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Editorial: The Wasteland Revisited

May 9 marked 50 years since FCC Chairman Newton Minow told broadcasters to clean up their act. It was Minow’s first speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, remembered by most for only two words—“vast wasteland”—which became the rallying cry of every critic of TV content ever since.

Minow has said the two words he actually wanted to be remembered for were “public interest.” Perhaps, but after trashing the industry to the industry, he could hardly have expected the lead to be anything else. Actually, Minow suggests he did expect something else, saying last week that the media’s own love of controversy drove that story line. Hmmmm.

Minow’s idea of the public interest was to lead it away from what it was interested in to what it should be paying attention to. It was a social engineering theory that would have broadcasters dictate that interest rather than serve it.

Coming off the quiz show and payola scandals of the late 1950s, the industry was already in a defensive posture, and the chairman pressed his case for programming that would elevate and enlighten rather than all those game shows and dramas and sitcoms and variety shows that all those millions of people were watching.

It seemed elitist then, and it still does, Minow’s honorable intentions aside.

Minow was wrong. Not in wanting TV to be better than it was, but in eloquently insulting an entire nation of TV watchers for their preferences in programming. Of course, there was junk on TV in 1961 just as there is today, though one person’s trash may be another’s treasure.

Minow conceded there were a lot of good shows on TV, but seemed to suggest the problem was that more people were watching the shows he didn’t think were so great. Then there were those ads, which he has since said he regretted not reducing via regulation. He seemed to feel mass audience programming and all those commercials were diversions from broadcasters’ higher calling rather than the vehicle by which they could deliver any programming at all, it being a business as well as a calling.

In that 1961 speech, Minow counseled his audience to watch TV 24/7 to get the sense of the wasteland. But TV, after all, is not meant to be consumed 24/7 any more than one should eat everything on a buffet. That will make anybody sick.

But while Minow’s vast wasteland was a case of off-base bullying from the pulpit, he got a lot right, too.

He predicted that UHF could be a major force—it is now the beachfront property of DTV. He predicted, presciently, that there could be half a dozen networks instead of three, and many more TV stations in each market providing much more variety. And, while he called on broadcasters to affirmatively program to the new administration’s idea of shows that were worth watching, he roundly condemned censorship, and has stuck to his guns, upbraiding the current FCC for an indecency enforcement policy he has argued chills speech.

So, with multicast channels providing new niche and news programming and dozens of channels in some major markets, and six-plus broadcast nets and growing, Minow must be ready to embrace broadcasting as home of all that variety and possibility, a land of waste and plenty, as it arguably always has been and should be.

Not so much, actually.

While Minow conceded last week that all the additional choice is good, he is apparently also ready to reduce broadcasters’ ability to deliver the free news and information service that is still serving millions who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite. “[T]oday it no longer makes sense to let television broadcasters use the largest and most valuable swath of our electromagnetic spectrum to send out signals that more than 80 percent of American households don’t need because they receive their television service through cable or satellite,” he told The Atlantic magazine last month, sounding much like current FCC chairman and Minow fan Julius Genachowski. “We should auction off this precious real estate and use the money to invest in education. It’s time for a new land grant act—a Land Grant of the Airwaves.”

With all due respect to the former chairman, he has missed the mark again.