Today is the anniversary of Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech. It’s a landmark in the history of broadcasting because Minow had just been elevated from his position as just a guy with a name that sounds like an idea for a fish-flavored soft cookie, to the the exalted chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appointed to lead the regulatory agency by President John F. Kennedy.
Minow was talking to the 1961 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters and he didn’t mince words as he challenged his listeners to watch a day of television from the moment of sign on, when the programming started, to sign off, when it stopped.
Yes, children, there was a time in history when the television stations would actually be quiet at the end of a day.
Minow argued that “a vast wasteland” was on display.
“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.”
The speech was a challenge to broadcasters to change their programming approach and do their work in the public interest. Wikipedia claims it was selected as one of twenty five “Speeches That Changed the World,” which is a ridiculous claim.
Minow didn’t change the world. Broadcasters pretty much ignored him and went about their business. When Gilligan’s Island debuted three years later, the shipwrecked boat was named after Minow.
Years later, Minow said he was really advocating for providing more choices for viewers, and in 2015 we can see that technology has certainly taken care of that. But the broadly uplifting and ardently educational medium he imagined at the time did not materialize outside the creation of Masterpiece Theater and Sesame Street.
If Minow did anything at all in 1961, he merely predicted the empty, miserable, disappointing future of broadcasting.
When have you said the thing your audience didn’t want to hear?