Vast Wasteland

Fifty years ago today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters and told them it was time for television to “grow up”.

The bigwigs of broadcasting were not delighted by this dressing down from a bureaucrat. The most benign (and delightful) reaction to Minow from the TV industry came when the producers of Gilligan’s Island named the cast’s ill-fated boat after him.

You can listen to the whole thing if you want, but here’s the famous quote (the long form):

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 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. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Newton Minow is still with us today at age 85, and last month wrote a commentary for The Atlantic about the anniversary of his famous speech. He bemoans the fact that so much emphasis was placed on the words “Vast Wasteland” when he thinks the most important word pair in the talk was “Public Interest”.

But there you go. The result proves his argument. Regardless of what you think you mean to say, opportunistic interpreters will find the most provocative and lucrative part of your statement, and that is what we will peddle. And by “we”, I mean the bazillions of us who make up what some call “the media” of 2011. Minow’s original critique focused mainly on the offerings of three measly networks. Big deal.

Here at Trail Baboon, my preferred method of trivializing significant things is to celebrate them with a silly, sing-songy poem. Why should Newton Minow be spared?

Newton Minow watched TV
and said he was appalled it
did not deserve its public, and
a wasteland’s what he called it.

A two-word slam. A snide remark.
A snotty little slight
That for 50 years has stung
And made us wonder – was he right?

A scolding seldom wins the day.
A snob is just a snob.
And to wag his finger at the box
was Newton Minow’s job.

He did his part. He turned his phrase.
He sang his little song.
But seeing how the landscape changed
We know he got it wrong.

Because Minow didn’t know about
“Apprentice”. The poor guy!
He had not beheld a Hasselhoff
Or seen a CSI

In ’61 no one had watched
Mob Wives or Jersey Shore.
But today we gladly take these shows
To have and to abhor.

The ‘wasteland’ part is accurate
today as in the past
but he blew it when he called
his paltry ‘60’s circus “vast”.

What’s the worst TV show you’ve ever seen?

About these ads

60 thoughts on “Vast Wasteland”

  1. This one is embarrassing….There was a sitcom called “Thankful.” IT was about a pilgrim family one of whom had been to the future and kept trying to clue in the guys with buckles on their hats.

    Like this

  2. I think it Minow had been to the future like the Thankful family member, he would have had to think up an even more stinging rebuke than “vast wasteland”.

    I am a “comfort” tv watcher. I will almost always watch something I’ve seen before, rather than try something new – like a kid who will only eat macaroni and cheese. Favorites include all the non-gory murder mysteries (Columbo, Diagnosis Murder, Matlock, etc), cooking shows and Mythbusters. And Monk.

    About three years ago, on a cold and rainy weekend, I will admit that I watched “Bridezillas” for a couple of hours – just dreadful. But it made me realize that reality tv is like a train wreck… once it’s on, it’s hard to look away. So now I just never stop as I’m surfing by looking for Jessica Fletcher!

    Like this

  3. Morning!

    We don’t have cable so our options are limited thankfully…
    I asked my son this question and he, who doesn’t actually watch TV as much as catch things on the internet later simply said ‘soap operas’ — not that he’s ever actually seen one.
    My wife suggested ‘Hee Haw’ … which was only reinforced when I picked up a ‘Tenth Anniversary Video’ of Hee Haw for Christmas…. oops. (Worst Christmas Gift ever!)

    All I can come up with is any of the reality/dancing/ job/talent/pre-wedding/stupid game-type shows; I don’t watch any of them.

    Not raining yet but a dark cloud on the horizon.

    Like this

  4. Rise and Take Out Your Umbrellas Baboons!

    Wow, did we have some crash, bang thunder and lightening here this morning. The dog required sedation, the true test of a storm’s severity.

    Meanwhile, Dale, Newton Minow? Really? A real name or one of your funnies? I suspect it might be real. I don’t watch a lot of TV these days–most shows just do not engage me. I tried American Idol once, during the early screening process where the judges make fun of people a lot. I couldn’t take it. Cruel and boring is no way to spend time.

    When I was growing up some of the worst shows were Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and Lost in Space. I loved Bonanza at that time. However, now if I am really, really sick and at home in bed I will watch Bonanza and nearly laugh myself silly! Dumb dialogue, dumb plots, and dumb format–three adult males still living at home with Paw. Any woman who appears on the show is doomed. She will be dead by the end of the show. Apparently the writers did not like Girl Germs. But it is entertaining if I am too sick to do anything else!

