Newton Minow

Newton Minow–The Vast Wasteland Revisited, Part I

VTR Date: May 13, 1989

Guest: Minow, Newton


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Newton Minow, Esq.
Title: “The Vast Wasteland Revisited…Newton Minow”, Part I
VTR: 5/13/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, which marks its 33rd anniversary as we record this program. For it was in May, 1956 that I began OPEN MIND, two years before Edward R. Murrow would say of the medium’s masters that he could find “nothing in the Bill of Rights…which says they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse”. And, when we began, it was still five years before, in a closely related remark, today’s OPEN MIND guest was to burst upon the communications scene with his bold insistence that American television was “a vast wasteland”.

It was Newton Minow who mad “vast wasteland” such an instantly recognizable shorthand for American television…do so not in the halls of academe, mind you, or as a critic far removed from the fray. Rather, Mr. Minow was John F. Kennedy’s recently appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission…and he was doing his never-to-be-forgotten bearding right there in the lion’s very den: May 9, 1961 at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Mr. Minow had told his audience: “Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America”. And lest his operative words – vast wasteland – now seem only a fleshless anachronism three decades later, let me read part of what he also said. Then you judge how relevant it is today:

“Like everybody”, said the Chairman, “I wear more than one hat. I am the Chairman of the FCC. I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile, and I’m not talking about the much bemoaned good old days…I‘m talking about this past season…programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. 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”, he said, “to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and…keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. 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”.

Of course, what I must ask Mr. Minow now is whether, by and large, he would describe American television more or less the same way today, with a few bright spots, to be sure. Mr. Minow, is it still a “vast wasteland”?

Minow: We still, I’m afraid, Dick, waste a magnificent medium. We don’t make the full use of its great potential to educate, inform, entertain. There are, I think, many, many differences with today’s television. We have such an expansion of choice, with cable, with the growth in the number of stations, so there…it’s a very different thing than it was years ago. Sports and news, I think, are covered better today than they were in the 60s. Day-to-day entertainment programming, I’m afraid, still underestimates the viewer.

Heffner: Why? Why does it?

Minow: It’s a hard thing for me to understand because I think most television programmers think the public is not as smart as it really is. I think it has to do with…the same thing was true in the movies for many years. For many years people said that the average American had an intelligence level of about twelve years of age, and I think the same thing carried over somehow into television, that we tend to underestimate people.

Heffner: But it these people, the masters of the media, are as smart as they are, and they are smart, and you’ve never denied that, otherwise…

Minow: They are…

Heffner: Okay. How come they don’t know…

Minow: Well, let me…

Heffner: …what you claim to be the fact?

Minow: Many of them are caught in a kind of a cruel dilemma, too. We set up broadcasting in America with an ambivalence of goals. We said it should be a private business where people would raise money, risk money on it, and have to earn money in return. We also said it was a business affected with the public interest, and so we started off with contradictory ideas right from the very beginning of the history of the Federal Communications Act.

Heffner: Yes, but then which way did it go? Both?

Minow: It went both ways, but I’m afraid it went more toward the marketplace than it did toward serving the public with a view…not with its first eye on the profit and loss sheet.

Heffner: Well, look, I, I…reading back at that speech of May 9, 1961, so many more…many more than just the phrase “vast wasteland”, so many good, important points. You say, “Yours is a most honorable profession. Anyone who is in the broadcasting business has a tough row to hoe. You earn your bread by using public property. When you work in broadcasting you volunteer for public service, public pressure, and public regulation”. Now, do they, did they not know that?

Minow: Of course they did. And…and I’ve been on all sides of this. In addition to serving in the government, I’ve been very deeply involved in public broadcasting, was Chairman of our station in Chicago, WTTW; Chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service; I’m deeply involved in commercial television, I’m a Director of CBS, so I see all sides of this from many different perspectives, and I think that what has really happened with this medium is that unfortunately, when it…when technology gave it to us, not enough thought went into how it could best serve the public.

Heffner: But maybe your basic premise is wrong. I would share that premise, or I would want to share that premise with you, but maybe it’s wrong. You say…not now…the question of “they must bear the responsibility for serving the public”, but you say, “They are mistaken, they underestimate the intelligence and the taste of the American public. If there is such a thing as democracy, Frank Stanton and others have called it, ‘cultural democracy’, and they vote with their fingers. Who are we to say that their choice is one that we would reject?”

Minow: You can’t put on a great program every hour. Any more than there’s a great play on Broadway every hour, or a great newspaper Pulitzer Prize-winning article every day, or a great magazine article every month. You can’t be perfect all the time. I could make a better case, it seems to me, for the broadcasters than they’ve made for themselves.

Heffner: How?

Minow: If I were arguing the broadcasters side exclusively, I would simply say, “We’re on seven days a week, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. It is impossible, given the limits of human creativity, to put on something great every minute. If we provide a half a dozen hours a week to the American people that are of distinction, of enriching value, that’s pretty good”.

Heffner: Yeah, but Newt, that, that…

Minow: That’s the argument I would make.

Heffner: But that’s putting it on the level of excellence, rather than on the level of orientation. Suppose one were to grant you can’t make…cant’ do…can’t broadcast…can’t write, create, direct, produce great things all the time, but we’re talking here about the level at which so many programs are aimed.

Minow: That’s where I agree, and I think it’s aimed at a level which, as I say…if not underestimates, I believe, even insults, the American viewer. Ironically, it is television, itself…television, itself, and radio, which have informed the nation over a period of years, constantly giving the average citizen a higher level of sophistication and information. But broadcasting, instead of staying ahead of that curve, has slipped behind it, in my judgment.

Heffner: Well, I keep coming back to the question and you say it beats you, too, how to, how to answer it, not the question of…which is perfectly understandable, “How can they produce excellence all the time?”, but rather the assumption about where the American public is. They haven’t lost that way, have they? They haven’t lost making those bets?

Minow: Well, I think…

Heffner: They’ve won.

Minow: I think it was Mencken that said “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the people”. You can make money that way. I don’t doubt that. But I don’t think it fulfills what people were dreaming of when the medium was invented.

Heffner: But that’s another point, isn’t it? I mean there are…aren’t there two distinct points, one, the people really want to be served better with a higher level, if I may use that phrase, of programming. The broadcaster says, “Look at my bank account, look at the ratings”. When I was at CBS and Walter Lippmann would do his annual, or semi-annual interview, I think it was with Eric Sevareid, in prime-time, the ratings went down, down, down. Excellent material in terms of what you wanted the broadcaster…the way you wanted the broadcaster to serve the public, but not in terms of what the public would look at in as large numbers as it would look at other things.

Minow: I had the privilege of having lunch with Walter Lippmann in Washington when he was doing those programs. He took me to lunch and he said that he had just done his first interview on television. He was very disappointed because the rating was way down. I said, “What was the rating, Mr. Lippmann?” He said, “Well, only about six million people saw it”. I said, “Only about six million people saw it?” I said, “How many people, Mr. Lippmann, do you think read your column every day?” I said, “I guarantee you it is nowhere near six million people. If you did a really careful readership study, my guess is that it’s less than a million. The difference in the numbers in television is because it is much a mass medium reaching every home. Six million people e is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s to be proud of”.

Heffner: But then, why not drop the argument about the accuracy with which the broadcaster estimates, underestimates, the American public, and why not simply talk about obligation?

Minow: I think we should. Unfortunately, in the last eight or nine years, the Federal Communications Commission has gone in exactly the opposite direction. It has regarded broadcasting as a business, purely a business, to be governed purely by the marketplace. An FCC chairman went so far as to say, “A television set is nothing but a toaster with pictures, and the government should just leave it alone and just let…regulate it the way we regulate the manufacturers of toasters”.

Well, I just think that misses the entire point, and I think, in fact I believe, I’m convinced, that these things go in phases, and sometime during the 90s we will have a reassertion of the public interest involving a regulation of broadcasting.

Heffner: Is there any indication that broadcasters themselves sense that? That there will be a movement back to regulation, or at least a movement back to something more akin to what was going on when you were Chairman?

Minow: Thoughtful broadcasters do. I’m afraid that…I remember what Adlai Stevenson said when he ran for President. I was with him the first time in 1952. He finished a speech and a woman came up and was very excited and she said, “After listening to that speech Governor Stevenson, every thoughtful American is going to vote for you”. He said, “Madam, that isn’t enough…”.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Minow: “…I need a majority”…and I’m afraid the same thing is true about broadcasters.

Heffner: Then what will happen. What do you see as the future?

Minow: Well, we’ve taken a different route now with the explosion of channels. I think what will really happen is something like this…the television industry will become almost like radio, with the great explosion of choice, the mass audience will be sub-divided, and sub-divided again, into smaller groups. For those people who want all news, they’ll find an all-news station. For those people who want all sports, they’ll find an all-sports station. For those people who want all foreign language, they’ll find an all foreign language station. For those people who want a children’s channel, they’ll find a children’s channel, and so on. So I believe that the fully rounded broadcast schedule that we used to talk about is going to require a great deal of channel switching by the viewer to find what he wants in many, many, many more stations. That’s not all bad. If you value choice as the prime value in a free society, that everybody should have freedom of choice to the maximum extent possible. That has a lot to be said for it.

