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NBC – David Brinkley’s Journal – Newton Minow – May 26, 1963 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Compared to our current state of the Media, the atmosphere and state of the Media in 1963 seems almost benign, when viewed side-by-side. In 1961, newly appointed FCC Chairman Newton Minow took the broadcast industry to task for what he called “the vast wasteland”, a gargantuan mis-use of technological achievement. That the promise of Television was to educate as well as entertain became muddled in ratings and ad revenue and turned it into a monolith of low-common denominator.
Minow was FCC Chairman between 1961 and June of 1963. During that time, he became one of the best-known and respected—if sometimes controversial—political figures of the early 1960s because of his criticism of commercial television. In a speech given to the National Association of Broadcasters convention on May 9, 1961, he was extremely critical of television broadcasters for not doing more, in Minow’s view, to serve the public interest. His phrase “vast wasteland” is remembered years after the speech in which he said:
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.
While some applauded his “vast wasteland” assault on commercial television as a welcome criticism of excessive violence and frivolity, others criticized it as an elitist, snobbish attack on programming that many viewers enjoyed and as government interference with private enterprise. The S.S. Minnow of the 1964-67 television show Gilligan’s Island was sarcastically named after him to express displeasure with his assessment of the quality of television.
Needless to say, the atmosphere that gave us Three networks and 12 channels exploded over the years – reducing the power of the FCC to little more than window-dressing. Every aspect of Television that Newton Minow warned America against in 1961 came true ten times over in the 60 years since. In what was the only game in town, blossomed into a veritable blizzard of choices – with some days offering the cynical assessment as “250 channels of nothing”, and now Streaming channels and the Internet.
In this interview, given upon the occasion of his stepping down as chairman, Minow offers a candid assessment of what happened during those three years and what, sadly, was in store for us in 1963.
From May 26, 1963, here is that interview with Newton Minow with NBC Correspondent David Brinkley for the program David Brinkley’s Journal.