Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Infinite Wasteland - Television 50 Years After Minow's Vast Wasteland

When Newton Minow gave his now famous Television and Public Interest Speech (or "Wasteland Speech") as head of the FCC under President John Kennedy in 1961 the world and television were very different from how they are now. At the time there were only three networks in the United States, demographics were less diverse, and a conservative social culture provided a sort of unwritten code for what was acceptable on television. However much of Minnow's speech remains not just relevant but absolutely significant to this day. Unfortunately much of it could still pertain to television today almost as much as it did back then.

In his speech Minow said: "Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership." While relatively television has improved in this regard with stations like PBS, National Geographic, and the History Channel the medium is also directly responsible for the dumbing down of society with programming like The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Even in a world with hundreds of channels available on cable that air content 24/7 Minow's challenge to "sit down in front of your television set...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" would be a painful one to endure. If you stick to the major networks and local channels you will still have to sit through countless game, phony judge, and dysfunctional family shows that offer no educational or artistic merit.

It would seem that in the years since, television has not heeded Minow's words that "We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation". Indeed, it seems apparent from the state of channels like MTV and TMZ that some in television seek only to exploit mind numbing entertainment for the sake of ratings. Even major news networks like CNN are guilty of running ridiculous entertainment or "fluff" pieces that aren't in the interest of anyone.

The Kennedy/Nixon debate and Edward Murrow's Harvest of Shame, both of which aired a year before Minow's address in 1960 were exemplary of the kind of content Minow hoped the networks would more often pursue. And television did improve in response to Minow's remarks. The informative, historically enlightening broadcast of the White House Tour by Jacqueline Kennedy was an example of it at the time and since then television has become home to more challenging, creatively satisfying content such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men that have broke the ceiling of what is thought to be acceptable as television entertainment. However one flip through my TV Guide convinces me that here fifty years later we have not entirely achieved the goals, ambitions, and hopes that Minow laid out for the medium.

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk


In addition to books on the metamorphosis of television over the years, the library also has an extensive T.V. series collection. Stop by and check out both classic and modern television shows and compare them for yourself. Where do you think the evolution of television is headed?