    Like this

    1. for a while there tvland had gunsmoke and onanza back to back both during the day and at 4-6 am …heaven. mindless jack armstrong stories of the americana days of my youth. i didn’t know adam was in so many. he left in whatever year and i remembered most of them with just little joe and hoss. then hoss died… shows over ben and little joe were clones just 40 years apart. no more aw sucks from hoss or the world is not fair from adam, just little joe and ben being macho doorknobs who don’t understand why the world doesn’t like guys who own the whole territory and won’t share.
      gunsmoke.. the writers must have had to come up with an idea for a plot and 6 words of dialog, miss kitty festus and matt would bring the dead guys to doc and the next show would be on tomorrow. the macaroni and cheese of tv.
      i think tv is great, the vidiot element is alays going to be there but yu have to lok around at who you are trying to appeal to. the masses are hapy to be seduced by survivor and dance wth the stars. cute stuff to see marie osmnd faint form embarrassment or the island survivors ct each others throats. the other stuff you have to dig a bt for is worth it though. its like going to the library the janet evonovich is right there next to the shakespear. the bill o riely next to the tom friedman. free speech is a bitch, you have to listen to idiots. did you see the michele bachman bit n saturday night live? worst ever? maybe alf or something like it. there were lots.. and griffith and leave it to beaver make up for it.twilight zone, smothers brothers, austin city limits, nova,
      ed sullivan, star trek, i happened to see a show the other day passing the tv and it was funny as could be, had to look it up it was scrubs.. funny intelligent, great stuff possible and now the taste is split up enough with 10 channels that the little stuff has a chance. any das and nights of molly dod fans out there. i loved that show 20 years ago. off to vegas for the week. the time table will raise havoc. ill be gone by shortly after new post if not before so i will check in when im not cleaning out the bank vaults at the belligio and ceasars

      Like this

      1. I loved The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd – have to see if my local Video Universe has that, thanks for the reminder, tim.

        Like this

    2. Jacque — I never noticed at the time, but you are correct. Females didn’t do well on Bonanza. Kinda like the red-shirted members of the away team on Star Trek.

      Like this

      1. Females didn’t do well on Gunsmoke either, except Miss Kitty. I always got a kick out of the fact she was the only co-star of a major tv series whose job was being the madam of a bordello.

        Like this

      2. No they didn’t. But my sister and I have developed a great Schtick about it. Meanwhile, somebody in the family found a “Bonanza Christmas Carols” CD that has floated back and forth to family members as a joke gift for years. It is truly terrible “Talk Singing” by all cast members.

        Why did they do it?

        Like this

      3. That would be worth watching, Renee. Sort of like one of my Morning Show favorites was somebody with Steve Earle’s (I think) group calling a square dance in Chinese…

        Like this

    3. I must beg to differ on Gilligan’s Island-all the coconut/bamboo props were worth it alone-but add in Hamlet set to Bizet’s Carmen I think Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach-we are talking culture. It was also my intro to the “Beats” -too young to know about them first hand.

      In the name of culture, I have also been introducing the s&h to my beloved sci-fi-I love Lorne Greene, on the Ponderosa or on the Battlestar. I always thought if he and Barbara Stanwyck linked up, the Cartwright-Barclays would probably have owned all of California (and then some).

      Like this

    4. Jacque, I could not make up a name line Newton Minow.
      He is very real, and quite an accomplished person. You have to wonder if having an unusual name gives a person a boost in life.

      Like this

  5. As I was doing some recycling this morning I recalled The Gong Show was pretty bad.

    Like this

    1. the gong show was the best ever. a case of it was so bad it was good. nice to have you checking in regularly steve. one river valley boy to another.

      Like this

      1. The Gong Show was certainly a pre-curser for all the “competition” shows that are currently out there and that I detest. I don’t mind competition where somebody gets names a winner. Fine. But all the shows out there (this includes cooking shoes!) where people get voted off or axed (as well as demeaned and ridiculed) drive me bonkers. I won’t watch anything where people get eliminated.

        Like this

      2. shows. (although if you get voted off for cooking shoes, I won’t watch that either)

        Like this

  6. What is so tricky here is that the worst TV is the stuff I haven’t watched, so the question becomes what is the worst of the stuff you actually have watched. Both Fox and CNN have run “news” shows that were obscene distortions of the true values of journalism. Shows like “Bridezilla” and “Jerry Springer” present human nature in such a debased way that I could weep.

    It is more fun to talk about good old fashioned crappy TV, and I have watched some of that. I have a special place in my heart for “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” a submarine tv drama. At least once a week that poor sub would get in trouble and the actors would run from one side of the ship to the other and slap their hands on it while the camera did a rolling maneuver meant to look like the ship was tipping this way and that. Each time they got to the other side about a dozen gauges would explode in sparks and smoke, and I used to assume they both gauges in case lots because a typical dramatic event would use up close to 200.

