Of the thousands of letters that came into the office of then-FCC chairman Newton Minow in 1961, he recalled one in particular: "It said, 'What time does that 'vast wasteland' go on?'"
On Monday, Minow joined the current FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, at the National Press Club to mark the 50th anniversary of his most famous speech with the two words that have hung over broadcasting ever since, a reminder whenever it fails to fulfill its promise.
Minow was just 35 on May 9, 1961 when he gave the speech to the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention, telling them in his first major address, "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 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."
Before broadcasters, the speech landed like a lead balloon. To journalists, two words stood out: "vast wasteland."
"The two words that I wanted to be remembered [from the speech] were 'public interest,'" Minow said. "The press, I have learned later, likes to fasten on to something controversial." The biting remarks could have been worse: He was going to add the words "of junk" at the end of "vast wasteland," but dropped it.
His point was that in exchange for the license free use of the public airwaves, broadcasters should provide substantial programming in the public interest. Nevertheless, his speech caught the public's attention, and at an opportune time, with the quiz show scandals and radio payola still fresh in their memory.
While some in Hollywood reacted defensively — Sherwood Schwartz named the S.S. Minnow from "Gilligan's Island" after the critical FCC chief — Minow's speech did create change. As Genachowski said, Minow's words were one of the single most effective uses of the bully pulpit by a government official.
Within just a few years, networks began investing heavily in news, expanding nightly broadcasts to 30 minutes; educational television, and later PBS, began to take root; and broadcasters created documentary units. But Minow said that one of his goals was to "expand choice to the viewer," and during his tenure he was successful in opening up the UHF band to create many more channel options.
That's why, as easy as it is to look at the landscape of reality TV and cable news shoutfests and reach the same conclusion, Minow's impressions of today's TV, and the option ahead via the web, are more optimistic than you would expect. "No matter what your interest, you can find a channel to deal with it," he said.
He still expresses some regret for not being able to limit the number of commercials that broadcasters air, and is frustrated that public television still has to battle for its existence, particularly among Republicans who wonder why the government should be subsidizing it at all. "It baffles me today because public broadcasting should be non political," he said.
With all those choices, critics also say that commercial broadcasters can fill the gaps. "When commercial television does a series like 'The Civil War,' when commercial television does a series like 'Sesame Street,' when commercial television does 'NewsHour,' then I will listen. But before that happens, I don't think it is a valid argument," he said.
As much as "vast wasteland" was taken as an attack on what broadcasters were putting on the air, Minow said that it is a "dangerous thing" for the government to be involved at all in content, even if it has a role as the agency assigning the airwaves. His solution back then is relevant today, as the FCC looks to widen penetration of broadband. "Expand the number of people presenting choices."
"My feeling was the more channels there were the more choices there were. That was the best thing the government could do."
The audio of Minow's speech — "Television and the Public Interest" — is here.
Monday's event, sponsored by the GW Global Media Institute, is on C SPAN here. Frank Sesno was the moderator.