Minow, Newton N.

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Newton N. Minow

Excerpt of "Television and the Public Interest"

    A speech delivered before the National Association of Broadcasters, May 9, 1961

    Excerpted from Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating all types of communication use radio waves. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic energy that travels through the air. The waves exist in a range of frequencies called the radio spectrum. Only a limited number of frequencies can be used to carry communication signals. Since the usable frequencies are scarce, they are also very valuable.

Since the beginning of the communication age, the U.S. government has taken a strong interest in controlling the use of the airwaves and assigning the usable radio frequencies. The Radio Act of 1927 said that the airwaves belong to the American people and required broadcasters to apply for a license to use this public property. The Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC, said that broadcasters using the public airwaves had a duty to serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." The law used somewhat vague language, however, and it did not describe exactly what broadcasters needed to do in order to meet this obligation to the American people.

"I invite you 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."

The U.S. television industry officially got its start in 1941, when the FCC recognized the new medium for the first time. Television broadcasting was suspended when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. After the war ended in 1945, however, the television industry entered a period of rapid growth. TV ownership increased from 10 percent of American homes in 1950 to 87 percent in 1960. The number of commercial television stations exploded as well—from 9 immediately after the war ended to 500 by 1960.

The rapid growth of television broadcasting created a challenge for the FCC. The agency had to determine how to divide up the usable frequencies among various technologies, such as radio and television broadcasting, police and fire department dispatches, telephone and telegraph messages, and even walkie-talkies. The FCC also had to decide which of the many individuals and companies that applied for television broadcasting licenses were most deserving of space in the scarce radio spectrum.

From the beginning, the FCC's stated goals were to use the airwaves to serve the public interest and to prevent any individual or corporation from gaining exclusive control of them. Since the term "public interest" was not fully explained in the Communications Act of 1934, however, the FCC often struggled to decide how to enforce the rule. For instance, the agency left most decisions about the content of TV programs to the national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC).

Some people felt that the government had limited power to control TV program content. They argued that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed citizens the right to free speech, should protect broadcasters from government censorship (a policy of examining creative works prior to distribution and removing any material considered improper or offensive). But other people believed that the vague "public interest" clause of the Communications Act of 1934 gave the FCC broad power to regulate TV, including program content.

In order to avoid possible action by the FCC, the networks established their own rules to guide program content. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which included representatives from the three national television networks, adopted a set of guidelines called the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters in 1951. The code established rules for the networks to follow regarding various issues, including acceptable content and the number of commercials aired per hour of programming. Stations that voluntarily followed the rules earned the right to display the NAB's Seal of Good Practice. Over time, though, it became increasingly clear that the code was not effective in regulating the networks' behavior.

As the popularity of television increased rapidly during the 1950s, network programmers competed fiercely to create shows that would attract high ratings. The more viewers that tuned into a given show, the higher the show would place in the weekly TV ratings, and the more money the network could charge advertisers to air commercials during that show. Advertising dollars provided a major source of funding for the networks, allowing them to stay in business and continue producing programs. By the end of the decade, however, critics were beginning to complain that the networks sacrificed quality in their quest for high ratings and big advertising money.

Minow becomes head of the FCC

This was the situation in the television industry in 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see Chapter 6) was elected president of the United States. Kennedy was one of the first political figures to understand and take advantage of the power of television. In fact, his strong performance in the first-ever televised presidential debate was believed to be a deciding factor in his election victory over Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994).

During his inaugural address (a speech upon taking office) in January 1961, Kennedy called all American citizens to public service with the stirring words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy also described an optimistic vision for the future of the United States he called the New Frontier, which focused on eliminating problems such as war, poverty, and prejudice.

Shortly after taking office, Kennedy appointed a relatively unknown, thirty-four-year-old lawyer named Newton N. Minow to be chairman of the FCC. Newton Norman Minow was born on January 17, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned a law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1950, and then he spent a year serving as a law clerk for Fred M. Vinson, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mnow's interest in public service began when he worked as a legal counsel for Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson (1900–1965), who unsuccessfully ran for president of the United States in 1952 and 1956. In 1960, Minow joined Kennedy's presidential campaign, and the two men found that they shared similar ideas about the future of American television.

