Fifty years ago, speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a "vast wasteland." It was one of the most celebrated speeches ever delivered. WNYC’s Sara Fishko looks back at the seminal address.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, television, one of the greatest machines ever invented. Not a year, not a day goes by without someone griping about its wasted potential. This seems to be a global phenomenon, but the chorus of woe was expressed most memorably, practically at the medium’s birth, right here in the U.S.A. 50 years ago this coming Monday when then FCC Chairman Newton Minow coined the fateful phrase “the vast wasteland.” WNYC’s Sara Fishko takes us back.
SARA FISHKO: It was one of the most celebrated speeches ever delivered. Newton Minow, FCC commissioner, was speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters Convention, May 9th, 1961. “Look what you’re producing,” he said to them.
NEWTON MINOW: I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own 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.
MIKE DANN: You’re talking about the Gettysburg Address for broadcasters.
SARA FISHKO: Mike Dann heard it. He was a programming executive at CBS at the time.
MIKE DANN: I can't tell you the importance of that speech.
SARA FISHKO: The two words, “vast wasteland,”” stuck like glue, remembers Minow.
NEWTON MINOW: The two words that I wanted to be remembered were not “vast wasteland.” The two words I cared about were “public interest.”
SARA FISHKO: When it came to commercial broadcasting then, the public interest was not at the forefront . To understand the moment, you have to go back a few years to the earliest days of TV, says Brandeis University’s Thomas Doherty. It all happened so fast.
SOUNDTRACK FROM THE LONE RANGER]
ACTOR: Hi-ho Silver!
THOMAS DOHERTY: In the late 1940s, about one in ten families in America have TV. By the late 1950s –
[LEAVE IT TO BEAVER THEME UP AND UNDER] - and by the time Newton Minow gives his famous speech, it’s like, more like nine in ten families have television. And more families would rather give up their refrigerator than their television. [LAUGHS]
SARA FISHKO: Newton Minow was one of those people. He was first in line to buy a TV.
NEWTON MINOW: The minute I saw it, I said, this is the most important invention since the atomic bomb.
SARA FISHKO: Minow had been a lawyer and had worked for Adlai Stevenson during Stevenson’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1956. There he’d met Robert F. Kennedy, and the two had discussed television and its impact on their families, and the dismal state of things in the broadcast business.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Scandal of the year, the television quiz show fraud with Charles Van Doren the pivotal figure….
NEWTON MINOW: There were the quiz scandals and payola scandals, scandals at the FCC. President Eisenhower was forced to ask the then chairman of the FCC to resign. Things were really at a low point.
SARA FISHKO: Distinguished broadcaster Edward R. Murrow had made a speech in the late '50s.
EDWARD R. MURROW: This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and even it can inspire.
SARA FISHKO: It was a plea for TV to realize its potential.
EDWARD R. MURROW: But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: A new frontier is here, whether we seek it or not.
SARA FISHKO: And a vision for a broader potential was expressed by a new Democratic candidate in 1960.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you…
[KENNEDY SPEECH UP AND UNDER]
MARY ANN WATSON: Kennedy believed that government had a legitimate role to play in the development of a country’s cultural life.
SARA FISHKO: Mary Ann Watson, author of The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, says the Minow connection had stayed with Bobby Kennedy and his brother.
MARY ANN WATSON: And John Kennedy, the first appointment he made to a regulatory agency - was Newton Minow.
[THE UNTOUCHABLES THEME/UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER: The Untouchables -
SARA FISHKO: Minow’s appointment to the position coincided with another development, as TV audiences multiplied.
ANNOUNCER: - starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness.
[MUSIC, ANNOUNCEMENT UP AND UNDER]
MARY ANN WATSON: The series The Untouchables on ABC had become a big hit, and that kind of formulaic violent programming was replacing a lot of the quality series.
[ACTOR SHOUTS/GUNSHOTS] When I show it to students today [LAUGHS], even today’s jaded students are a little bit surprised at the, you know, just sprays of machine gun.
[MAN SCREAMS IN PAIN/GUNSHOTS]
THOMAS DOHERTY: And the distance between the power television has -
SARA FISHKO: Thomas Doherty.
THOMAS DOHERTY: - and the responsibility television is assuming is seen to be particularly wide by the early 1960s.
NEWTON MINOW: 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.
SARA FISHKO: So in that perfect storm of a moment, Minow walked out to challenge broadcasters to be better. He said it was a vast wasteland but he said a few other things, too.
NEWTON MINOW: I say to you now, renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.
SARA FISHKO: The 39-minute speech was as direct as any FCC mandate had ever been.
MARY ANN WATSON: Minow was saying we’re actually going to enforce this. There were consequences to pay, and that is something we don't have anymore.
SARA FISHKO: Newton Minow was famous overnight. The public loved him. But broadcasters called the day he spoke, that Tuesday, “Black Tuesday,” remembers Mike Dann.
MIKE DANN: We were making money. The basis for American enterprise, whether it’s selling cars or operating a broadcasting company, was the profit motive.
SARA FISHKO: There was anger among broadcasters and fear –
MIKE DANN: Because we were concerned that Newton would be more aggressive after that critical speech. The speech was a bombshell We had meetings in Washington. We had meetings with ourselves. And nothing like this had ever happened before.
SARA FISHKO: What actually did happen as a result? That depends on whom you ask.
MIKE DANN: We thought it was an excellent speech, but did absolutely nothing to improve the situation, and I know of no one who did.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SARA FISHKO: Mary Ann Watson believes there was an impact, that social dramas like The Defenders, East Side/West Side and similar series grew out of that regulatory zeal of the very public, very popular Mr. Minow. And, of course, broadcasters had assumed there would be two terms, eight years of such pressures. But it didn't happen that way.
MARY ANN WATSON: The end of the era, the Newton Minow, the New Frontier era in regulation is really when President Johnson takes office. He is a broadcaster. He identifies with broadcasters. Much of his family fortune is from radio stations; Lady Bird owned radio stations. And so, they had a lot of money in broadcast holdings. So when he took office, his inclination was to ease off on government regulation of broadcasting.
SARA FISHKO: Before that,, it had looked for a moment as if things might change –
MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - as if the free market and the public interest might be reconciled, in some way. In the end, the power of TV to resist regulation proved both vast and untouchable. For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko.