Is the Internet Better, or Worse, Than TV?
It’s one of the most cited speeches of the 20th Century…or, at least, two of the most quoted words. However the man who delivered it, Newton Minow, says we’re remembering the wrong two words.
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy had only been in office for only four months. Minow, his new Federal Communications Commission Chair, was slated to make his first public address before the nation’s broadcasters at the prestigious, annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. It was usually an opportunity to mix policy proposals and gentle blandishments – a wonk’s dream, if slightly snoozy affair.
But Minow’s address was anything but snoozy. More like a fire alarm.
“When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better,” he began.
“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you – and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”
Punctuating his point, Minow decried the “…game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons,” that daily poured from his television. “Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better?”
His address was greeted with scowls from the assembled broadcasters. But Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” address, as it’s widely known, ignited a still-hot debate about the uses and responsibilities of mass broadcasting.
“I think the message got through,” says Minow today. “But I think it wasn’t only harsh things to say. I think I pointed out that when broadcasting was good there was nothing better – which I happen to believe. I’m a television junkie, and watch it all the time.”
To this day, the phrase “vast wasteland” remains shorthand for everything that’s wrong with modern communications. Perhaps it was too memorable: Minow says that oft-quoted phrase – vast wasteland – obscured the real message of his address.
“The two words that I wish were remembered were public interest,” says Minow, “not vast wasteland. As long as we remember, and broadcasters remember, that they have major public responsibilities, that’s what counts.”
50 years later, much has changed. Then, TV came over the air and phone by wires – these days that’s nearly reversed. And there was no Internet in 1961. The wealth of digital video choices online is generally a good thing, he says, but comes with a the lack of accountability and sense of responsibility. In other words, the wasteland has just moved online:
“If you’re a discerning viewer, there’s plenty of good stuff, and also plenty of bad stuff. What I wanted to do, and I believe we succeeded in it, is enlarge the range of choice for the viewer. So we opened up cable. We opened up UHF. We opened up satellites. We did everything we could to enlarge choice, to enable more people to become broadcasters, and to enable the viewer and the listener to have a wider range from which to pick the programs he or she wanted to see.
“To me, anyone who believes in freedom – as I do – would argue the more choice the better. That’s what our country’s all about. The downside is that we’ve lost very often the sense of shared experience, where everyone saw the same program at the same time. For example when the first man landed on the moon, all of us were able to see that. But given the alternatives, I would say the more choice, the better.”
Minow long ago left Washington and is currently senior counsel for Sidley Austin in Chicago. But he never stopped working in, or thinking about, media, and has collected his thoughts in a new essay – “A Vaster Wasteland.” Despite the title, Minow is relatively optimistic about the future of digital communications.
“I see the Internet and television getting married. I see that the two within the next 10, 15, 20 years, will become so intertwined that we won’t know the difference between the Internet and television. I think it’s a very good thing. Just the other day we got the news that we had succeeded in tracking down Osama bin Laden and killing him, and that news flashed around the world in a matter of seconds and everyone across the globe was able to share in that important development.”
Regardless of his wishes, Newton Minow will always be tied to the phrase ‘vast wasteland’, and the important debate it spurred. But his name also lives on in another, if slightly less complimentary, connection from the era:
“One of the great pleasures I had as a result of that speech is that Sherwood Schwartz, the producer of Gilligan’s Island, who didn’t like my speech at all, decided to retaliate by naming the sinking ship in Gilligan’s Island after me – the SS Minow – which I treasure as a reminder of that speech and those days.”