59 Years Ago Today: My Father Told TV Executives They Had Produced a Vast Wasteland

Posted on May 9, 2020 at 8:00 am

On May 9, 1961, my father, Newton Minow, delivered a speech that continues to inspire the conversation about media and was recently an answer on Jeopardy!

He was President Kennedy’s new Chairman of the FCC, just 35 years old, and in his first major address he told the National Association of Broadcasters that while there was much to admire on television, too much of it was a “vast wasteland.” His contributions to broadcasting include the launching of the first telecommunications satellite, the creation of PBS, the original funding for Sesame Street (noted in the current issue of the New Yorker) and helping to start the Presidential debates. He continues to serve as Vice Chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which he helped to form.

He told the audience about the day before the speech, when President Kennedy brought Commander Alan Shepherd, who had just become the first American in space, and his wife, to the National Association of Broadcasters event Dad would be speaking to the following day.  President Kennedy invited Dad to come upstairs while he changed his shirt, to give him some ideas about what to tell the broadcasters.  Dad suggested that he talk about the difference between the way Americans and the Soviet Union conducted their space program.  In the US, we had all the television cameras there to show the American people, good or bad, what was happening.  The authors of the forthcoming book and documentary Chasing the Moon tweeted about it today:

At the time Dad called on the broadcasters to do better, there were just three national television networks. There was no PBS, just a National Educational Television which was not even available in most of the country, including Washington DC itself. My father told the broadcasters that as long as the airwaves were a scarce resource, they would have to do better to live up to their statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, especially with regard to coverage of news and programming for children. He worked over the next half-century to make more choices available, including cable and satellite as well as the creation of a robust public television station. He served as chairman of PBS and of the Chicago affiliate WTTW, served on the board of CBS, is vice-chair of the Presidential Debates Commission (he was the one who proposed its current structure), pushed for closed captioning to make television programming available to hearing-impaired viewers, and argued one of the only cases in history to have a broadcast license rescinded — a station that spewed hatred across the airwaves. And in protest of his critique of television, the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island” was named after him, the S.S. Minnow! He is so proud he has a lifesaver from the SS Minnow on his office wall, a gift from his law partners for his 90th birthday.

PBS has a great documentary about him which is free to watch online.  He is also the world’s best dad and we are all so proud of him.

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Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Tonight on PBS: The Definition of Insanity — Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

Posted on April 14, 2020 at 7:00 am

Tonight on PBS: A powerful documentary about the failures of the criminal justice system when it comes to mental illness, will millions of dollars wasted on the very definition of cruel and inhuman punishment. It is also the story of a pioneering judge who establishes a very successful pilot program, reducing arrests, recidivism, and costs.

A personal note: When I was a young lawyer I worked on a case that would have benefitted from exactly this kind of option. A mentally ill homeless man was cold and so he broke into an office building. Because it happened to be a federal office building and he opened a file drawer it led to a number of charges that he was not really responsible for, or responsible enough to understand. I wish we had had an option like the one this judge has created.

More information:

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Television

Pop Store Auction: Find the Perfect Gift for the “Friends” Fan

Posted on December 8, 2019 at 10:11 pm

“Friends” was a cultural phenomenon when it was on the air and continues to be one as new generations of fans find it through streaming. Now all kinds of treasures from the show are being auctioned off for charity.

Copyright Warner Brothers 1994, All rights reserved

Rachel’s employee evaluation of Tag, the invitation to Monica’s and Chandler’s wedding — and their handwritten vows, Rachel’s sonogram, scripts, costumes, Ross’s second grade report card, Joey’s Soapie award — and lots more!

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Cool Stuff Television

The Good Class: Television’s Best Show Takes Us to School, This Time Literally

Posted on November 22, 2019 at 8:04 am

“The Good Place” is my favorite show, and I love the way it grapples with the deepest questions of existence in a sophisticated and nuanced but remarkably accessible (and funny and endearing) way. What does it mean to be a good person? Why should we try to be good? What do we owe each other? I watch every week, then listen to the terrific podcast with Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Sean, the head demon), then watch the episode again to catch the details they discuss. The podcast features actors, behind-the-scenes people like writers, producers, special effects, set, and costume designers, and you might even hear a real expert on moral philosophy.

And so of course the has become a text, with “The Good Class” being taught at Notre Dame. I love the description of the answers they got to the application for admission and the comments from “Good Place” creator Mike Shur.

The Good Class, at least, provides one place where people convene every week to talk about what they just saw.

“ the idea of what it means to watch and debate television like this together. To use television as a vehicle. It’s hard to talk about ethical issues these days. It’s hard to have a common language that’s not hyper politicized or hyper reductive,” Sullivan says. “We need cultural questions like this to do some of the 2,400-year-old work on our souls.”

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Spiritual films Television

New on PBS: The Retro Report Illuminates Today’s Stories With Yesterday’s Headlines

Posted on October 23, 2019 at 11:01 am

Retro Report makes sense of the present by revealing the past. Join journalists Celeste Headlee and Masud Olufani as they connect the present to the past through four distinct and varied stories, and New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz adds his signature wit.

 

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Television
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