Who Was Newton Minow?
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy chose Newton Minow as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and gave him free rein to challenge the status quo. Minow was not an industry insider, which the industry found troublesome. Television executives had long considered the FCC and its chairman to be a tame regulatory group that pretty much let media companies do whatever they wanted. Minow had built a reputation as a reformer, and so became the most controversial FCC chairman (and back then, he was a chairman) ever. The Harvard Gazette said Minow saw the government’s role as expanding viewers’ choices, hoping that increased competition would lead to better programming.
“I am here to uphold and protect the public interest”
The Benton Institute says one of the primary goals of the FCC is “to ensure that broadcasting serves the educational and informational needs of the American people.” The Nation says Newton Minow was the man who inspired reformers to demand that all media serve the public interest.
VHF and UHF
These terms don’t mean much today, with the proliferation of cable and dish television, but they did back in Minow’s day, when all televisions captured signals with external antennas. Up until Minow’s appointment, all television stations broadcast on the Very High Frequency (VHF) spectrum. Minow persuaded congress to pass an act that required all televisions to have the capacity to receive Ultra High Frequency (UHF) broadcasts. This increase in bandwidth led to an increase in TV stations and the creation of nonprofit educational programming. Remember there were very few stations back in the days before cable, satellite, and streaming. Today there are hundreds – a vaster wasteland yet.
At the time of Minow’s appointment to head the FCC, television had become the dominant form of communication
Minow was concerned that there was little interest among television executives in discussing their responsibilities to serve the public interest.
Another of Minow’s concerns was the impact television had on children
Minow stressed how broadcasters needed to fulfill their duty to the public, particularly impressionable children. He thought broadcasters should provide more high-quality shows for young viewers instead of endless cartoons and violence.
Minow’s first speaking appearance as FCC chairman was when he addressed the National Association of Broadcasters
The NAB was the industry group that Minow felt was putting their for-profit interests ahead of the public interest that it was supposed to be serving. As you can well imagine, his speech was controversial and polarizing, the very thing President Kennedy wanted him to do.
Minow opened his speech with this assertion
“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers; nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse,”
Here is part of Minow’s speech, Television and the Public Interest:
“I invite each of you (NAB members) to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
Things got worse when Minow described the current state of television
He said televison programming is “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 endless commercials screaming, cajoling and offending.”
TV executives were shocked
For decades the FCC had been nothing more than a rubber-stamping organization that was friendly to their interests and expected Minow to be their friend. Time magazine reported the broadcast executives “took the speech as a deliberate tactic to scare stations and networks into better programing, and as a hint that they should do something about it soon.”
NAB executives immediately attacked Minow
They labeled him as a snobbish, elitist, pointy-headed intellectual who understood nothing about how television worked. The media jumped on this slap in the face and loved Minow’s term “vast wasteland.” Newspapers and magazines were delighted to see television exposed as airing endless crap.
Private vs. Public
In television, this is essentially commercial vs non-commercial. Minow believed that the way out of this vast wasteland was for the public to demand television served the public interest and not the profiteers. One of the first things Minow found was that there were no public television stations in any of the big cities. He later said one of the best things he did while leading the FCC was to change New York City’s Channel 13 from commercial to non-commercial, “because it led to what is now a nationwide television service.” When Minow left his post at the FCC, he championed the emergence of the Public Broadcasting Corporation we know today.
Minow criticized political advertising for its use of negative messages, mudslinging and personal attacks. Minow thought these kind of messages would corrupt the democratic process and negatively effect society, another of his key issues. Minow also favored adopting the British system for elections, ”Where the parties and candidates are given a certain amount of time on airwaves without charge and you cannot buy time. What you have now has created enormous pressure to raise money.”
Our current system still features attack ads. Newton thought broadcasters should provide a public service by airing debates without commercials. Instead of the current system of funding candidate TV ads with what are essentially anonymous and unlimited donations. “Today’s politics are dominated by money,” Minow said, “Candidates spend most of their time raising money so they can buy radio and television ads. They’re raising money from the public to get access to something the public owns – the airwaves. That’s a crazy system.”
Northwestern University said Minow told President Kennedy that communication satellites will be far more important than space exploration because “They will send ideas into space. Ideas last longer than men.”
National Public Radio called Gilligan’s Island one of the contributors to Minow’s vast wasteland. The comedy, created by producer Sherwood Schwartz, was about five passengers who thought they were taking a three-hour tour. Along with the Skipper and Gilligan, they were stranded on a deserted island when their boat sank during a freak storm. Angered by Minow’s comments, Schwartz named the ship S.S. Minnow.