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This Day in History: Vast Wasteland

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retro tv

On this day in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow proclaimed American television a "vast wasteland" in a speech to the American Association of Broadcasters.

In 1961 there were 3 channels, nearly all Americans still watched TV in black and white, and while vast might not be especially accurate, it was the wasteland part that caught the American public's attention.

Here's Minow: 

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.

The whole speech is pretty fascinating. It's a snapshot of attitudes from a different era.

But things were already looking up in 1961: ABC's Wide World of Sports debuted, as did The Avengers. NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies got rolling with Marilyn Monroe's How to Marry a Millionaire.

47 years later, the vast part is no longer debatable, but we keep going at it on the wasteland question. 

Part of Minow's fear was due to the shared view that broadcast spectrum was horrifically restricted:

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.

Needless to say, we seem to have found a work around on this question.

There'a also an interesting early statement on corporate social responsibility, which could easily be mistaken for something playing on CNBC as we speak:

You [broadcasters] 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. 

Read or listen to the whole thing here.

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  1. When television is good, nothing is better? Maybe he only means by its ability to produce cash out of seemingly thin air, but as entertainment/art goes I think F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and Anne Sexton poems have a leg up still. I mean, I’m sure Tila Tequila will one day be on par with Sylvia Plath- it’s just a matter of time, right?
    /sarcasm

  2. And remind your stockholders that an investment in broadcasting is buying a share in public responsibility.

    HAHA! As a holder of stock, I should point out that I really care whether the little number next to my stock is black or red. That is my main concern.

  3. You [broadcasters] 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.”

    What business hasn’t succeeded by telling its paying customers to take what it gives them, or hit the road?

  4. Well, not every book or poem is as good as Scott or Sexton, are they?

    I’ve seen some great shows on TV, as well as views of the world that just can’t be imparted with the same emotional impact with the written word.

    And yes, I agree that most of what’s on is trash (to me).

  5. “…then go ahead and try”

    And they did, didn’t they? Advertisers are moving to the web and the networks are feeling the pinch.

  6. HEY why doesn’t The Avengers get it’s own link? That show rocked! Only I was sure it was a BBC import, and while it may have kicked off in 61, I didn’t think it showed up on American airwaves till years later. [confirms with wiki – check]

  7. What business hasn’t succeeded by telling its paying customers to take what it gives them, or hit the road?

    gas, electric, rail monopolies, etc?

  8. When television is good, nothing is better? Maybe he only means by its ability to produce cash out of seemingly thin air, but as entertainment/art goes I think F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and Anne Sexton poems have a leg up still.

    I’d put Mad Men up against either of those. Maybe it’s not as good, but it’s in the same ballpark, and depending on your tastes it might even be better. Same thing with the first few seasons of Buffy, and Firefly. Television is coming into its own as an art form; unless you don’t watch television, there is no way to say that it doesn’t measure up to older art forms.

  9. Some comedian (I think on that Lewis Black show) had a good line about Tila Tequila – she achieved the seemingly impossible. She dumbed down MTV.

  10. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air in the FCC Chairman’s office before he arrives 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 bureaucrat until he goes home. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

    Perspective

  11. Let us not forget that for every great literary opus of yore there was a pulp novel or penny-dreadful that will die in obscurity – our printed past’s equivalent of The Hills.

  12. “I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public’s airwaves.”

    I find myself more and more frequently coming to the conclusion that people like Minow see the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Constitution merely as decoration.

  13. Warren,

    Nice one!

    I’ts called ‘perspective’. Get some, bitch!

  14. “But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

    – character Anton Ego in Ratatouille

  15. To echo what Warren said, “The Avengers” didn’t start airing in the U.S. until 1966; there may some confusion in that it was produced by the British “ABC” (the defunct Associated British Corporation).

    Similar situations also occurred with “The Saint” (which would end up on NBC) and “Danger Man” (which would end up on CBS, as “Secret Agent”)–although those shows did originally air in syndication in the U.S. not long after they debuted in the UK.

  16. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and Anne Sexton poems have a leg up still.

    Piffle! Television exceeded Fitzgerald at least as far back as I Claudius.

