A Vaster Wasteland

Fifty years after his landmark speech declaring television programming a “vast wasteland,” the author surveys the reshaped media landscape and lays out a plan to keep television and the Internet vibrant, democratic forces for the next half century.
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Stephen Webster

Fifty years ago next month, I stood before the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters for my inaugural public address as President Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. My first objective in the job was to clean up the agency and the industry, which before I arrived had been embroiled in quiz-show, payola, and agency scandals. My second was to expand choice for viewers, by advancing new technologies in the belief that more choice would result in more and better content.

My objective at the convention was to tell broadcasters that the FCC would enforce the law’s requirement that they serve the public interest in return for their free and exclusive use of the publicly owned airwaves. Too much existing programming, I said, was little more than “a procession of game shows violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” Television, I said, was too often a “vast wasteland.”

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Q&A With the Author
Minow on his time with JFK, what he first thought of the Internet, and more

I knew broadcasters would not be happy. My favorite response was from the Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz, who named the sinking ship in Gilligan’s Island after me. The “vast wasteland” was a metaphor for a particular time in our nation’s communications history, and to my surprise it became part of the American lexicon. It has come to identify me. My daughters threaten to engrave on my tombstone: On to a Vaster Wasteland. But those were not the two words I intended to be remembered. The two words I wanted to endure were public interest. To me that meant, as it still means, that we should constantly ask: What can communications do for our country? For the common good? For the American people?

We did some great things, to be sure. We expanded choice with public broadcasting, cable, and satellites. Sesame Street became one of the most-watched television programs in the world. Our televised presidential debates, once groundbreaking and then abandoned until 1976, became the most substantive view of our presidential campaigns. We launched the first communications satellite in 1962. On a visit to the space program, President Kennedy asked me about the satellite. I told him that it would be more important than sending a man into space. “Why?” he asked. “Because,” I said, “this satellite will send ideas into space, and ideas last longer than men.”

But our failures were equally dramatic, particularly in using television to serve our children and to improve our politics. For 50 years, we have bombarded our children with commercials disguised as programs and with endless displays of violence and sexual exploitation. We are nearly alone in the democratic world in not providing our candidates with public-service television time. Instead we make them buy it—and so money consumes and corrupts our political discourse.

The past 50 years have seen sizzling and explosive advances in technology. Fifty years ago, the FCC regulated telephone service that came by wire, and television service that came through the air. Today, as MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicted, these services are mostly reversed. The next 50 years will see even more technological miracles, including the marriage of computers, television, telephony, and the Internet. What we need, to accompany these changes, are critical choices about the values we want to build into our 21st-century communications system—and the public policies to support them. I believe we should commit to six goals in the next 50 years.

Our first must be to expand freedom, in order to strengthen editorial independence in news and information. Freedom of thought is the foundation of our national character, and at its best the Internet represents the full flowering of that freedom. The Internet itself is the result of an open system that has encouraged technological innovation and creative energy we could never have dreamed of—and, happily, the FCC, under its talented chairman, Julius Genachowski, is leading public-interest advocates and industry groups to both meet the practical needs and uphold the democratic values at stake.

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Newton N. Minow

Newton Minow was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy Administration. He is a senior counsel at the law firm Sidley Austin and the Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus of communication law and policy at Northwestern University.

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