Originally published: March 16, 2011
Last updated: March 16, 2011 - 3:07pm
[Commentary] Fifty years ago, then Chair of the Federal Communications Commission Newton Minow, appeared before the National Association of Broadcasters and gave what remains the most significant speech about electronic media in American history. In it, Minow excoriated the broadcasting industry. "When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better," he began. "But when television is bad," he warned, "nothing is worse." Here's the money quote: "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."
The irony of Minow's immortal phrase is that the landscape to which he referred wasn't very vast compared with today. In any given major market, such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, TV usually consisted of three network outlets, three locally owned stations, and a chronically underfunded nonprofit venue, which didn't get any PBS support until 1970. As tedious as the network fare often was, the locally owned stations were worse. They were jokes—their best efforts focused on children's programming, followed by "professional wrestling," old movie reruns, and talk shows hosted by local lunatics -- the clearest link between then and now. And your regional "public" TV station invariably front-loaded itself with World War II documentaries. Now, Internet-connected and pay TV gives us tons of options: dazzling performances, documentaries, independently produced animated films, all that plus all the movies you can stand, and a procession of terrific programs produced by studios that know how competitive this environment has become. Does this cornucopia include tons of mediocre junk? Sure. But I often experience it as enjoyable, because I know that it isn't all there is. I belabor the positivity here because I so rarely see it noted -- to call the present media environment a "vaster wasteland" is to miss the extraordinary nature of what we have built.
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