  17. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and Anne Sexton poems have a leg up still.

    There is nothing more irritating than a wannabe faux-hipster elitist sniffing at television while simultaneously name-dropping any and all pseudo-intellectual-sounding authors…

    Bonus points for claiming how much you love poetry.

    I mean, I’m sure Tila Tequila will one day be on par with Sylvia Plath

    Yak. Get over yourself.

  18. Holy crap! This thread has brought all the Mod Secret Agent shows of the 60’s to my attention. I’ve been a fan of all of them, but never counted them up before.

    The Avengers
    The Man From UNCLE
    Mission Impossible
    The Prisoner
    The Saint*
    Peter Gun*

    *Not secret agent, but close enough

  19. Gosh, I don’t think TV is the worst artistic medium ever, but I feel comfortable saying that it generally doesn’t measure up to others. Like books and movies. All have their portion of crap, of course.

  20. HEY why doesn’t The Avengers get it’s own link? That show rocked!

    I’ve read philosophers saying that we cannot know for sure that life is real and that we are not merely dreaming that life is real. I know for a fact that I’m not dreaming. If life were but a dream, Barbara Eden would be granting my wishes, and Emma Peele would be kicking my ass.

  21. Oh Double crap!
    How could I forget:
    I Spy

    EMJ
    Of course Danger Man should go on the list, but I wasn’t actually aware of it (as Secret Agent either). Sounds totally cool.

    While I’m thinking of it, we could throw
    Lancelot Link Secret chimp in there. And let us not forget one of the great ones:
    Get Smart

  22. Warren, let’s also not forget the one that’s likely my favorite: “The Wild, Wild West”. (I was actually born in 1971, but grew up on reruns of a lot of these shows throughout the late ’70s and ’80s.)

    P.S.: There’s also, at least to some extent, “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” (the spinoff of “Man”), “Honey West”, “T.H.E. Cat”, “It Takes a Thief”, “Amos Burke, Secret Agent” (the last-gasp version of “Burke’s Law”), “Batman”, “The Green Hornet”, and (I would argue) “Hawaii Five-O”.

  23. The Avengers
    The Man From UNCLE
    Mission Impossible
    The Prisoner
    The Saint*
    Peter Gun*

    Get Smart!
    Wild, Wild, West.
    And your list is incomplete without the utterly forgettable The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

  24. Slow fingers fail me again.

  25. What business hasn’t succeeded by telling its paying customers to take what it gives them, or hit the road?

    gas, electric, rail monopolies, etc?

    Good point, dhex. Lemme try that again:

    What business (other than government enforced monopolies) has succeeded by telling its paying customers to take what it gives them, or hit the road?

  26. So, let’s see what was on American broadcast television during the 1960-1961 season:

    Sunday: Walt Disney Presents; Maverick
    Monday: The Andy Griffith Show; Peter Gunn
    Tuesday: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp; The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis; Alfred Hitchcock Presents
    Wednesday: Wagon Train; Naked City; Wanted: Dead or Alive
    Thursday: The Untouchables; Person To Person
    Friday: Route 66; The Twilight Zone (arguably the two finest dramatic series of the black & white era)
    Saturday: Perry Mason; Have Gun Will Travel; Gunsmoke

    Newton Minow was an ass. I’ve picked only my favorite shows from that season, and I don’t deny that there has been, here and there, now and then, much better television in the following half century; but the notion that TV was garbage in the late 50s and early 60s is simply preposterous.

  27. EJM
    You list a few shows I’ve never heard of. I would put the superheros in their own category though.

    Oddly enough I think The Monkeys deserve inclusion.

  28. I find myself more and more frequently coming to the conclusion that people like Minow see the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Constitution merely as decoration.

    I don’t fault the sentiment, but that phrase is not in the Constitution.

  29. Yet another reason to disparage the JFK administration.

  30. Shit. Thank you, Publius, before I made an ass of myself in a non-anonymous situation. And I thought that I knew the Constitution fairly well….

  31. Minow was, and is, an elitist asshole; his gripe about TV is essentially that people watch what they want to watch, rather than what Newton Minow thinks they should watch.