    That’s the show that delivered my all-time favorite tv dramatic line. Two characters are about to enter a locked room where a monster lurks. They check their pistols. One say, “You know, Jeff, I don’t care if he is a werewolf. He’ll always be the captain to me.” I’ve gone through life hoping for a chance to use that line.

    Like this

    1. I was also a “Voyage” fan and “Time Tunnel” as well. I watched a lot more tv when I was a kid and watching tv at night w/ my dad was part of our day. Another one we both liked was “The Invaders”… although it was a little spooky and every now and then caused me some scary dreams. I used to look at people’s hands out in public to see if anybody had the stiff little finger!

      Like this

  7. When I was young I could hardly wait in the afternoon until all the soap operas were over so I could watch cartoons. I remember that sinking feeling I would get after lunch when this big revolving globe would appear, signaling As the World Turns. I think the soaps are all pretty bad, and have always been pretty bad. I never liked Mr. Ed either, or My Favorite Martian.

    Like this

    1. I have to differ with you on My Favorite Martian, Renee.
      I like Martians generally, and I thought it would be cool to have retractable antennae in my head.
      Still would, although they’d be tough to hide, given my hairline.

      Like this

  8. Good morning to all:

    The TV shows that come to mind right away as some of the worst are those, like the Jerry Springer Show, where people who are in bad shape are paid to be on TV and show off thier worst side as a form of entertainment. I don’t watch these shows and always switch to another show as soon as I see what they are up to.

    I don’t mind seeing somewhat gross stuff on TV, like all the odd stuff that was done on The Gong Show, which was one of my favorites. Being entertained by preformers doing gross stuff is okay, as far as I’m concerned. However, I think it is in very bad taste to have people who are in bad shape show off their faults as a form of entertainment on TV.

    Like this

  9. I’ve watched so many bad programs, I can’t even single one out…easier to mention the programs I think are good…BBC Masterpiece Theater (most not all), Mystery Theater…Monk, Boston Legal. Currently running the gamut of Netflix BBC mysteries including Midsomer Murders, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and Inspector Lynley….to name the current bests in my book.

    Like this

      1. Yup…and…oh, my queue list is long and getting longer. BiB, we should exchange lists in case you know some I don’t. Have you checked out the Lovejoy series yet?

        Like this

      2. pretty sure we’ve done Lovejoy. Steve remembers, so Blue Murder, Inspector Magret, and another one we can’t remember the name but might have the word “line” in it. a psychologist professor/profiler kind who carries around a blue plastic bag with him everywhere……

        Like this

  10. I’ve always avoided watching TV during the worst wasteland hours, from about 1AM till 5PM. Once I turned on Oprah, thinking how bad could it be? Thought she might be interviewing a good author or something. The show that day was all about Oprah’s birthday party, and it was like a House on the Rock version of a birthday party – they kept talking about how much the dinner service cost and how many trucks it took to deliver the flowers and where the food was shipped in from halfway around the world, and there were tables sagging with the weight of all of Oprah’s favorite ridiculously expensive gifts she got for her birthday and on and on, just a big spectacle of excess. I avoid Oprah at all costs now.

    I usually just turn it off if it’s bad. But the other thing I can remember watching was the famous OJ Simpson car chase. My recollection was that there was a Twins game on TV that night, which they interrupted with this breaking news about OJ, and I kept thinking surely they would go back to the ball game soon, because they had all these cameras on the vehicle and nothing was happening. Just this slow crawl down the freeway, and the anchors had absolutely nothing to say, so they just kept repeating, “Well, just to recap the events so far…” I finally turned it off.

    Like this

    1. Ahhh…. now if we could only have turned off my FATHER during the OJ Simpson trial. My father was an attorney and he was absolutely fascinated by the OJ mess; he couldn’t get enough of it. Like most news stories that are beat to death, I was tired of it almost immediately. But my father just couldn’t understand that not everybody wanted to immerse themselves in it. I had to hang up on him a couple of times when he just kept talking about it after I had said I was done w/ the subject!

      Like this

      1. I happen to call my brother in law during the final sentencing part of the OJ trial. I had forgotten that was going on and he hung up on ME so he could watch and listen.

        Like this

  11. Oh, yes…good rainy morning,..Monday morning at that. Remember when April showers come in May…maybe June will be warm and sunny.

