Minow Reflects: How Pay TV Filled the ‘Vast Wasteland’

Former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow is famous for calling broadcast TV a “vast wasteland” back in 1961. But at the same time as he made his well-known speech, he was also ushering in the pay TV era by approving early testing of the fledgling medium, saying he wanted to give it a chance to prove it could offer a “useful service.”

As it turns out, pay TV may have been the answer to greening up TV’s wasteland all along.

In an interview for The Wire’s sibling pub, B&C, Minow was asked to assess how pay TV had delivered on the chance to prove itself.

“Certainly it has worked,” he said. “My main thrust was to enlarge choice. I thought that the limited choice available in 1961 was wrong and that every new technology, particularly cable, UHF, satellite, should be opened up to provide more choice. And I believe we succeeded.”

Given the vast array of offerings pay TV (and public TV) has brought to the table, Minow was asked to reassess the “wasteland.”

“The main thing is that everybody has been provided a choice,” he responded. “If you are a sports junkie, you have plenty of sports. If you are a news junkie, you’ve got plenty of news. If you like children’s television you’ve got a lot of choices for your kids. So, I think giving people choice should be the fundamental aim of the government’s regulation of communications.”

But Minow noted that such variety comes with a “big” price tag, which is that families no longer gather around the TV to see “the same programs at the same time,” something he said “unified the nation.” He cited the televised coverage of the death of President John F. Kennedy — the man who appointed him and who he clearly loved.

To check out Minow’s views on political debates —he serves on the presidential debate commission — and his near tongue-lashing of a first-year Harvard Law student and future president, click through to this week’s B&C cover story at multichannel.com/Feb29.

ID, SPLC Cases Help Stir Powerful Emotions With ‘Hate in America’

Investigation Discovery a year ago aired Hate in America, a special about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

That led to a new multiple-episode series, hosted by Tony Harris and made with NBCUniversal’s Peacock Productions, that premieres tonight (Feb. 29) at 8 p.m.

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, introduced a preview screening at the Paley Center for Media in New York on Thursday with praise for the SPLC.

Its track record over 45 years includes winning a bankrupting civil judgment against the United Klans of America for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Ala. Donald’s nephew, Maurice Perry, spoke at a panel session after the screening.

Harris asked him how much his late uncle still featured in the family’s life today.

“Just seeing that on that screen — I don’t know,” he said quietly.

Harris encouraged him to take his time and tell a “room full of friends” how he felt.

“Seeing it, I feel angry,” Perry replied. “You told the story, and when I hear the story it does something to me. It just does. He didn’t hurt nobody, he was a good guy, and he died because he’s black. That’s it. That’s it.”

The images of pain and stories of forgiveness by victims, as after last year’s murders at Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel AME Church, had others in the audience feeling emotional, too.

— Kent Gibbons

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.