Remembering Newton Minow: TV Advocate

former FCC chairman Newton Minow in 2006

former FCC chairman Newton Minow in 2006
This fall will mark the 20th anniversary of Triad Today, a weekly public affairs program which airs on ABC 45 and My48. There are a lot of folks to thank for the longevity of Triad Today but were it not for the efforts of one man, those TV stations wouldn’t have even been able to broadcast my program. That man was Newton Minow, an attorney and one-time FCC chairman who was an advocate for quality television. Minow passed away on May 6 at the age of 97.

Newton Minow is best known for referring to television as a “vast wasteland”, but that one phrase unfairly made him seem more like a critic than an advocate. Moreover, it diminishes his many accomplishments while at the helm of the Federal Communications Commission, a post he was appointed to by President John Kennedy in 1961. And though he only held the job for two years, very few commissioners ever did more to advance the mission of broadcasting than Minow.

It was Minow who shepherded the “All-Channel Receiver Act” which required manufacturers of TV sets to include UHF channels (those above channel 13) on their receivers. He made sure there was federal funding for educational programming, was an advocate for young viewers, and he pushed for the development of communications satellites. Minow also lobbied for political candidates to be given free airtime.     

Minow reigned at a time when mostly individuals and families owned local TV stations, and in an era when the FCC advocated for viewers rather than large corporations. That’s why his words carried a lot of weight with station owners in speeches like the one he gave to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961.

Associated Press correspondent Tammy Webber recently recounted that speech in which Minow challenged those in attendance to sit down and watch their station for a full day, “without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss-sheet, or rating book to distract you. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials, many of them screaming, cajoling, and offending.”

Minow concluded his remarks with a message of hope, and a reminder of something that many of today’s corporate broadcasters have forgotten.

“My faith is in the belief that this country needs and can support many voices of television — and the more voices we hear, the better, the richer, the freer we shall be…A broadcasting license is an enormous gift from the government that brings with it a responsibility to the public…After all, the airways belong to the people.”

Thirty years after delivering those impassioned words, Newton Minow continued to be concerned about the quality of television programming, saying, “In 1961 I worried that my children would not benefit much from television. But in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it.”

That warning was issued a decade before network and cable channels started to be overrun by the likes of Honey Boo Boo, the Kardashians, Big Brother, Real Housewives, Duck Dynasty, and “drag” races. And if that’s not bad enough, poor Newton Minow lived just long enough to witness the rise of Tik Tok. Talk about harming your grandchildren.

For the record, I never agreed with Minow’s belief that television in 1961 was a vast wasteland. True enough, the airwaves back then were replete with Western dramas in which bad guys got shot every week, but there was never any blood or gore, and there was always a lesson to be learned about good versus evil. And true enough there were lots of sitcoms on the air, but the good-natured comedy of those shows was generally born out of affection for the parties involved. Truth be told, Mr. Minow might have been somewhat of an alarmist then, but his prophetic warnings about the future were, I’m sorry to say, spot on.


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