    Like this

  12. Some of the scariest stuff in the world is being run on Japanese TV. It is no accident that the most mean-spirited TV show currently running is a knock-off of a Japanese show. I refer to what in this country is called “Wipeout,” a reality show that has people running a gauntlet of devices designed to knock them into the water below. The collisions between contestants and machinery are dreadful, and we get to see them slow-mo three times, with bodies bouncing around like the balls in a pinball machine. It’s the best show on TV these days for sadists.

    Like this

  13. I will ‘fess up to watching both the Captain and Tennille show and Donny and Marie back when those sorts of variety shows were…loved when Marie would ice skate and Tennille would do goofy stuff with their songs (they managed to make “Muskrat Love” even goofier). “Three’s Company” was another that I couldn’t keep myself from watching – not highbrow or classy even remotely, but the pratfalls were good. There was also “The Hardy Boys Mysteries” with the very dreamy Parker Stevenson – I’m guessing if I were to watch any episodes now I would see just how bad they were. Ah, but the Muppet Show is the show I miss the most from that era…

    Jerry Springer was recently on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” – he is a remarkably dry wit, and a pretty smart guy. Pity he’s stuck with such a lousy show (and he admits it’s bad TV) – he didn’t want the show to be what it became…but he’s willing to take the money to do it. It should come as no surprise that he has a background in politics (as well as legitimate news) – think he was a mayor. He was a good “Not My Job” guest.

    Like this

  14. I have spent way too much time watching sports on TV. In fact, I still spend more time than I think I should watching sports on TV. When I was a kid I loved watching boxing on TV. I don’t watch boxing any more because it is just too brutal. Once in a while I am tempted to watch a boxing match and have to remind myself I really don’t want to watch a sport where someone could be very easily severly injured or even killed.

    Like this

  15. a gracious good morning to You All – wet and chilly though it is.
    Love Boat and Fantasy Island and any of the Bachelor stuff. well, any reality. like VS i really hate watching people being insulted, yelled at and i don’t think it’s entertaining in the least. – although i have never watched any of them so i shouldn’t judge. but then i absolutely love “Dexter” – he only kills people htat need killing :-) . we’re waiting for the next season to come out on Netflix.
    we don’t get cable either, Ben, so there’s not much on many nights. Netflix is a lifesaver.

    stay warm and dry

    Like this

  16. I just remembered one of my least favorite TV personalities, Martha Steward. I first saw her on the Today Show doing cooking. I wondered why they would have a person on who had such a painted on smile and seemed to act like she was better than everyone else.

    Like this

    1. I managed to watch one part of her show where she was talking about bushel baskets as if they were easily found and everyone had several laying about…happened that I had just been in search of one for gathering things while working in the yard – I dunno what planet she lives on, but bushel baskets are not the cheap, readily available commodity she seemed to think they are. Haven’t watched anything since as it was clear that her reality and mine were vastly different.

      Like this

      1. I have seen parts of several Martha Steward shows where she did things like you mentioned, Anna, such as one where she decorated a tree for Christmas with very large expensive ornaments that most people can’t afford.

        Like this

  17. Well, y’all have mentioned a lot of the really horrible stuff. I think the mind numbing, wall-to-wall coverage of tragedies like JFK Jr.’s plane crash hits bottom for me. And of course, all the channels cover it so you can’t get to see any of the usual trash.

    I was given DVDs of some old sitcoms, and so far The Dick Van Dyke Show is a lot less funny now than it was then… I’m going to Iowa Wed. and will maybe watch George Burns/Gracie Allen Show, and can weigh in on that later. :)

    Off topic: Is the Blevins Book Club still meeting this coming Sunday? I forgot it’s my choir concert day, so if we are, I’ll be absent.

    Like this

      1. I have an email reply from tim indicating that the book club meeting is on and I am planning to be there. Tim was not clear on the start time which he said was 2 or 3 o’clock. I would like to find out more exactly when the meeting starts.

        Like this

  18. My son once starting watching a Gilligan’s Island rerun in a waiting room and asked if we could stay”Just til they get off the island.” He was annoyed when I said that we didn’t have that kind of time

    Like this

    1. That is a very large blanket statement, since most television is not on PBS.
      In a world full of an exhausting number of options, there’s something attractive about limiting the possibilities. They say the appeal of Twitter is in the limitation to 140 characters. I wonder if there would be a market for a TV set that could only get one channel?
      Thanks for the comment, Kathy.

      Like this

      1. I have that set, almost. We dropped cable, so only have broadcast. Now we find the TV can not tune channel 11. PBS is about the only thing worth watching now.

        I am, however, addicted to the BBC “Top Gear” show via Netflix. It’s mostly about cars that are far too expensive for me to ever own. I watch it more because the show is just very funny.

        Like this

Comments are closed.