Fifty-five years ago this week, the then head of the FCC described television as a ‘vast wasteland’ and challenged broadcasters to do something about it.
On May 9, 1961, Newton N. Minow gave his first speech as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, telling a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters that television was, essentially, a grand disappointment:
I invite each of you 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.
Minow then described a “procession” of game shows, formula comedies, blood, mayhem, violence, sadism and murder, along with westerns, gangsters and cartoons.
“True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy,” Minow said. “But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”
Half a century later, Minow told Advertising Age that the primary thing that changed over the past five decades was the amount of choices viewers had; in 1951, some towns only had one television station, there were two-and-a-half broadcast networks and far fewer shows to choose from.
I grew up in the 1970s when most markets had four television stations: the three — yes, it was just three networks back then — and PBS. Some markets, markets much larger than the one I grew up in, had more stations. But I remember a time before cable television.
Yet there seemed to always be something on television to watch.
Now we have 100+ channels. Some of you probably have 200 channels or even more than that. How often do you feel like there’s something to watch?
It’s important to remember the choices we have on television today are much the same as they were in the earlier days: the shows that get big ratings stay on the air and those that don’t disappear.
As I’ve said before, television is one of the most truly democratic processes we have in this country.
It’s always been that way. The biggest difference between then and now is that a television show had longer to prove itself. Some shows that didn’t do particularly well during the regular season managed to last until the summer where viewers noticed them for the first time during summer reruns and suddenly those shows attracted an audience that drove them into a second season and beyond.
These days, because of the competition — the “more choices” Minow spoke of — a new show has a smaller shot at success because networks are willing to pull the plug much faster if a show doesn’t immediately show signs of life.
It’s not so much that I think the quality of programming is worse than it used to be; as much as those of us of a certain age may not like to admit it, there were plenty of clunkers in the 1970s and 1980s. (And the 1950s and 1960s for that matter.)
There’s no question there’s more violence on television these days than was ever imagined in 1951. There are fewer westerns, and unfortunately, fewer game shows. And if Minow thought commercials in 1961 were “endless,” I wonder how he would describe the number of commercials in 2016.
It’s just that the shows that are the most popular nowadays — particularly those reality shows that tend to top the ratings — just don’t do it for me. But since they do top the ratings, they clearly do it for a majority of viewers.
Sometimes I find myself watching classic sitcoms or dramas. Or a documentary. Some of the choices the growing television industry have provided over the years continue to entertain even after they’re long since out of production.
The wasteland is still there. It’s still vast. But maybe that makes the gems, wherever you find them, stand out even more.
It just depends on what you call a gem!