Heffner: How will that impact upon the traditional networks?

Minow: I think the traditional networks, and I’m involved with one, as I mentioned, are going to find a very different kind of a challenge. I think we can still provide the best news service available. We can still, from time to time, provide the best entertainment, but we’re going to find that our audience is going to get smaller.

Heffner: How, then, will commercial broadcasters, the traditional networks, be able to provide that “best in news” and “best in entertainment” if they shrink in size?

Minow: It’s a very big dilemma that many people are wondering about. If you’re in the cable business, you’re allowed to have two sources of income, you can get income from your subscribers who pay you a monthly fee, you can also have advertising income. If you’re in the traditional broadcasting business, you only have one source of income, which is advertising, which really isn’t fair. And that battle is going to be in Congress, I’m sure over the next few years, and some re-shaping of the industry will emerge.

Heffner: Will you make the assumption that the re-shaping will take the, take the anti-consumer shape of having us pay twice everywhere?

Minow: I don’t think so, because I think the Congress when it addresses the question is not going to want to see all the great events of the country. Let’s take the Olympics or the World Series, or the Super Bowl…is not going to want to see that part of the country can’t see those things because they can’t afford the cable bill.

Heffner: Doesn’t that, in fact…you say the Congress will not respond well to that notion, but the congress had not responded well to many notions that end up being written into law, or developing anyway. You look into the future, you really don’t think that there will be a basic pay system that is going to eliminate what we’ve called “free television”.

Minow: What we’ve called “free broadcasting”? I don’t think so because I think it’s too essential to the national interest to have free broadcasting continue.

Heffner: Of course you think that the proper use, as you see it, of television in political campaigns is so necessary…

Minow: It’s…

Heffner: …to the future of the country.

Minow: We’re one of the few countries in the world operating as a democracy with a democratic process which requires candidates to pay to carry their case to the voters. In almost every other country time is provided, is mandated as a condition of the license to be provided without cost to the candidates. We have, we have butchered our system to the point that the cost of campaigning had become a scandal, and we’re ending up, sooner or later, with the best kind of public officials money can buy, and it’s largely because of the cost of radio and television.

Heffner: Yes, but of course, I raise that question because the certainty that you had demonstrated before in terms of what the Congress will do in relation to its sense of what’s best for the American people. We worked together…what…twenty years ago…

Minow: That’s right.

Heffner: And more on the Twentieth Century Fund Commission on Campaign Costs in the Electronic Era…

Minow: We proposed a very sensible reform called “Voters’ Time”, we proposed that candidates for president and vice-president be allocated a certain amount of time on television, without cost to them, to present their case to the public.

Heffner: Of course, the brilliance of your…of your working at that was that you wanted something paid by the candidates in return for that, and that was a willingness to participate in real debates…

Minow: That’s right.

Heffner: …in real encounters. We haven’t had that.

Minow: We haven’t had that. Democracy works very slowly as you know very well, Dick. You taught this course in college for a long, long time. Democracy works very slowly and it takes a long time for everybody to understand the issues. But I’m still convinced that in the end we will reform this system, because if we don’t we’ll collapse.

Heffner: I think back so often to, I think it was our first meeting, the first meeting of the Commission, and Tommy Cochran said, “This is what’s going to happen”…

Minow: Yes.

Heffner: …”there will be some bills introduced, but maybe ten, twenty, thirty years, something will be affected”. Maybe he’ll be proved to be a prophet.

Minow: I hope so.

Heffner: But, look, let me, let me go back for a minute…I want to pick up again, you’ve already agreed you’re going to stay for a second program…

Minow: Yes.

Heffner: …so that we’ll get back to the question of politics. You’ve said, and I…you told this wonderful story at one point in a piece that you wrote, you said, “Suppose you were given this multiple choice question, ‘Which of the following is the most important educational institution in America?”, a) Harvard, b) Yale, c) The University of California, d) none of the above”. I didn’t like the fact that you didn’t put in my alma mater…

Minow: (Laughter)

Heffner: …”the correct answer”, you write, “is d) none of the above. Television is the greatest and most powerful instrument of education ever created. More people learn more, more ideas, most values through television that through any other source”. And I wanted to ask you, if this is such a great educational medium, and if we have traditionally in this country, at least from K through 12, kindergarten through high school, licensed those who teach our children…do you have any sense about strengthening the license requirements of stations that function in terms of what you, as Chairman of the FCC, and your colleagues, gave them the right to broadcast?

