not unusual to see him on local channel 11 advocating for Public television. He was in charge of the NET station when Kennedy appointed him chairman of the FCC. He was a long time board member of channel 11 WTTW (Window to the World). It is no surprise the Fairness Doctrine was repealed by Republicans.
      Getting the funding for Sesame Street meant good TV for generations of kids. I loved Sesame Street and I was not a little kid when it started.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Echoing Marilyn, I didn’t realize Minow just recently passed.

        Today’s TV suits and “talent” would do well to read and absorb Minnow’s work.


  2. Newton Minow’s push for improvements in television has had a lasting impact even until today. His legacy is seen in the legislation that led to better reception of channels, his role in the creation of educational TV which is now PBS, and his advocacy for presenting both sides of an issue through the Fairness Doctrine.

    Liked by 2 people

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