Thirty Years Later, Newton C. Minow Revisits the Vast Wasteland
NEW YORK (AP) _ It was 30 years ago today that Newton N. Minow, then fledgling chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, stood before a convention of broadcasters and gave The Speech.
Minow dared TV broadcasters ″to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you - and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off.
″I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. .. .″
Today, in an address prepared for delivery to the Gannett Foundation Media Center commemorating the 30th anniversary of his speech, Minow says his daughters threaten to engrave his tombstone, ″On to a Vaster Wasteland.″
And he says television has gotten better in 30 years - but not by much.
His 1961 speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington, catapulted the 35-year-old Chicago lawyer and former aide to Gov. Adlai Stevenson into overnight celebrity.
″Vast wasteland″ became part of the American vocabulary. Within six weeks, Minow got 6,000 letters, overwhelmingly favorable, according to Mary Ann Watson’s ″The Expanding Vista,″ a history of U.S. TV in the Kennedy Years.
By late summer, entertainer Jimmy Durante would open an NBC special, saying, ″Da next hour will be dedicated to upliftin’ da quality of television. ... At least, Newt, we’re tryin’.″
Today, Minow’s speech contends, television isn’t trying all that hard.
″There’s no activity in the United States that occupies the American people more - and that includes working. And that includes thinking,″ Minow said in an interview last month.
Television is one of our century’s most important advances, he said, ″and yet, as a nation, we pay no attention to it.″
In the last 30 years we have failed, Minow contends, to use television for education, to use it for children, to use it properly in political campaigns. We also have failed to finance public television adequately, he says.
″We are frightfully unhappy with our school system failing,″ he said. ″We don’t take into account what a child gets outside the classroom from television. We don’t regard that as part of the environment. I think that’s beginning to change.″
Children’s television has become a morass of profit-driven cartoon ghettoes, with programs aimed at children as consumers, not as an audience. A study finds that by age 18, a child has seen 25,000 murders on TV, he says.
(″In 1961 I worried that my children would not benefit much from television,″ his speech notes, ″but in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it.″)
Public television, he said, is a beggar in the richest nation on Earth, yet deserves the same public commitment as libraries, hospitals, parks and schools.
A 2 percent spectrum-use or franchise fee for all commercial broadcast and cable operators would derive about $1 billion a year, his speech notes. ″Even at that figure, we’d still be behind Japan,″ he notes.
Television, instead of advancing the discourse of politics, has become a prohibitively expensive blight on it, he said.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, Minow notes, network newscasts’ average block of a candidate’s uninterrupted speech - the infamous ″sound bite″ - was 9.8 seconds. In 1968, it was 42.3 seconds.
″The thing that discourages me the most about television is that the people in it ... say it’s just an entertainment medium.
″I say, ‘You don’t take what you’re doing seriously enough.’
″This is probably the most important invention after the war,″ he said. ″It’s not just an entertainment medium. That’s part of it, but it’s also a medium of journalism, it’s a medium of educations, it’s a medium of politics.″
Today, the mass media are more than just adjuncts of the democratic process, he said.
″When democracy started in Greece, the Greek philosophers said you can’t have democracy with more than 30,000 people. Why? ... That’s the number of people that could climb up on that hill and hear one person speak at one time.
″Now you’ve got 250 million people in this country, spread across many, many thousands of miles. There’s only one way you can do that, and that is with radio and television.″
Minow resigned his FCC post in 1963 to practice law in Chicago and raise his family. He’s been chairman of PBS and a public TV station, and a board member of CBS Inc. and for the advertising company Foote Cone & Belding Communications Inc.
Currently he’s director of the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University. And today he’s making a speech about television and public policy.
″What I’m hoping to do is get another generation as excited and interested in these issues as I am,″ he said.