Is television still a vast wasteland?

Posted on May 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Forty-nine years ago today my father, Newton Minow, in his first speech as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that has been widely quoted and anthologized as one of the most memorable and influential speeches of the 20th century. It has even been featured on game shows like “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and board games like “Trivial Pursuit” and on the SAT. And it led to his being “honored” by the creators of “Gilligan’s Island” — they named the sinking ship after him: the S.S. Minnow. minnow.jpg
This is the part of the speech most often quoted:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air 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. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
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. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better?

The speech is well worth reading or listening to again. Dad says that the two words everyone remembers are “vast wasteland,” but the two words he wishes everyone would remember are “public interest.”
Here is a 2003 interview with Dad about the speech. He is often asked whether he thinks television is still a vast wasteland. He says that parts of it have become a toxic waste dump. But he still loves television and never missed an episode of “The Sopranos.” His favorite show is CBS Sunday Morning.
Dad’s most recent book was published in 2008: Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future. He has been involved in planning every Presidential debate between party nominees and independent candidates in American history, starting with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 and currently serves as vice-chairman of the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates, which most recently assisted the UK in holding its first-ever televised debates between the party leaders.
I’m very, very proud of him. And he’s the world’s best dad, too!

Here is the full text of the speech:
Governor Collins, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Governor Collins you’re much too kind, as all of you have been to me the last few days. It’s been a great pleasure and an honor for me to meet so many of you. And I want to thank you for this opportunity to meet with you today.
As you know, this is my first public address since I took over my new job. When the New Frontiersmen rode into town, I locked myself in my office to do my homework and get my feet wet. But apparently I haven’t managed yet to stay out of hot water. I seem to have detected a very nervous apprehension about what I might say or do when I emerged from that locked office for this, my maiden station break.
So first let me begin by dispelling a rumor. I was not picked for this job because I regard myself as the fastest draw on the New Frontier. Second, let me start a rumor. Like you, I have carefully read President Kennedy’s messages about the regulatory agencies, conflict of interest, and the dangers of ex parte contacts. And, of course, we at the Federal Communications Commission will do our part. Indeed, I may even suggest that we change the name of the FCC to The Seven Untouchables.
It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and my respect. Yours is a most honorable profession. Anyone who is in the broadcasting business has a tough row to hoe. You earn your bread by using public property. When you work in broadcasting you volunteer for public service, public pressure, and public regulation. You must compete with other attractions and other investments, and the only way you can do it is to prove to us every three years that you should have been in business in the first place.
I can think of easier ways to make a living.
But I cannot think of more satisfying ways.
I admire your courage — but that doesn’t mean that I would make life any easier for you. Your license lets you use the public’s airwaves as trustees for 180 million Americans. The public is your beneficiary. If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public — not only to your stockholders. So, as a representative of the public, your health and your product are among my chief concerns.
Now as to your health, let’s talk only of television today. 1960 gross broadcast revenues of the television industry were over 1,268,000,000 dollars. Profit before taxes was 243,900,000 dollars, an average return on revenue of 19.2 per cent. Compare these with 1959, when gross broadcast revenues were 1,163,900,000 dollars, and profit before taxes was 222,300,000, an average return on revenue of 19.1 per cent. So the percentage increase of total revenues from ’59 to ’60 was 9 per cent, and the percentage increase of profit was 9.7 per cent. This, despite a recession throughout the country. For your investors, the price has indeed been right.
So I have confidence in your health, but not in your product. It is with this and much more in mind that I come before you today.
One editorialist in the trade press wrote that “the FCC of the New Frontier is going to be one of the toughest FCC’s in the history of broadcast regulation.” If he meant that we intend to enforce the law in the public interest, let me make it perfectly clear that he is right: We do. If he meant that we intend to muzzle or censor broadcasting, he is dead wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you had expected me to come here today and say to you in effect, “Clean up your own house or the government will do it for you.” Well, in a limited sense, you would be right because I’ve just said it.
But I want to say to you as earnestly as I can that it is not in that spirit that I come before you today, nor is it in that spirit that I intend to serve the FCC. I am in Washington to help broadcasting, not to harm it; to strengthen it, not weaken it; to reward it, not to punish it; to encourage it, not threaten it; and to stimulate it, not censor it. Above all, I am here to uphold and protect the public interest.
Now what do we mean by “the public interest?” Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. And so does your distinguished president, Governor Collins. In a recent speech — and of course as I also told you yesterday — In a recent speech he said,
Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product. …By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest. …But a much better job can be done, and should be done.
I could not agree more with Governor Collins. And I would add that in today’s world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep, relentless pressures on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with the technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world — in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.
Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.
Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the television age. And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.
