Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The "Vast Wasteland" of Television
In 1961, President Kennedy's newly appointed head of the Federal Communication Commission, Newton Minow addressed the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. It became known as the "Vast Wasteland" speech as Minow, excoriated the state of commercial tv of the day. Minow is still an advocate for good television as well as a practicing lawyer in Chicago. During the election campaign he declared himself a Barack Obama supporter.
It's worth re-reading.
Thank you for this opportunity to meet with you today. This is my first public address since I took over my new job. It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and respect.
I admire your courage--but that doesn't mean I would make life any easier for you. Your license lets you use the public's airwaves as trustees for 180 million Americans. The public is your beneficiary. If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public--not only to your stockholders. So, as a representative of the public, your health and your product are among my chief concerns.
I have confidence in your health. But not in your product. I am here to uphold and protect the public interest. What do we mean by "the public interest?" Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.
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.
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 badmen, 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.
Sentenced to prime time
Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can't do better? Well, a glance at next season's proposed programming can give us little heart. Of 73 1/2 hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours to categories of "action-adventure," situation comedy, variety, quiz shows and movies.
Is there one network president in this room who claims he can't do better? Well, is there at least one network president who believes that the other networks can't do better? Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your beneficiaries is overdue. Never have so few owed so much to so many.
Why is so much of television so bad? I have heard many answers: demands of your advertisers; competition for ever-higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material--these are some of them. Unquestionably these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers.
But I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them . . . and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.
What about the children?
Certainly I hope you will agree that ratings should have little influence where children are concerned. It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school and church. Today there is a fourth great influence, and you ladies and gentlemen control it.
If parents, teachers and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays and no Sunday school. What about your responsibilities? There are some fine children's shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence and more violence. Must these be your trademarks?
Let me make clear that what I am talking about is balance. You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a western and a symphony, more people will watch the western. I like westerns and private eyes too--but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. 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. You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation's whims--you must also serve the nation's needs.
And I would add this--that if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience.
I want to make clear some of the fundamental principles which guide me.
First: The people own the air. They own it as much in prime evening time as they do at 6 o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something. I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.
Second: I think it would be foolish and wasteful for us to continue any worn-out wrangle over the problems of payola, rigged quiz shows and other mistakes of the past. There are laws on the books, which we will enforce. But there is no chip on my shoulder.
Third: I believe in the free enterprise system. I want to see broadcasting improved and I want you to do the job. I am proud to champion your cause. It is not rare for American businessmen to serve a public trust. Yours is a special trust because it is imposed by law.
Fourth: I will do all I can to help educational television. There are still not enough educational stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels.
Fifth: I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes.
Sixth: I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public's airwaves. I believe in the gravity of my own particular sector of the New Frontier. There will be times perhaps when you will consider that I take myself or my job too seriously. Frankly, I don't care if you do.
Now, how will these principles be applied? Clearly, at the heart of the FCC's authority lies its power to license, to renew or fail to renew, or to revoke a license. As you know, When your license comes up for renewal, your performance is compared with your promises. I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: Renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.
But simply matching promises and performance is not enough. I intend to do more. I intend to find out whether the people care. I intend to find out whether the community which each broadcaster serves believes he has been serving the public interest. You must re-examine some fundamentals of your industry. You must open your minds and open your hearts to the limitless horizons of tomorrow.
I can suggest some words that should serve to guide you:
Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television. Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.
These words are not mine. They are yours. They are taken literally from your own Television Code. They reflect the leadership and aspirations of your own great industry. I urge you to respect them as I do.
We need imagination in programming, not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity. Television is filled with creative, imaginative people. You must strive to set them free.
The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind's history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good--and for evil. And it carries with it awesome responsibilities--responsibilities which you and I cannot escape.
I urge you to put the people's airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom.