The Spectacle Blog

The Minow Is Still Lost

Fifty years after his elitist "vast wasteland" speech, former FCC Chairman Newton Minow remains stuck in the 1960s.

By on 4.19.11 | 1:47PM

The upcoming 50th anniversary of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" speech has prompted some in the media to revisit the speech to assess its relevance -- or lack thereof -- to today's media landscape. 

Minow would go on to dubious fame as the namesake of the shipwrecked boat in the 1960s sitcom "Gilligan's Island." Unfortunately, Gilligan didn't have the last word. Pity.

In Minow's speech, delivered before the National Association of Broadcasters, on May 9, 1961, he urged his audience:

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.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.

Minow's elitist dismissal of popular entertainment aside, one would think that the former FCC chairman would welcome the increased choices brought about by new technology in recent years. But you would be wrong.

In an article in this month's The Atlantic observing the anniversary of his speech, Minow pays lip service to technological progress, but goes on to set out six public policy goals that "we" -- that is, government -- should pursue to supposedly improve the state of broadcasting.

"Our first must be to expand freedom, in order to strengthen editorial independence in news and information," says Minow, without defining what such "freedom" would entail -- specifically freedom from whose authority. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to mean freedom from an overreaching government. In the same paragraph, Minow goes on to proclaim, "[H]appily, the FCC, under its talented chairman, Julius Genachowski, is leading public-interest advocates and industry groups to both meet the practical needs and uphold the democratic values at stake." 

Second, Minow calls on the Commission "to use new communications technologies to improve and extend the benefits of education at all levels" by auctioning off unused spectrum "and use the money to invest in education" -- without explaining what that "investment" would look like. Yet involving an arguably obsolete telecommunications bureaucracy in education policy would seem like a good recipe for agency mission creep and future agency turf wars.

Third, he proposes "to use new technologies to improve and extend the reach of our health-care system." That may be a worthy goal, but, as with education, extending the FCC's authority to health care would be an unprecedented expansion of the agency's power. 

Fourth, Minow calls for improving the nation's public safety response infrastructure. Like improving education and health care, this is a worthwhile goal. However, unlike education and health care, public safety is an area in which government's proper role is not very controversial, so this proposal isn't particularly problematic.

Fifth, he advocates "greater support to public radio and public television." Did Minow miss the recent debate over federal funding of National Public Radio (NPR), which brought public attention to the fact that the vast majority of NPR's funding comes from private sources? Rather than demonstrate a need for greater government funding, this speaks well of NPR's ability to raise its own funds from private donors. Minow also overlooks the problem of government-funded media crowding out private-sector alternatives, while forcing people to subsidize content they don't care to consume.

Sixth, and most perniciously, Minow proposes requiring broadcasters to provide free airtime to political candidates. He complains:

It is simply unconscionable that candidates for public office have to buy access to the airwaves-something the public itself owns-to talk to the public, unlike in most other major democratic countries.

Wait, didn't he advocate auctioning off some of those airwaves a couple of proposals ago? So much for consistency. Indeed, as Minow himself unwittingly acknowledges in his auction proposal, there is no reason why the spectrum, or any given portion of it, must be either owned or heavily regulated by government. 

Worse, requiring broadcasters to carry communications by candidates amounts to forced speech, plain and simple. Who would determine which are "legitimate" candidates for which that airtime should be free, anyway? And one major reason that our political system functions unlike those of "most other major democratic countries" is that other countries don't have a First Amendment.

Today, Minow's revisiting of his famous speech is just as elitist and statist as his original screed. Yet while his views don't seem to have changed, the world of telecommunications he and his successors have tried to control (thankfully, not always successfully) has moved forward in leaps and bounds, and continues to do so.

In Advertising Age, Tim Brooks offers a much more optimistic -- and realistic -- view of today's broadcasting landscape. 

The first decade of the 2000s has been dubbed "The Reality Era," but it was really an era of choice. If you want serious drama, there's "Mad Men," "Six Feet Under" or "The Wire"; if it's intelligent comedy try "The Daily Show"or "Curb Your Enthusiasm"; if it's tightly plotted thrillers, how about "True Blood" or "Damages?" If you prefer to not be sure what you're watching, try "Carnivale." And, of course, "reality" shows of every stripe filled the screen -- some being high-quality efforts such as "The Amazing Race" and "American Idol" and others that were just -- well -- odd. Whole networks are now devoted to the genre. If Newton Minow couldn't find something to like in this plethora of choice, tailored to so many tastes -- highbrow and low-brow -- perhaps he'd need to rethink his definition of a "wasteland." It's been a storm-tossed journey, but we've come a long way from "Gilligan's Island."

We've come a long way indeed, but Newton Minow and his successors seem to remain stuck in the 1960s.

In a way, Minow's "wasteland" metaphor was unintentionally apt. Deserts that seem arid at first sight are often full of life. And so was "Gilligan's Island."  

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