If I seem today to address myself chiefly to the problems of television, I don’t want any of you radio broadcasters to think that we’ve gone to sleep at your switch. We haven’t. We still listen. But in recent years most of the controversies and cross-currents in broadcast programming have swirled around television. And so my subject today is the television industry and the public interest.
Like everybody, I wear more than one hat. I am the chairman of the FCC. But I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One.”
I’m talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as “The Fabulous Fifties,” “The Fred Astaire Show,” and “The Bing Crosby Special”; some were dramatic and moving, such as Conrad’s “Victory” and “Twilight Zone”; some were marvelously informative, such as “The Nation’s Future,” “CBS Reports,” “The Valiant Years.” I could list many more — programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air 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. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
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. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better? Well a glance at next season’s proposed programming can give us little heart. Of 73 and 1/2 hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours of categories of action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz, and movies. Is there one network president in this room who claims he can’t do better? Well, is there at least one network president who believes that the other networks can do better? Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your beneficiaries is long overdue. Never have so few owed so much to so many.
Why is so much of television so bad? I’ve heard many answers: demands of your advertisers; competition for ever higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material. These are some of the reasons. Unquestionably, these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers. But I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them.
I do not accept the idea that the present over-all programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don’t tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half-a-dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately, it does not reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better — if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed. I believe in the people’s good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people’s taste is as low as some of you assume.
My concern with the rating services is not with their accuracy. Perhaps they are accurate. I really don’t know. What, then, is wrong with the ratings? It’s not been their accuracy — it’s been their use.
Certainly, I hope you will agree that ratings should have little influence where children are concerned. The best estimates indicate that during the hours of 5 to 6 P.M. sixty per cent of your audience is composed of children under twelve. And most young children today, believe it or not, spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. I repeat — let that sink in, ladies and gentlemen — most young children today spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school, and church. Today, there is a fourth great influence, and you ladies and gentlemen in this room control it.
If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school. What about your responsibilities? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children? Is there no room for programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children’s news show explaining something to them about the world at their level of understanding? Is there no room for reading the great literature of the past, for teaching them the great traditions of freedom? There are some fine children’s shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence. Must these be your trademarks? Search your consciences and see if you cannot offer more to your young beneficiaries whose future you guide so many hours each and every day.
Now what about adult programming and ratings? You know, newspaper publishers take popularity ratings too. And the answers are pretty clear: It is almost always the comics, followed by advice to the lovelorn columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on the front page of all newspapers; the editorials are not replaced by more comics; and the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn. Yet newspapers do not even need a license from the government to be in business; they do not use public property. But in television, where your responsibilities as public trustees are so plain, the moment that the ratings indicate that westerns are popular there are new imitations of westerns on the air faster than the old coaxial cable could take us from Hollywood to New York. Broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers. Ratings ought to be the slave of the broadcaster, not his master. And you and I both know — You and I both know that the rating services themselves would agree.
Let me make clear that what I am talking about is balance. I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests. There are many people in this great country and you must serve all of us. You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a western and a symphony, more people will watch the western. I like westerns too, but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation.
And as Governor Collins said to you yesterday when he encouraged you to editorialize — as you know the FCC has now encouraged editorializing for years. We want you to do this; we want you to editorialize, take positions. We only ask that you do it in a fair and a responsible manner. Those stations that have editorialized have demonstrated to you that the FCC will always encourage a fair and responsible clash of opinion.
You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims; you must also serve the nation’s needs. And I would add this: that if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience. Because, to paraphrase a great American who was recently my law partner, the people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcasters — and politicians — think.
As you may have gathered, I would like to see television improved. But how is this to be brought about? By voluntary action by the broadcasters themselves? By direct government intervention? Or how?
Let me address myself now to my role not as a viewer but as chairman of the FCC. I could not if I would, chart for you this afternoon in detail all of the actions I contemplate. Instead, I want to make clear some of the fundamental principles which guide me.
First: the people own the air. And they own it as much in prime evening time as they do at six o’clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you — you owe them something. And I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.