A few weeks after taking over as head of the FCC, Minow made a famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters. In this speech, which is excerpted below, Mnow outlines his views about the FCC's role in regulating television. He also provides insight into his personal philosophy as chairman of the FCC. Most importantly, though, Minow sharply criticizes the content of television programming as a "vast wasteland" and encourages broadcasters to work harder to meet their obligation to inform and educate the American people.

Minow's speech, delivered May 9, 1961, was officially titled "Television and the Public Interest," but it is better known as the "Wasteland Speech." It is widely considered to be one of the landmark addresses in the history of the television industry. Minow was the first FCC chairman to criticize broadcasters in public, and his words sparked a national debate over the future of television.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt of "Television and the Public Interest":

  • In 1961 the only television broadcast stations available were on channels two through thirteen.
  • Many significant events in U.S. and world history took place during the 1960s. For instance, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a period of intense military and political rivalry known as the Cold War (1945–91). Each of these world superpowers developed nuclear weapons capable of destroying the other. They also became involved in a series of smaller conflicts around the world in hopes of spreading their own political philosophies and systems of government to new regions, while preventing the other side from doing the same. The Cold War thus provided an important reason why the United States became involved in the Vietnam War (1954–1975) during this time. Finally, the 1960s also saw the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States. Millions of African Americans participated in marches and protests as a means to end segregation (the forced separation of people by race) and gain equal rights and opportunities in American society. Minow mentions some of these things in his speech. He argues that television should do a better job of educating and informing viewers about such important issues and world events.
  • Minow also refers to the quiz show scandal that rocked the television industry during the late 1950s. Game and quiz shows were extremely popular forms of TV entertainment at that time. Many of the shows were produced by sponsors—large companies that used television programs to advertise their products. Some of the sponsors used their high level of control over the programs to "fix," or determine, the results of the quiz shows. They provided some of the most popular contestants with answers in advance, for example, so that they would continue winning and attract the largest possible audiences for the sponsor's commercials. The quiz show scandal came to light through a highly publicized investigation by the U.S. Congress. After it was revealed, most of the quiz shows were cancelled, and the television networks took greater control over the production of programs. In his speech, Minow says that the problems exposed by the scandal have been addressed, and he expresses his determination to move on to more pressing concerns.

Excerpt of "Television and the Public Interest"

It may … come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and respect. 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. You must compete with other attractions and other investments, and the only way you can do it is to prove to us every three years that you should have been in business in the first place.

I can think of easier ways to make a living.

But I cannot think of more satisfying ways.

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.

As to your health: let's talk only of television today. 1960 gross broadcast revenues of the television industry were over $1,268,000,000; profit before taxes was $243,900,000, an average return on revenue of 19.2 percent. Compared with 1959, gross broadcast revenues were $1,163,900,000, and profit before taxes was $222,300,000, an average return on revenue of 19.1 percent. So, the percentage increase of total revenues from 1959 to 1960 was 9 percent, and the percentage increase of profit was 9.7 percent. This, despite a recession. For your investors, the price has indeed been right.

I have confidence in your health.

But not in your product.

It is with this and much more in mind that I come before you today.

One editorialist in the trade press wrote that "the FCC of the New Frontier is going to be one of the toughest FCC's in the history of broadcast regulation." If he meant that we intend to enforce the law in the public interest, let me make it perfectly clear that he is right—we do. If he meant that we intend to muzzle or censor broadcasting, he is dead wrong. It would not surprise me if some of you had expected me to come here today and say in effect, "Clean up your own house or the government will do it for you." Well, in a limited sense, you would be right—I've just said it.

But I want to say to you earnestly that it is not in that spirit that I come before you today, nor is it in that spirit that I intend to serve the FCC. I am in Washington to help broadcasting, not to harm it; to strengthen it, not weaken it; to reward it, not punish it; to encourage it, not threaten it; to stimulate it, not censor it. Above all, 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. So does your distinguished president, Governor [LeRoy] Collins. In a recent speech he said,

   Broadcasting, to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product …. By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest…. But a much better job can be done, and should be done.

I could not agree more.

And I would add that in today's world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep and relentless pressure on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President [John F. Kennedy] has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world—in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.

Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.

Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the television age. And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today's world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind's benefit, so will history decide whether today's broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or debase them.

If I seem today to address myself chiefly to the problems of television, I don't want any of you radio broadcasters to think we've gone to sleep at your switch —we haven't. We still listen. But in recent years most of the controversies and cross-currents in broadcast programming have swirled around television. And so my subject today is the television industry and the public interest.

Like everybody, 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 am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of Playhouse 90 and Studio One.

I am talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as The Fabulous Fifties, The Fred Astaire Show, and The Bing Crosby Special; some were dramatic and moving, such as [novelist Joseph] Conrad's Victory and Twilight Zone; some were marvelously informative, such as The Nation's Future, CBS Reports, and The Valiant Years. I could list many more—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 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 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.

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 and 1/2 hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours to categories of action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz, 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.

I do not accept the idea that the present overall programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don't tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half-a-dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately, it does not reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better—if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed. I believe in the people's good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.

My concern with the rating services is not with their accuracy. Perhaps they are accurate. I really don't know. What, then, is wrong with the ratings? It's not been their accuracy—it's been their use.

Certainly, I hope you will agree that ratings should have little influence where children are concerned. The best estimates indicate that during the hours of 5 to 6 p.m. sixty percent of your audience is composed of children under twelve. And most young children today, believe it or not, spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. I repeat—let that sink in—most young children today spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. 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? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children? Is there no room for programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children's news show explaining something about the world to them at their level of understanding? Is there no room for reading the great literature of the past, teaching them the great traditions of freedom? 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? Search your consciences and see if you cannot offer more to your young beneficiaries whose future you guide so many hours each and every day.

What about adult programming and ratings? You know, newspaper publishers take popularity ratings too. The answers are pretty clear: it is almost always the comics, followed by the advice to the lovelorn columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on the front page of all newspapers; the editorials are not replaced by more comics; the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn. Yet newspapers do not need a license from the government to be in business—they do not use public property. But in television, where your responsibilities as public trustees are so plain, the moment that the ratings indicate that westerns are popular there are new imitations of westerns on the air faster than the old coaxial cable could take us from Hollywood to New York. Broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers. Ratings ought to be the slave of the broadcaster, not his master. And you and I both know that the rating services themselves would agree.

Let me make clear that what I am talking about is balance. I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests. There are many people in this great country and you must serve all of us. 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. Because, to paraphrase a great American who was recently my law partner [former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson], the people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcast-ers—and politicians—think.

As you may have gathered, I would like to see television improved. But how is this to be brought about? By voluntary action by the broadcasters themselves? By direct government intervention? Or how?

Let me address myself now to my role not as a viewer but as chairman of the FCC. I could not if I would, chart for you this afternoon in detail all of the actions I contemplate. Instead, 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 six 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. We live together in perilous, uncertain times; we face together staggering problems; and we must not waste much time now by rehashing the cliches of past controversy.

To quarrel over the past is to lose the future.

Third: I believe in the free enterprise system 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. If there were a limited number of printing presses in this country, you may be sure that a fair proportion of them would be put to educational use. Educational television has an enormous contribution to make to the future, and I intend to give it a hand along the way. If there is not a nationwide educational television system in this country, it will not be the fault of the FCC.

Fifth: I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes. Censorship strikes at the taproot of our free society.

Sixth: I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public's airwaves. The squandering of our airwaves is no less important than the lavish waste of any precious natural resource. I intend to take the job of chairman of the FCC very seriously. 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. For I am convinced that either one takes this job seriously—or one can be seriously taken.

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 …

There is your challenge to leadership. You must reexamine 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 towards 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. And I urge you to respect the intelligent and farsighted leadership of Governor LeRoy Collins, and to make this meeting a creative act. I urge you at this meeting and, after you leave, back home, at your stations and your networks, to strive ceaselessly to improve your product and to better serve your viewers, the American people.

I hope that we at the FCC will not allow ourselves to become so bogged down in the mountain of papers, hearings, memoranda, orders, and the daily routine that we close our eyes to the wider view of the public interest. And I hope that you broadcasters will not permit yourselves to become so absorbed in the chase for ratings, sales, and profits that you lose this wider view. Now more than ever before in broadcasting's history the times demand the best of all of us.

