Half a Century of the ‘Vast Wasteland’

Posted on May 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Fifty years ago today, my dad, Newton Minow, the 35-year old Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters.  What he said was so ground-breaking and so resonant that it has been included in many collections of the best speeches of the 20th century.  It has also been used as an LSAT question, a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” answer, and, most memorably, as the inspiration for the name of the sinking ship on Gilligan’s Island.

Tonight, Dad will appear at the National Press Club with the current Chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, to talk about the impact of the speech, the stunning revolution in media and technology over the past five decades, and what lies ahead.  If you’re not able to come, you can watch “From Wasteland to Broadband” on C-SPAN

Some tributes and commentaries on the anniversary:

Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times: Television’s Curse was Its Blessing

James Warren’s interview with Dad for the Chicago News Cooperative: Never Mind the ‘Vast Wasteland’ — Newton Minow Has More to Say

Bob Lerhman in Politico: Minow’s Whale of a Speech

Katie O’Brien on WBEZ: Is Television Still a Vast Wasteland?

James Fallows in The Atlantic: Worth Watching — Newton Minow 50 Years Later

Tony Mauro in Legal Times: 50 Years Later, Minow Reflects on ‘Vast Wasteland’ Speech

Jess Bravin in the Wall Street Journal: Vast Wasteland: Marking the 50th Anniversary

On the Media

KPCC

And my dad’s own views about the NAB conference and what happened afterward.

I am very, very proud of my wonderful parents, who have not only devoted their lives to healing the world, from the most individual, personal attention to the most monumental change (Dad helped to create and currently co-chairs the system of Presidential debates), but who set an example for my sisters and me of integrity, fairness, and dedication to family that will always inspire us to do better.

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Commentary Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

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!

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Commentary

The S.S. Minnow is Back in Shipshape

Posted on August 24, 2008 at 8:00 am

Anyone for a 3-hour tour? If you get on the S.S. Minnow and the other passengers are a movie star, a professor, a millionaire and his wife, not to mention Mary Ann, you might want to check to make sure you’ve packed enough to wear for a long vacation.
Yes, the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan’s Island is being restored and will be available for tours. More than one boat was used on the show, but this is the one in the opening credits.
I have special affection for this boat because it was named after my father, Newton Minow, whose famous speech to the broadcasters calling television a “vast wasteland” annoyed “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz. So Schwartz named the sinking boat after him! My dad got a huge kick out of it and later had a very cordial exchange of letters with Schwartz. It is a great point of pride for our family. cast-of-gilligans-island.jpg
Thanks to Zeke for bringing me up to date on this story!

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