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 Watched Presidents Make Their “Big Ask”

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last week, it may have seemed like deja vu all over again for boomers. The reason for this is very simple; every president during the boomer era has addressed Congress with an ambitious agenda that amounted to a “big ask.” Indeed, suggesting legislation is a main part of the job and a good part of why we elect presidents. See if you remember this portion of our shared history, now that decades have passed and we have had the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their effect on our lives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower — National Interstate Highways
For many people, Eisenhower’s signature legislation was the building of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower officially introduced his proposal to Congress on February 22, 1955. A year later Congress allocated $26 billion for the construction of the 40,000 mile system of interconnected highways. Construction began in 1956, but wasn’t completed until 1992, so the budget had ultimately ballooned to more than $115 billion.

President John F. Kennedy — Man on the Moon
The Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. The U.S. soon matched Soviet orbiting satellites and established a manned space program. In 1961, Kennedy upped the ante by stating the goal of sending men to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He addressed Congress on May 25, 1961. Project Mercury was already two years old, and only two weeks earlier on May 5, Alan Shepard took the first U.S. manned sub-orbital flight. In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. With these initial steps, the President asked Congress for $7-9 billion to be added to the Space Program over five years. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

President Lyndon B. Johnson — Medicare
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had tried to pass a form of healthcare legislation specifically for senior Americans, but failed in committees. President Kennedy was working toward being the third president to introduce legislation, but was assassinated before he could do so. President Lyndon Johnson picked up the task and in his State of the Union address on January 4, 1965, revealed his plan for Medicare. Congress dedicated $2.2 billion dollars to establish the program, and Medicare became part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Johnson recognized Truman as the “real daddy of Medicare,” so on July 30, 1965, he signed the bill at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. On hand were former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. President Johnson personally issued the first and second Medicare cards to them.

President Richard M. Nixon — The Environmental Protection Agency
Most people point to the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as the alarm that raised public awareness for environmental concerns. It had become evident that pollution of our air, water and land had become a major problem. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin accompanied then President John Kennedy on an 11-day trip in September of 1963 to raise awareness on pollution and environmental issues. (Nelson later was the founder of Earth Day.) Congress acted on the growing public sentiment for clean air, water and land management with the Clean Air Act of 1964. They passed additional bills over the next four years addressing national pollution problems.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. Then eight days after he was sworn in as President in January of 1969, there was a rupture on a Union Oil platform off the coast of California at Santa Barbara that spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 60-mile oil slick covered beaches, devasted the local fishing industry and destroyed habitat for marine animals. The American people were horrified.

Congress reacted with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Nixon was not on board at first, but voters were all for some environmental protections, so two months after the Union Oil disaster, he signed the bill. Prior to 1960, the Republican Party was seen as a big supporter of environmental issues, especially relating to farm land management and wildlife conservation. Now, with an increasing number of bills concerning the environment, more than 40 agencies were tasked with enforcing the new laws. After much consultation with his colleagues and aides, Nixon signed an executive order in June of 1969 establishing the Environmental Quality Council to oversee environmental issues.

Now with public sentiment behind him, and having been convinced that the environment would be a big issue in the upcoming election, on July 9, 1970, Nixon asked Congress to set up an agency that would consolidate and control all environmental issues with his Reorganization Plan No. 3. Nixon requested additional money for combating current pollution, including money to upgrade the country’s water treatment plants. His total ask was just over $10 billion. Congress passed the bill and on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations.

The moral of the story for boomers is, we’ve been here before. The presidents during the boomer decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s all requested large-scale legislation from Congress. As time has passed, most historians agree that the positives for the American people acquired through these boomer-era programs have outweighed the negatives.

Do you remember these historical events, boomers?