Second: I think it would be foolish and wasteful for us to continue any worn-out wrangle over the problems of payola, rigged quiz shows, and other mistakes of the past. There are laws on the books which we will enforce. But there is no chip on my shoulder. We live together in perilous, uncertain times; we face together staggering problems; and we must not waste much time now by rehashing the clichés of past controversy. To quarrel over the past is to lose the future.
Third: I believe in the free enterprise system. I want to — I want to see broadcasting improved, and I want you to do the job. I am proud to champion your cause. It is not rare for American businessmen to serve a public trust. Yours is a special trust because it is imposed by law.
Fourth: I will do all I can to help educational television. There are still not enough educational stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels. If there were a limited number of printing presses in this country, you may be sure that a fair proportion of them would be put to educational use. Educational television has an enormous contribution to make to the future, and I intend to give it a hand along the way. If there is not a nation-wide educational television system in this country, it will not be the fault of the FCC.
Fifth: I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes. Censorship strikes at the tap root of our free society.
Sixth: I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public’s airwaves. The squandering of our airwaves is no less important than the lavish waste of any precious natural resource. I intend to take the job of chairman of the FCC very seriously. I happen to believe in the gravity of my own particular sector of the New Frontier. There will be times perhaps when you will consider that I take myself or my job too seriously. Frankly, I don’t care if you do. For I am convinced that either one takes this job seriously — or one can be seriously taken.
Now how will these principles be applied? Clearly at the heart of the FCC’s authority lies its power to license, to renew or fail to renew, or to revoke a license. As you know, when your license comes up for renewal, your performance is compared with your promises. I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.
But simply matching promises and performance is not enough. I intend to do more. I intend to find out whether the people care. I intend to find out whether the community which each broadcaster serves believes he has been serving the public interest. When a renewal is set down for a hearing, I intend, whenever possible, to hold a well-advertised public hearing, right in the community you have promised to serve. I want the people who own the air and the homes that television enters to tell you and the FCC what’s been going on. I want the people — if they’re truly interested in the service you give them — to make notes, document cases, tell us the facts. And for those few of you who really believe that the public interest is merely what interests the public, I hope that these hearings will arouse no little interest.
The FCC has a fine reserve of monitors — almost 180 million Americans gathered around 56 million sets. If you want those monitors to be your friends at court, it’s up to you.
Now some of you may say, “Yes, but I still do not know where the line is between a grant of a renewal and the hearing you just spoke of.” My answer is: Why should you want to know how close you can come to the edge of the cliff? What the Commission asks of you is to make a conscientious, good-faith effort to serve the public interest. Everyone of you serves a community in which the people would benefit by educational, and religious, instructive and other public service programming. Every one of you serves an area which has local needs — as to local elections, controversial issues, local news, local talent. Make a serious, genuine effort to put on that programming. And when you do, you will not be playing brinkmanship with the public interest.
Now what I’ve been saying applies to the broadcast stations. Now a station break for the networks — and will last even longer than 40 seconds: You networks know your importance in this great industry. Today, more than one half of all hours of television station programming comes from the networks; in prime time, this rises to more than three fourths of the available hours.
You know that the FCC has been studying network operations for some time. I intend to press this to a speedy conclusion with useful results. I can tell you right now, however, that I am deeply concerned with concentration of power in the hands of the networks. As a result, too many local stations have foregone any efforts at local programming, with little use of live talent and local service. Too many local stations operate with one hand on the network switch and the other on a projector loaded with old movies. We want the individual stations to be free to meet their legal responsibilities to serve their communities.
I join Governor Collins in his views so well expressed to the advertisers who use the public air. And I urge the networks to join him and undertake a very special mission on behalf of this industry. You can tell your advertisers, “This is the high quality we are going to serve — take it or other people will. If you think you can find a better place to move automobiles, cigarettes, and soap, then go ahead and try.” Tell your sponsors to be less concerned with costs per thousand and more concerned with understanding per millions. And remind your stockholders that an investment in broadcasting is buying a share in public responsibility. The networks can start this industry on the road to freedom from the dictatorship of numbers.
But there is more to the problem than network influences on stations or advertiser influences on networks. I know the problems networks face in trying to clear some of their best programs — the informational programs that exemplify public service. They are your finest hours, whether sustaining or commercial, whether regularly scheduled or special. These are the signs that broadcasting knows the way to leadership. They make the public’s trust in you a wise choice.
They should be seen. As you know, we are readying for use new forms by which broadcast stations will report their programming to the Commission. You probably also know that special attention will be paid in these forms to reports of public service programming. I believe that stations taking network service should also be required to report the extent of the local clearance of network public service programs, and when they fail to clear them, they should explain why. If it is to put on some outstanding local program, this is one reason. But if it is simply to run an old movie, that’s an entirely different matter. And the Commission should consider such clearance reports carefully when making up its mind about the licensee’s over-all programming.