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.

Television in its young life has had many hours of greatness—its Victory at Sea, its Army-McCarthy hearings, its Peter Pan, its Kraft Theaters, its See It Now, its Project 20, the World Series, its political conventions and campaigns, the Great Debates—and it has had its endless hours of mediocrity and its moments of public disgrace. There are estimates that today the average viewer spends about 200 minutes daily with television, while the average reader spends 38 minutes with magazines and 40 minutes with newspapers. Television has grown faster than a teenager, and now it is time to grow up.

What you gentlemen broadcast through the people's air affects the people's taste, their knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world. And their future.

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.

In his stirring inaugural address our President [John F. Kennedy] said, "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Ask not what broadcasting can do for you. Ask what you can do for broadcasting.

I urge you to put the people's airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom. You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You must help a great nation fulfill its future.

Do this, and I pledge you our help.

What happened next …

For the most part, people in the audience at the National Association of Broadcasters convention did not like Minow's speech. They were hurt by his criticism of the quality of TV programming, and they worried that the FCC under Minow would enact new regulations to force broadcasters to serve the "public interest." Minow's speech was widely quoted and reprinted, though, and it got a better reception outside the NAB. To his dismay, however, much of the media coverage focused on the fact that the head of the FCC had dared to describe American television programming as a "vast wasteland." Many people seemed to miss his main point—that television should work harder to educate and inform viewers.

During his two years as head of the FCC, Minow continued to give speeches and interviews about television's responsibility to serve the public interest. His tough stance toward broadcasters launched a national debate about the direction of television and the role of the FCC. It also made him one of the most controversial figures ever to serve in that position. In fact, some historians claim that the outspoken Minow received more press coverage in the early 1960s than any public figure besides President Kennedy.

Despite all this attention, however, Mnow's efforts to make positive changes met with stiff opposition from the powerful broadcasting industry. As a result, his FCC never imposed specific guidelines for program content on the networks. But some analysts claim that the quality of television programming improved during Mnow's tenure anyway, simply because the networks knew that he was keeping an eye on them. For example, all three networks increased their news and information programming during this time.

The major accomplishment of Mnow's term as FCC chairman was securing passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962. This legislation required all TV sets sold in the United States to be equipped with tuners capable of receiving ultra-high-frequency (UHF) channels. Before this time, most TV sets only received the stronger very-high-frequency (VHF) channels, and viewers had to purchase a separate tuner if they wanted to watch UHF channels. Since the three major broadcast networks and their affiliate stations controlled most of the available VHF channels across the United States, increasing public access to UHF gave viewers more options. UHF channels tended to feature more local and regional programming than VHF, and many UHF stations aired high-quality cultural and educational programming from the newly formed Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. A short time later, Newton N. Minow resigned from his position as chairman of the FCC and returned to private law practice in the field of communications. He remained influential in the broadcasting industry by serving on the PBS board of governors, teaching communications at Northwestern University, giving speeches, and writing books.

Did you know …

  • Shortly after making his "Wasteland Speech," Newton N. Minow received a supportive telephone call from veteran journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965; see Chapter 5). Murrow started his career as a CBS Radio reporter, then moved into television as the host of a hard-hitting news program called See It Now. In 1958, Murrow had made a similar speech criticizing the state of television news reporting. According to Mnow's book Abandoned in the Wasteland, Murrow raised Mnow's spirits by saying, "Good for you—you'll get a lot of heat and criticism, but don't lose your courage."
  • The 1960s television situation comedy Gilligan's Island, about a group of castaways shipwrecked on a deserted island, featured a veiled reference to FCC chairman Newton N. Minow The program's producers disagreed with Mnow's assessment of the quality of television programming. To express their view, they named the doomed ship on the show the S.S. Minnow after him.
  • On May 9, 1991—the thirtieth anniversary of his famous "Wasteland Speech"—Newton N. Minow gave an updated speech called "How Vast the Wasteland Now" at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, Columbia University. He expressed some disappointment about how his earlier talk has been remembered. "The two words I wanted people to remember from that speech were not 'vast wasteland,'" he noted. "The two words I cared about were 'public interest.'" Minow also told listeners that he believes the quality of TV programming has grown worse, rather than better, over time. "In 1961 I worried that my children would not benefit much from television," he stated, "but in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it."

