Fifty years ago today, Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that became a landmark in television-industry criticism.
From the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
Newton Minow was one of the most controversial figures ever to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Minow served only two years, but during that time he stimulated more public debate over television programming than any other chair in the history of the commission.
Appointed chair at the age of 34, Minow lost little time mapping out his agenda for television reform. In his first public speech at the national convention of broadcasting executives, Minow challenged industry leaders to “sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you–and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”
Minow’s address (transcript and audio here) was “[s]harply critical of excessive violence, frivolity, and commercialism” on television, criticism that would become a keystroke over the next five decades.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Ad Age magazine, which recently featured an interview with Minow revisiting his famous 1961 speech.
Today, 50 years and hundreds of cable and satellite channels later, the $64,000 question is: Is TV today just a vaster wasteland?
“It’s vaster, certainly,” Mr. Minow said. But it also gives viewers a “wider range of choice. That was the main thing I tried to do. At the time I was at the FCC there were two-and-a-half commercial television networks, there was no public television, no satellite. The choice was extremely narrow. Many cities had only one television station, some had two, a few had three, New York and Los Angeles had seven. But that was it. The most constructive thing the FCC could do was to expand choice. And in that we certainly succeeded.”
Finally, fun fact to know and tell, from Ad Age:
After his speech, Mr. Minow received calls from Jack Kennedy’s father and Edward R. Murrow. But none from the president himself.
Ambassador Kennedy said the speech was “the best speech since Jack’s inaugural address. And he said, ‘You keep it up, and if anybody gives you any trouble you call me.”
In his call later that night, Mr. Murrow announced that Mr. Minow had stolen his speech — that he’d given a similar speech the previous year to news directors in Chicago. “I went back and read his speech later, and I said to myself, if I had known about it I would have just repeated his speech because he was just saying the same thing I was.”
Murrow’s speech (it was actually two years previous, but why get technical about it) here.