We intend to move — and as you know, and as I want to say publicly, the FCC was rapidly moving in other new areas before the new Administration arrived in Washington. And I want to pay my public respects to my very able predecessor, Fred Ford, and to my colleagues on the Commission, each of whom has welcomed me to the FCC with warmth and cooperation.
We have approved an experiment with pay TV, and in New York we are testing the potential of UHF broadcasting. Either or both of these may revolutionize television. Only a foolish prophet would venture to guess the direction they will take, and their effect. But we intend that they shall be explored fully, for they are part of broadcasting’s New Frontier. The questions surrounding pay TV are largely economic. The questions surrounding UHF are largely technological. We are going to give the infant — the infant pay TV a chance to prove whether it can offer a useful service; we are going to protect it from those who would strangle it in its crib.
As for UHF, I’m sure you know about our test in the canyons of New York City. We will take every possible positive step to break through the allocations barrier into UHF. We will put this sleeping giant to use and in the years ahead we may have twice as many channels operating in cities where now there are only two or three. We may have a half dozen networks instead of three.
I have told you that I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe that most of television’s problems stem from lack of competition. This is the importance of UHF to me: with more channels on the air, we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to offer service to all parts of the public. Programs with a mass market appeal required by mass product advertisers certainly will still be available. But other stations will recognize the need to appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes. In this way, we can all have a much wider range of programs. Television should thrive on this competition, and the country should benefit from alternative sources of service to the public. And, Governor Collins, I hope the NAB will benefit from many new members.
Another and perhaps the most important frontier: Television will rapidly join the parade into space. International television will be with us soon. No one knows how long it will be until a broadcast from a studio in New York will be viewed in India as well as in Indiana, will be seen in the Congo as it is seen in Chicago. But as surely as we are meeting here today, that day will come; and once again our world will shrink.
What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our western bad men and good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting? What will the Latin American or African child learn of America from this great communications industry? We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas.
There is your challenge to leadership. You must reexamine some fundamentals of your industry. You must open your minds and open your hearts to the limitless horizons of tomorrow. I can suggest some words that should serve to guide you:
Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television.
Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has towards his society.
Now those are not my words. They are yours. They are taken literally, verbatim, from your own Television Code. They reflect the leadership and aspirations of your own great industry. I urge you to respect them as I do. And I urge you to respect the intelligent and farsighted leadership of Governor LeRoy Collins, and to make this meeting a creative act. I urge you at this meeting and, after you leave, back home, at your stations and your networks, to strive ceaselessly to improve your product and to better serve your viewers, the American people.
I hope that we at the FCC will not allow ourselves to become so bogged down in the mountain of papers, hearings, memoranda, orders, and the daily routine that we close our eyes to this wider view of the public interest. And I hope that you broadcasters will not permit yourselves to become so absorbed in the daily chase for ratings, sales, and profits that you lose this wider view. Now more than ever before in broadcasting’s history the times demand the best of all of us.
We need imagination in programming, not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity. Television is filled with creative, imaginative people. You must strive to set them free.
Television in its young life has had many hours of greatness — its “Victory at Sea,” its Army-McCarthy hearings, its “Peter Pan,” its “Kraft Theaters,” its “See It Now,” its “Project 20,” the World Series, its political conventions and campaigns, and the Great Debates. And it’s had its endless hours of mediocrity and its moments of public disgrace. There are estimates today that the average viewer spends about 200 minutes daily with television, while the average reader spends 38 minutes with magazines, 40 minutes with newspapers. Television has grown faster than a teenager, and now it is time to grow up.
What you gentlemen broadcast through the people’s air affects the people’s taste, their knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world — and their future.
Just think for a moment of the impact of broadcasting in the past few days. Yesterday was one of the great days of my life. Last week the President asked me to ride over with him when he came to speak here at the NAB. And when I went to the White House he said, “Do you think it would be a good idea to take Commander Shepard?” And, of course, I said it would be magnificent. And I was privileged to ride here yesterday in a car with the President and the Vice President, Commander and Mrs. Shepard. This was an unexpected, unscheduled stop. And Commander Shepard said to me, “Where are we going?” “What is this group?” And I said, “This is the National Association of Broadcasters at its annual convention.”
This is the group, this is the industry that made it possible for millions of Americans to share with you that great moment in history; that his gallant flight was witnessed by millions of anxious Americans who saw in it an intimacy which they could achieve through no other medium, in no other way. It was one of your finest hours. The depth of broadcasting’s contribution to public understanding of that event cannot be measured. And it thrilled me — as a representative of the government that deals with this industry — to say to Commander Shepard the group that he was about to see.
I say to you ladies and gentlemen — I remind you what the President said in his stirring inaugural. He said: Ask not what America can do for you; ask what you can do for America.”¹ I say to you ladies and gentlemen: Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting. And ask what broadcasting can do for America.
I urge you, I urge you to put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom. You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You must help a great nation fulfill its future.
Do this! I pledge you our help.
Thank you.

