Newton Minow’s Vast Wasteland, Take 2

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.”

(Ad Age interview video here and here. Special bonus: Historian Tim Brooks expands on Minow’s expansion in a separate Ad Age piece praising the current cornucopia of choice.)

PRI’s Here & Now also got an update from Minow, and tacked on an Atlantic piece by Minow headlined A Vaster Wasteland.

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.

And now.

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6 Responses to Newton Minow’s Vast Wasteland, Take 2

  1. His daughter, Martha Minow, turned out to be wikkid smaht too, as the Harvard Law faculty and President Obama, no doubt would attest.

  2. Laurence Glavin says:

    I don’t get what he means by the comment that “few cities had three TV stations”; MOST cities that were central cities of significant metropolitan area had at least three. (By a quirk of fate…the failed attempt to start a TV station on channel 5 in Worcester stalled that channel assignment in Boston, which took place in 1957, several years before Minnow’s term). Aside from cities that Minnow mentioned, such as NYC, Chicago, and L.A., a quick perusal of yields info for TV stations in the early 1960s in such cities as Phoenix, AZ (3 VHF commercial); Tucson, AZ (3 VHF commercial); San Francisco/Oakland, CA (4 VHF commercial); Sacramento/Stockton, CA (3 VHF commercial); Denver, CO (4 VHF commercial); Washington, DC (4 VHF commercial); Miami, FL (3 VHF commercial); Atlanta, GA (3 VHF commercial); Indianapolis, IN (3 VHF commercial); Portland, ME/Mt. Washington, NH (3 VHF commercial); Baltimore, MD (3 VHF commercial); Boston, MA (3 VHF commercial); Detroit, MI (3 VHF commercial); Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (3 VHF commercial); St. Louis, MO # VHF commercial); Kansas City, Mo (3 VHF commercial); Omaha, NE (3 VHF commercial); Albuquerque, NM (3 VHF commercial); Cleveland, OH (3 VHF commercial); Cincinnatio, OH (3 VHF commercial); Tulsa, OK 3 VHF commercial…but NOT Oklahoma City); Philadelphia,PA (3 VHF commercial); Pittsburgh, PA (3 VHF commercial); and I’ll stop after Seattle/Tacoma, WA (5 VHF commercial). Sorry Newt…way off!

  3. 50 years later we still argue whether TV is a wasteland, but it sure is vast. The big question in the ad agency business is: What will be the role of TV as we develop new ways of delivering its content?

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