On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), delivered a speech at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. He had been appointed by President John Kennedy shortly after taking office that January. In his speech, Minow berated and challenged broadcasters by telling them that the current state of TV programming was a “vast wasteland.”
Mr. Minow was 35 years old when Kennedy appointed him as chair of the FCC, despite not having experience in the media industry. A lawyer by trade, Mr. Minow was known to the Kennedys, having worked as a law clerk for Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and then on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy’s successful run for the presidency. Mr. Minow reportedly had frequent conversations with the president’s brother, Robert, then the Attorney General of the United States, about children’s television programming. The two men shared a concern that children (baby boomers!) were not being taught anything of substance on TV, either from a cultural, civic or history perspective or for academic advancement. Both men shared the belief that television had a great deal of potential to fill that need. Soon after, President Kennedy shared their concerns.
Mr. Minow stated:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.
Minow went on to say that he believed if TV viewers were offered more choice, they would tune in to more educational and cultural programming. He was not looking to regulate, censor or affect broadcasters, other than to keep them in line with current FCC regulations, to serve the public interest and expand viewer choices.
Reaction to Mr. Minow’s speech were mostly positive, but some saw his words as meddling in an area in which he had no experience. In 1964, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator and producer of the TV show Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), named the ill-fated sailing vessel that begins the show’s storyline the S.S. Minnow as a satiric barb aimed at Mr. Minow.
The same year Newton Minow gave his speech, he advocated for a bill making its way though Congress that would expand the number of TV stations in the country. There were only three major broadcasting networks, and they were ensconced on the available VHF channels. Local broadcasters operating on UHF channels were being pushed out of business because most TV sets were not equipped to tune in to UHF channels. The All-Channel Receiver Act, introduced in 1961 and passed in 1962, required that all TV sets sold in the United States be equipped to receive these extra channels. This bill paved the way for more educational television like Sesame Street (first aired in 1969), the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the new networks Fox, Univision and Telemundo.
Newton Minow also advocated for the advancement of communications satellites. The Space Race was underway, but Minow had a vision of what worldwide communications could do to inform people and assist nations in working out their differences. President Kennedy took the advice of his FCC chair and in 1962, Telstar, the first U.S. communications relay satellite, was launched.
Boomers may or may not remember the specifics of these historical undertakings, but there is no question that baby boomers benefited from the added TV channels and more access to educational television that happened as a result of Newton Minow’s vision and public service.
Was the addition of more educational television part of your school or home viewing, boomers?
One thought on “Boomers Watched the “Vast Wasteland” of TV”
Reminds me of the movie “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen deals with a know-it-all behind him in a movie line by pulling out Marshall McLuhan from a sandwich board sign for MM to tell the know-it-all that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Also, when my son was about two y/o he pointed to a bowl of apples on our dining room table and said “Pomme”. I wondered where he was learning French. I realized he had been watching Canadian ‘Sesame Street’ at daycare!
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