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11 Replies to “Is television still a vast wasteland?”

  1. Great post! There is a lot of useful information in what you have
    to say. Cindi

  2. Great post! Do you think your Dad’s speech, particularly the reference to ‘public interest,’ planted the seed for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967? Not that I’m familiar with the Act but your post led me to think about this topic for a while, and tool around the internet a bit in search of whether public TV (PBS, WNET) was founded before or after his speech… I guess PBS, NPR, Corporation for Public Broadcasting formed around 1969 after the Act , although I believe individual educational stations formed since the 1930’s but came under CPB umbrella in 1969; I remember watching Educational TV as a child in school,although admittedly what I generally watched at home in the afternoon after school (e.g. Barnabas Collins et al on Dark Shadows, or watching talk shows like Merv Griffin with my Mom) and what I watched in the evening during prime time as a kid was not exactly of the educational variety (with the occasional exception of guitar lessons on pubic TV).
    In later years, as a parent, I found public TV (and some of the kids shows on Nick Jr.) very valuable for young tots. Nowadays as a parent I’m concerned about the proliferation of channels geared toward children (other than Public TV) which I enjoy too, but it gives kids a lot more options to avoid watching the news, whereas growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I believe reading the paper and watching the news on TV was more common for older children and teenagers.
    I realize your Dad’s speech was directed at commercial broadcasters and the public interest responsibility expected of them by virtue of their holding a license issued by the FCC. Maybe there’s some parallels to those who say auditors have a public interest responsibility by virtue of the government mandate that public companies receive an audit, and I guess there’s two sides to those debates. Thanks for an interesting post!
    PS I’m equally interested in your corporate governance writing as well as your writing as Movie Mom, which is a must-read before taking kids to the movies.
    PPS I never knew that the SS Minnow was named for your Dad, I wrote a paper about Gilligan’s Island for a cultural anthropology class in college where the prof asked us to pick a TV show and explain what it says about society, etc.