Minow: We should have at the very beginning established a set of public interest, minimum, equivalent to the minimum wage requirements in the law, that broadcasters would have to provide. That’s what most countries have done. Let’s take a country like Australia. Australia, in its broadcasting law, says X number of hours must be devoted to children’s programming without commercials. Australia’s a free country, it does not somehow seem to have gone into the Dark Ages as a result of that kind of a system, and children have benefited greatly from having very fine children’s television. We didn’t do that in America. We chose…when television began there was no debate about it. The word “television” didn’t even go into the Federal Communications Act for about thirty years after television began. There was no attention paid to it. As a result, we didn’t really think the thing through, and we have this mish-mash, this ambivalence of our system which I’m afraid, with all its good qualities, I don’t minimize them, I don’t minimize them at all, as you reminded me in that speech of so many years ago, I don’t minimize them, but we do not fulfill the potential it could give us.

Heffner: I don’t see, but that doesn’t make any difference…the question is whether you see any likelihood that that will be turned around.

Minow: Well, I’m very hopeful that the public broadcasting system in our country will be strengthened. I’m very involved with the help of Ambassador Walter Annenberg, who gave one hundred and fifty million dollars, a hundred and fifty million dollars, to create a “University of the Air” equivalent through television. We now have courses which many, many, many Americans are taking, through television, where they can learn all kinds of subjects, ranging from history and mathematics and political science, a lot of older people are taking the courses as well as younger people. So I believe that through public broadcasting, non-commercial broadcasting, and through the revolution of video cassettes, which are not so dominant in half the American homes, through the distribution of video cassettes through public libraries, that everyone will be able to get an education, largely through television.

Heffner: Commercial broadcasters, some responsible people in commercial broadcasting used to say, “Look, we want…we can, we want to, we will do it all”. Are you suggesting now a clear division between the educational function, which you recognize so well, and the entertainment function?

Minow: I wouldn’t let the commercial broadcasters off the hook. I think…

Heffner: Why not? Seriously, why not let them off the hook, and have the alternative system that you’ve worked so hard to create?

Minow: I wouldn’t let them off the hook unless there was a well-funded, non-commercial system, which doesn’t exist. If the commercial broadcasters, as part of a trade-off say “We no longer want to have a public interest obligation. We don’t want that, but we will figure out a way so that the American people can get that, and we’ll somehow provide the funding”, that would be a different story. But as long as commercial broadcasters use the public airways, without cost to them, and we turn down other people who want to use the public airways, then I think there must be a public service obligation paid by them in exchange for that gift.

Heffner: It’s so interesting, the way that simple, but very clear idea has been obfuscated over the past two decades.

Minow: Well, the broadcasters have started an argument which…where they say, “Why should we be regulated? There are now more broadcast stations than there are newspapers”.

Heffner: You have an answer to that?

Minow: Well, of course I do. And I’ve testified in Congress about that. When a broadcast channel opens up, we have as many as twenty-eight people fighting for it, screaming, “Give it to me. Don’t give it to the other twenty-seven. Give it to me”. when a newspaper closes, when the Chicago Daily News closes in Chicago, or the newspaper closes in Philadelphia, or the New York Herald Tribune closes in New York, or a paper fails in Baltimore, or a paper fails in Washington, DC, you don’t have twenty-seven people standing in line saying “Give it to me”, you only have one, you don’t have any. So how can you argue that because there are more broadcast stations than newspapers, that there’s no scarcity? I believe that as long as people want broadcast channels, apply for them, cannot get them because there are not enough of them to go around, that therefore there is still a scarcity in broadcasting, and the obligation to serve the public, as a condition of a broadcast license, continues.

Heffner: With that scarcity argument you would then support, I’m sure, the notion of a Fairness Doctrine, which went by the boards.

Minow: I do, and I’ve testified in Congress about that, but began my testimony by saying, “I’m a Director of CBS, and a former Chairman of PBS, neither agree with any word of what I’m about to tell you, but I support the Fairness Doctrine, and I believe it should be continued”.

Heffner: You think it will?

Minow: Yes. I do. Because I believe Congress is going to insist on it.

Heffner: You know, we’re right at the end of this program. You promised to stay for the next. I do want to talk about the Fairness Doctrine, and there are so many other things that come from your vast wasteland speech and that come from the thirty years, almost that separate us from that speech. Thank you so much for joining me today, Newton Minow.

Minow: Thank you, Dick.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.