Fifty years ago this week, then Federal Communications Chairman Newton Minow famously skewered the nation's daily television programming as "a vast wasteland." Today it is still largely a wasteland, in my view, because that's mostly what people want.
I have tried to avoid getting too excited about that over the years. After all, bad TV has its good qualities. It provides me with much less of a distraction from life's more useful and rewarding activities -- such as reading.
But every so often a smart visionary like Minow comes along to remind me that, hey, the public airwaves do belong to the public. That's us. Broadcasters make truckloads of money through our good graces. We let the broadcasters use our airwaves at no cost. For that, we deserve to have a little more than the TV that architect Frank Lloyd Wright described as "chewing gum for the eyes."
In fact, as Minow, now a spry 85, reminded his audience at a commemorative event at the National Press Club, "public service" was the two-word phrase that he had intended the world to remember from his May 9, 1961, speech to the National Association of Broadcasters.
They were not amused. In one subtle sign of grumpy disrespect, Minow recalls, a Hollywood producer named the sinking boat on "Gilligan's Island," the "S.S. Minnow," camouflaging Minow's name with the additional "N."
But some 4,000 letters mostly applauded Minow's critique, today's FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recalled at the press club event. Minow cheerfully remembered his favorite: A viewer who wanted to know "What time does 'The Vast Wasteland' go on?"
Alas, a half-century later the metaphor of the "vast wasteland" remains too vivid -- and too appropriate -- to be easily forgotten.
You could hear that in the audience laughter as former CNN anchor Frank Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, read excerpts from Minow's speech. In an average viewing day, it said, "... you will see a procession of game 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...."
"What's changed?" Sesno asked, sparking more laughs. That's a good question, Frank.
It's easy to knock today's abundance of unreal "reality TV" shows like "Jersey Shore" or "Keeping up with the Kardashians" or new-wave versions of old game shows and talent shows like "Celebrity Apprentice" and "American Idol." And it is easy to knock those of us who knock such self-consciously low-brainpower shows as elitists.
Let the marketplace decide, goes the modern argument, especially now that there are so many channels available in the cable TV universe, plus the Internet and other new technologies. Those arguments have merit. The abundance of channels today would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago when, Minow reminds us, when there were only three networks and almost no cities had what we now call "public television."
Even so, I often surf around the channels with a Bruce Springsteen song on my mind: "57 Channels (and Nothin' On.)" The marketplace practices an elitism of its own. Network programmers race to the bottom of public tastes in order to come out on top of the ratings. The best shows are often on cable channels, which don't use public airwaves but cost extra.
The marketplace in broadcasting tends to reflect the tastes of only a slice of the public, the slice that advertisers view as the most impressionable consumers, especially young people who have money to spend and respond most quickly to whatever TV happens to be selling.
Yet, contrary to what some of his critics assert, Minow has never called for government to decide what people should view. He only has called for more choices to be encouraged and for those who use the public airwaves to remember their obligation to the public that provides that valuable resource. I agree. Then as now, the networks could do better. If they're going to offer us junk, at least they should make it good junk.