Boomers Watched the “Vast Wasteland” of TV

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?

Boomers Born in 1961 Reach Age 60 This Year

Boomers born in the year 1961 will reach their 60th birthday this year. Time flies when you’re having fun! All boomers know that life is profoundly different today in many ways than it was in 1961. Here are some stats that present a picture of what our lives were like 60 years ago:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States, succeeding President Dwight D. Eisenhower
• There were about 184 million people in the U.S.; the population jumped by 28 million in ten years (thanks to the Baby Boomers!)
• To continue the Baby Boom, 1.5 million couples were married in 1961; the average age of a bride was 19-20 yrs. old, and the groom was 21-22 yrs. old.
The average annual income was $5,700
$1 in 1961 is approximately equal to $8.80 today
• The cost of a dozen eggs was 57¢
Milk was 50¢ for a half gallon
Ground beef was 52¢ lb.
It cost 41¢ lb. to buy a frying chicken
• If you wanted to mail a letter, a stamp cost 4¢
• Born in 1961? You share a birth year with Eddie Murphy (April 3) and George Clooney (May 6)
Alan Shepard became the first American in Space (May 5)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3cpyNZkWKU

President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him home by the end of the decade (May 25)
The Apartment won the Best Picture Academy Award
The Bullwinkle Show debuted
Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis was the number 1 hit single of 1961
Disney released 101 Dalmations in theaters
• IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter

The Berlin Wall was constructed, further escalating the Cold War
Sprite was introduced by Coca-Cola to compete with 7-Up
Ray Kroc bought a small chain of hamburger restaurants from the McDonald brothers
President Kennedy sent in the first advisors into Vietnam
Marvel introduced The Fantastic Four comics
Roger Marris broke Babe Ruth’s record and hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees

If you were born in 1961, of course you learned about these things later in life. Yet more than half the Boomer Generation was born before 1961, and they have vivid memories of the year. Mister Boomer was in elementary school and remembers many things about 1961, including watching the inauguration of President Kennedy. The school he attended was big on observing American history-in-the-making, and wanted the students to follow the Space Program, beginning with Alan Shepard’s launch on May 5. A TV was rolled into the classroom for subsequent launches of Project Mercury and on to Project Gemini.

Mister B and his family were also big fans of Rocky & Bullwinkle, including the 1961 iteration of The Bullwinkle Show. Of course, he was not able to view the show in color. It was the mid-1970s before the family got a hand-me-down color television.

If you’ve been reading Mister Boomer for even a short time, then you know he definitely remembers hearing some top hits of 1961 on his transistor radio. Out of that tiny speaker, he heard Tossin’ and Turnin’, but also, I Fall to Pieces by Patsy Cline; Runaway by Del Shannon; Dedicated to the One I Love by the Shirelles; Take Good Care of My Baby by Bobby Vee; Travelin’ Man by Ricky Nelson, and many, many more.

Yet, in retrospect, what a good portion of boomers recall about 1961 is that there was a palpable change in the wind. Life as we had come to know it was about to be turned upside down. By the time the earliest-born boomers reached the age of 18 in 1964 — which was the final year of the Baby Boom — music, fashion, world events, Civil Rights, the Space Program, the Cold War, even what we ate, was about to change forever.

Were you born in 1961, boomers? If not, what do you recall about that momentous year?