Nearly 57 years ago, the newly-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech – his first as FCC chairman – to a meeting in Washington of the National Association of Broadcasters. In that talk, Newton Minnow coined a phrase that for many years was, unfortunately, a pretty fair depiction of the content on television.
“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,” Minnow said. “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
Even back in 1961, he made in reference to “the much bemoaned good old days of the 1950s, often considered TV’s “Golden Age.” And he described TV of the time this way… “Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as "The Fabulous Fifties," "The Fred Astaire Show," and "The Bing Crosby Special"; some were dramatic and moving, such as … "Twilight Zone"; some were marvelously informative… 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. And endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”
TV has come a long way, for sure. Many, myself included, believe television is currently in a new and perhaps even greater Golden Age.
The TV that Newton Minnow was talking about in 1961 consisted of three networks and, only in major markets, one or two independent stations and an educational or public TV channel. Except in the biggest markets, stations often signed off – went dark – from 1 or 2 a.m. until 6 or 7 a.m.
In terms of programming hours, viewers in most markets had access to between 500 and 600 hours of programming each week. At any given moment, when TV stations were on the air, one could choose from 3 – 5 stations. There was no cable TV, no home VCRs or DVRs, no satellite TV. The choice was to select from three to five channels or turn the TV off.
Think of TV today. Four full-time broadcast networks, plus PBS, plus anywhere from a few to several independent channels in each market. Add cable and the streaming services like Netflix and Amazon to the mix and the average viewer has literally hundreds of choices all day, every day.
Some of it still may be, as Minnow said, “wasteland.” But look at what we can now choose from – news and analysis, both impartial and politically slanted, 24/7. We can watch cartoons; every sport conceivable; game shows new and 25 years old; standup comedy; nature and science; programs in Italian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Chinese; Bible study and religious sermons; the Stock Market, shopping channels offering clothing, jewelry, mops, electronics and car mats; reality shows depicting housewives of countless counties and cities and people who scavenge foreclosed storage units; music ranging from Top 40 to jazz to gospel to Bollywood to Tejano. It’s all there, all the time.
The New York Times reports there were 487 scripted programs – series, mini-series, specials - that aired across all channels last year. That’s almost double the number only five years ago, and nearly three times the number 15 years ago. And from those numbers has emerged a wealth of quality program content of all kinds… programs that attract big production budgets, top writers and big-name stars who, not long ago, would never consider going from the big screen to the TV screen.
A vast wasteland? No more.