Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Vast Wasteland at 45
Newton Minow was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission shortly after Kennedy took office in 1961. Forty-five years ago today, Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters, and coined the phrase that will appear in the first sentence of his obituary.
When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. 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.
Minow went on to describe what he meant:
You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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 will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.
Minow spoke in an era that's so different from the multichannel, on-demand TV era we live in now that there's almost no comparison--except for the wasteland part. Today, the western is dead, the gangsters come from the 'hood instead of from Italy, and the audience participation shows are known as "reality TV," but everything else Minow criticizes is still taking up space on the dial. Commercials are still annoying and boredom is still a problem, epitomized by the lament that there's all those channels but still nothing on.

(That dreck would proliferate on television in 45 years is mostly a matter of mathematics. There's a whole lot more TV now than there was in Minow's day. In his speech, he refers to "79-and-a-half hours of prime evening time"--a week's total on three networks. If you have the typical 70 channels or so on your cable system, the equivalent number today is something like 1900 hours of "prime evening time" in a week. Perhaps the wonder is that there was so much dreck in Minow's time.)

Minow found it difficult to place blame on the viewers for the situation in 1961:
I do not accept the idea that the present over-all programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don't tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half-a-dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately, it does not reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better -- if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed. I believe in the people's good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.
Minow called upon the broadcasters to offer more balanced choices of viewing--not as easy to do then as now. But as time went by, we got much more than "half-a-dozen additional choices." Broadcasters have delivered the variety Minow sought. But that variety hasn't changed things the way Minow thought it might. We know now that mass taste is in reality every bit as grim as it looked to Minow in 1961. You can unleash "the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination" and some people will watch the results, but many more will plan their entire week around American Idol.

It's easy to criticize broadcasters, as Minow did, for the poor quality of television. (His comments were not well-received in some quarters--the producers of Gilligan's Island named the S.S. Minnow as a slap at the chairman.) Today, we're a bit more realistic than Minow was in 1961. The problem in our country now isn't that people watch TV. It's how. Television, as a medium, is neither good nor bad. It's a conduit, like a garden hose. It's what we do with what we receive that makes the difference. We can water our lawn so it grows, or drown it so it doesn't.

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