May 9, 1961: Newton Minow and the Vast Wasteland Speech That Changed Television
Posted on May 9, 2018 at 9:12 am
On May 9, 1961, my father, Newton Minow, delivered a speech that continues to inspire the conversation about media. 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.” Last Friday, our family had the privilege of watching him receive the Chicago Television Academy’s Silver Emmy Award for his contributions to broadcasting, including the launching of the first telecommunications satellite, the creation of PBS, 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.
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 helped get the original funding for “Sesame Street,” served as chairman of PBS and of the Chicago affiliate WTTW, served on the board of CBS, helped create the Presidential debates, 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 also the world’s best dad and we are all so proud of him.
He was interviewed on a television history podcast. Here is 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 XX,” 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.