  3. Sorry I guess I forgot to fill in my name in the “Your Name” box for my comment above May 9 at 12:22pm; I timed out and had to repost and forgot to fill in my name, didn’t mean to be anonymous.

  4. Nell,
    I did a paper on your dad’s speech many years ago as an undergrad (my BA is in Broadcasting – a field I have never pursued professionally) – answering the same question you posed as the title to this pieces. This speech was – and remains – both a great statement of what is and a word of hope for what can be. It is still one of the fundamental pieces that anyone aspiring to a career in Broadcasting ought to know well.
    Sadly, one realm that has most lost sight of your father’s persepctive is the various news divisions. They used to think they were exempt, but I believe they are as guilty as anyone in the entertainment segments of the field. I do have hope that not eerything will be scraped of the bottom of the dredge that scrapes our cultural leeching field. So know that many hear his words still – read them as a word of hope – and expect the professionals in this field to realize there are many people watching who do have greater expectations that they are realizing.

  5. My family will be celebrating my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary this weekend, jestrfyl, and I’ll tell Dad about your paper. Thank you so much.

  6. I am sorry, but this is the inescapable truth. People claim they need the programming that they have now in order to unwind from work and such garbage statements as that. All they want is a blog spot with a picture of themselves for self-glorification of themselves and their most golden opinion. Two words for the people who beleive they are stressed out. Science works. Through all of time mankind sought the scientists. The revelers. The magicians. Only to have their ancestors today turn all belief into a fairy tale, deny their own existence, traded in for a thumbnail on the internet. I tell you there are more oppressed peoples in the world, now that they believe they have a voice. No, Television is being made into a mockery of human frailty and a sponge for human tragedy. Twisted as it may be, we have grown used to watching these things on the television, and it will not change in the near future. Oh, how sad. Television can be so much more of a stepping stone if people weren’t worried about what others thought of them as individuals when they sat down at conference tables to make decisions on what the public will and will not enjoy. Television is now a true perversion of science, more so than Stem cell research will ever be. The tragedy. Television should be a place of understanding, starting with other cultures and moving on into the history of language, math, and science, bringing you all the way to modern times with how computers work and what they are (really) capable of performing. Yes, yes. Television the tragedy. The sacrilege. The vast wasteland of untethered minds, wasted bandwidth and most importantly, wasted time out of yours and my life for having to put up with being ignorant in a world full of such beautiful scenery. If you could afford to have the best, why would you order up the worst? Violence, gangs, meaningless sex, drug use, trafficking, rape? Why not, the most asked question in the universe? Where am I going to use linear algebra in my everyday adult life? How about a digital symposium of all things good and natural. The answers that no one single teacher in the 8th grade can give us. The place where databases become a part of your experience and your mind becomes a digital storage box for those experiences? We teach, how to hate, maim, rob, rape, murder, make war. And we fail at public school. You should all be so very ashamed for even mentioning a political party of any type to any children you bear and raise. Your lives are wrong and you know it. And you dip your head into the trough again. This isn’t an existence. This is a nightmare. You may be thinking I’m a liberal who wants to change the face of the planet. No. I have no affiliation with this world. I was, and can be no longer. You may think I am an irate republican starting a rant about God and Country. No. I am 28. I barely know what partisan means. Yet I can distinguish between people who care about money and people who care about the future. The corporations, the governments will never die. They could force feed us all education, and understanding. Instead they are determined to turn a profit from ignorance. No wonder you see what you see on the news from our youth. What have we shown them? Do you not feel as a part of the problem? One of you has connections in Broadcasting. Why can’t our children do simple algebra or understand Shakespeare in college levels of education? You will just blame them so don’t reply to that question. No, we have sold them the fact that ignorance is bliss. I charge myself guilty of this crime even at my age, but don’t know what I can do to stop it. If a soul still breathes here in the vast wasteland please respond with understanding. I can find my own way, if I can just get a glimpse of what someone else knows and understands. Thank you all. -The Vast Wasteland-

  7. Thank you, I Do I Do, for sharing these thoughts. Your pain and integrity and frustration and sense of longing are evident and I am honored that you were willing to be so honest about your feelings. While your concerns go much further than television, that is where this discussion began and it serves as a good example and metaphor for the larger issues you raise, so that is where I will begin.
    My dad, who called television a vast wasteland so many years ago, now says it is a toxic waste dump and surely, what was once at its worst uninspired and uninspiring has become exploitive and appalling. But there is also much on television — and online, and in books, and in music, and in the opportunities and initiatives out in the world — that is better, smarter, kinder, more illuminating, and more encouraging than at any time in history. One broadcast of a Shakespeare play some years ago, considered such a ratings flop that it was not repeated, was seen by more people in that one night than by all the people who had seen it since it was first performed. Audiences can find characters who are like them and whose stories relate to their own lives. Television brings us images from around the world that inspire people to get involved in humanitarian aid because it connects us to each other. As Dickens said about the era of the French revolution, it is the best of times and the worst of times. The two seem to go together.
    My dad likes this quote from Edward R. Murrow about television: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
    I think you will be a part of this work. Don’t charge yourself as guilty — your comment shows that you have a level of curiosity and passion that will take you to a place of intellectual adventure, mastery, and meaning. I hope you will let us know about your journey.

  8. Hi, Nell. Your dad sounds like a wonderful man, and you and your family are truly blessed to have him in your lives.
    Since I am part of the generation that grew up on television, I must confess to being a TV addict. At the same time, my love of movies came from watching old movies that used to run on network television. Game shows and sitcoms were generally pretty bad, but reality television is just as bad, or even worse. Given a choice, I would rather watch Monty Hall and “Let’s Make a Deal” than “The Apprentice.”
    I don’t get cable, but watch it when I visit my mother, and they show the same limited repetoire of movies all the time, usually movies made within the past 10-15 years. (On the other hand, I love “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert.) Since I have Netflix, I can rent a lot of the great HBO series. And then, there are occasional brilliant shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Lost.” I am actually delighted that “Lost,” which I consider the best show on television, is ending soon, as I am tired of not being able to sleep on Tuesday nights! Cheers!

  9. I read your article about tv being a vast wasteland, To a very large extent I agree, Tv is one of those things, when its bad, its bad, sometimes very bad, When its good, It can be very good.
    Tv and media is changing. advertisers are trying to find what will work to sell product, and not drive consumers to other venues, both on tv, and on line.
    I have Dish Network, out where I live, I can’t get any decent signal over the air, so its satellite for me. I’ve had them for over 10 years.
    I have over 250 stations, in theory, I say in theory because that includes a lot of stuff I don’t care about, Sports, news, shopping, and several Spanish stations.
    All that said, I love my Dish. what I love is the dual tuner dvr, which lets me record two shows at once to the hard drive, and a feature not usually mentioned, auto-tune. which let one tell it to automatically tune to a show no mater where its at. If the show isn’t on, then it don’t change the channel. Of course it can be manually over ridden if One want to at the last minute.
    The other feature I love is the music stations, they have 20-30 music stations the play a very wide variety of types of music. As they play the music the screen shows the title, artist etc. The best part is there are no commercials, or announcers to spoil the music. I’m listing to it now as I type, I just heard Frank Sinatra as I typed this.
    The point is Yes there is a lot of junk on tv, however, In the mist of a lot of junk I do find some gems that are worth keeping, One of my favorite gems is TCM, which plays classic movies, with no commercials.
    I’m pretty selective about what I seriously watch, and what I play just to play, isn’t so important,
    The future of tv is a mixture of both traditional tv, and material on the net, and merging them to all flow into one box which sends it regardless what the source to the tv.
    I have been writing about tv and media in general for the last couple of years on my blog, The Lawson Report.
    While the last couple of articles are about the IPad, if you go into the archives you will find a variety of topics covered.
    Ken Lawson

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