  32. You’d think he thought they were deliberately making TV shows bad.

  33. Looking through the Direct TV listings, I see that less than 10% of the channels show porn. So he’s right – at least 90% of it is crap.

  34. Isn’t (and wasn’t) it a good thing that most TV shows blow? Otherwise, Americans would be compelled to spend even more time watching TV.

  35. Television is mostly drivel. There are a few shows that are well written, and well acted, but very few.

    I think one could easily cancel 90% of the crap on the air and we would all be better off. Pare it down to one channel of good shows and one channel of crap.

  36. I’m sure Tila Tequila will one day be on par with Sylvia Plath…

    This gem of a sentence seems to imply that Plath is a poet worth reading more than once. By this stunningly high standard, Boulez is the best thing that has happened to music since Mahler, and The Wire is a “novelistic” production that will proudly stand alongside Kurosawa’s best films a century from now.

  37. Oh, I almost forgot. Anne Sexton was easily Akhmatova’s equal as a poet, and The Great Gatsby is definitely THE greatest American novel ever written.

  38. D.A. Ridgely,

    A modern Minow deploring the content of TV would almost certainly be inclined to cite the shows you listed as examples of The Golden Age of Television, and as What TV Might Be if We Hadn’t Deregulated Broadcasting in the 1980s.

    Incidentally, let me take this opportunity to promote my new idea for a series:

    CSI – Broadcast Enforcement – Brave FCC investigators hunt down pirate broadcasters, indecent broadcasters, and media conglomerates who dare violate ownership requirements.

  39. [Police interrogation room]

    AGENT MINOW: Come on, McGonicle, confess, you know you haven’t complied with the requirements of the Children’s Educational TV Act.

    MCGONICLE (President of ABC): I don’t know what you’re talking about, I run children’s educational programs all the time.

    AGENT MINOW: Let’s just look at some of the transcripts, shall we? [Throwing transcripts on the table, reflecting the painstaking work of FCC agents recording the content of various shows] *Teenage Ninjas*?

    MCGONICLE: Ninjitsu is a Japanese art worthy of studying, and it promotes multicultural awareness.

    AGENT MINOW: *The Adventures Captain Groinkick and the Testosterone Commandos*?

    MCGONICLE: That’s *very* educational – children learn valuable teamwork and problem-solving skills.

    AGENT MINOW: What about where Captain Groinkick says, “kids, nag your parents into buying my cereal – Captain Groinkick’s Obesity-Os”?

    MCGONICLE: Look, I said that cereal was *part* of a balanced breakfast, not that it was nutritionally adequate in and of itself.

    AGENT MINOW: Quit stalling, McGonicle, you’re looking at a major fine, plus there’s a coalition of community groups which is really eager to take over from your licensees if you don’t play ball with us.

    MCGONICLE: OK, OK, confess, I haven’t been running enough educational programming.

    AGENT MINOW: All right, McGonicle, I’ll give you another chance, but you better straighten up and fly right from here on out. Here’s a year’s worth of *Blue’s Clues* episodes, and ya better broadcast them all. We’ll be watching you.

  40. Vast Wasteland?

    Why that’s just poppycock, everyone knows that TV is the OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE!

  41. DA Ridgely, by dating yourself, you have given some of the old folks around here a vicarious trip down memory lane.

    Not me, it’s a history lesson, of course.

  42. I think one could easily cancel 90% of the crap on the air and we would all be better off.

    Oh, sure. So, in other words, you want even more unemployed Drama majors roaming the streets. You’ll be sorry when there’s a mime hanging out on every street corner.

  43. Ayn Rand loved The Avengers.
    Discuss.

  44. Just in case it matters, I was wrong in implying above that “Danger Man” first aired in syndication in the U.S.; apparently, it had a spring/summer run on CBS in 1961.

  45. We made it this far without a single reference to Gilligan’s Island?

  46. Anyone know where to find the networks’ program schedules from years past?

  47. Anyone know where to find the networks’ program schedules from years past?

    Not surprisingly, Wikipedia is probably your best bet.

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