Consider the following …

  • After reading Minow's speech, describe what you think he meant by the term "public interest." How has the meaning of the term changed over time? How would you define it today?
  • How much responsibility do you think modern television networks have to serve the public interest? What role should the FCC play in ensuring that broadcasters meet this responsibility? What if "public interest" programming is not what most TV viewers want to watch?
  • Make a list of the ways you think television serves the public interest. Make a second list of the ways you think TV programming is harmful to the public interest.
  • The most-quoted phrase from Minow's 1961 address to the NAB is his criticism of TV programming as a "vast wasteland." Do you think the quality of television programming has improved or grown worse over time? Give examples to support your answer.
  • Minow's famous speech was included on several lists of the best American speeches of the twentieth century. Considering your answers to the preceding questions, do you think the speech was a success or a failure?

For More Information


Hilliard, Robert L., and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century: A Biography of American Broadcasting. Boston: Focal Press, 1992.

Minow, Newton N. Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.


Landay, Jerry M. "Thoughts from Another Newt on Free Speech." Christian Science Monitor, September 5, 1995.

"Vast Wasteland Speech Revisited." Federal Communications Law Journal (special issue), May 2003.


Curtin, Michael. "Newton Minow." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/M/htmlM/minownewton/minownewton.htm (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Tough row to hoe: A difficult job or task to do.

Bread: Income or money.

Trustees: People legally responsible for taking care of property belonging to someone else.

Beneficiary: A person who benefits from another' work.

Return: Profit or benefit.

Gross broadcast revenues: Total money earned from broadcasting.

Recession: Period of reduced economic activity.

New Frontier: Vision for the future of the United States, introduced by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, that focused on eliminating war, prejudice, and poverty.

Censor: The process of examining a creative work prior to distribution and removing any material considered improper or offensive.

Governor LeRoy Collins: (1909–1991) Former governor of Florida and president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) from 1961 to 1964.

Conscience: An inner sense of right and wrong.

Gross National Product: The total value of goods and services produced by a country in a year.

Laos: A country in southeast Asia that experienced a civil war during the 1960s.

Congo: A country in central Africa that experienced a civil war during the 1960s.

Communist tyranny: A reference to Fidel Castro, a Communist dictator who came to power in Cuba in 1959.

Caribbean doorstep: A reference to Cuba, Located 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida in the Caribbean Sea.

Atlantic alliance: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a group of nations that pledged to defend one another.

Peril: Danger.

Atom: A unit of matter that provides the source of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Debase: Destroy the character or value of.

Gone to sleep at your switch: Stopped paying attention.

Playhouse 90 and Studio One: Minow is referring to two high-quality programs from the 1950s.

Wasteland: A space that is desolate and spiritually barren or empty.

Trust accounting with your beneficiaries: Minow is telling broadcasters that he feels they need to justify their programming decisions to TV viewers.

Capacities: Knowledge or ability to learn.

Public property: Referring to the airwaves, which are owned by the public.

Coaxial cable: A type of high-speed wire used to carry television signals since the birth of television in the 1930s.

Persist: Continue despite warnings.

Lowest common denominator: A decline in quality that results from producing television shows that can be understood by the simplest or least educated audience.

Intervention: Action or involvement.

Payola: Bribery.

Rehashing the cliches: Going over old mistakes again and again.

Free enterprise system: An economic system in which private businesses compete for profits with little government interference.

Suppression: Strict control or limits.

Bureaucratic: Official government rules.

Taproot: Base or foundation.

Squandering: Wasting.

Gravity: Serious significance.

Revoke: Take away.

Pro forma: Routinely; automatically.

Decorum: Standards of polite behavior.

Propriety: Appropriateness.

Television Code: Rules of conduct for members of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Ceaselessly: Continuously, without stopping.

Sterility: Lifelessness; plainness.

Army-McCarthy hearings: A 1954 Congressional inquiry into the behavior of anticommunist senator Joseph McCarthy.

Precedent: An earlier, similar case.