Vast Wasteland Rests, in Pieces

May 9, 1961. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow declares that when television came on the air, “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

He railed against “game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism” and such. Kevin Martin clearly was not the first to observe this.

Minow was sending out his wail when the wasteland was this vast: as much as one-third of all the ABC affiliates in the country did not even carry its nightly newscast. There were only seven channels in the most populous market in the country, New York City. Unless you could dial past 13 on your knob.

Now there are 400 channels, best I can tell, in the lineup of Cablevision Systems, the operator serving the New York suburb where I live. That's vast. I'm hoping my wife hasn't discovered Jewelry Television.

Or the vaster waste. A whole channel for Howard Stern? I don't expect to have much use for Move 'n Match Puzzles (channel 620) or Fuel TV (No. 403) either.

But, someone is going to find World Picks Hindi On Demand (No. 242) useful.

Therein lies the tale of how far television has come since Minow's jeremiad.

There are scores of ethnic channels. There are mainstream channels devoted to what he would have considered educational programming, from Nickelodeon to Discovery to History Channel to, yes, News 12 Traffic & Weather (a 24-hour cycle of nothing else, in two-minute chunks).

The advance of technology in fact makes the new truism: you have only yourself to blame if you fail to edify yourself or find any intellectual challenge.

Out of the vastness, you simply cherry-pick to create your own 24-hour, seven-day-a-week network of programming that expands your mind or entertains you at a level that makes you think — even if mass death is involved.

That is a reference of course to 24, the much-watched counterterrorism series starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Having missed the first five seasons, I popped in the first disc of the first season a week before Thanksgiving, watched four hours, went to sleep and got up to watch it again. Within 10 days, I'd watched all 24 hours. Ten percent of my total time spent on one well-written, thought-provoking show.

Now, I'm going back to the set as often as I can to watch Planet Earth, the chronicle of how the rest of the world really works. You know, the places where humans aren't. This is Discovery's masterpiece, five years in the making, and “only” 11 episodes in the output.

I'm about halfway through. And this falls in line with the way this one viewer has come to watching everything from The West Wing to No Reservations to a captivating movie about gang education from MTV, Freedom Writers, that I am not sure even appeared on the cable network itself. Find what you appreciate. Watch it on your own time.

The digital recorder slurps up The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, CBS Sunday Morning, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and 24. That more than not satisfies me — until the evening news comes on. Which, by my definition, is at 10 o'clock.

And if there's any time left over, there are the DVDs of past seasons (24,yet again) and current movies (Babel). Not to mention video on demand, where I can learn about the Life of John Paul II and his role in the fall of Communism or the Magma of volcanoes that threaten the world's population.

Which means, as The Cable Show opens, cable has raised the ante on TV itself. TV is not television any more.

It's just a display device. The programs that fill it come from anywhere at any time. Bits on discs (DVDs), bits by wire (cable), or bits over the air (satellite, or, soon, broadcasting). Doesn't matter. The delivery system that lets me get more of the bits I want at any time I want to play back, not then, but at any time I want is the system that will define what TV really is.

Right now, that looks like cable. But anyone could raise the ante by putting huge numbers of titles on servers somewhere that can be watched by anyone at any time (I think both the Comcast and Joost folks have thought about this).

Newton Minow: Rest easy. We run our own networks now.