Television had become public opinion’s most powerful influence when Newton Minow spoke about it in his first speech as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in May 1961. Minow’s intent was to highlight the responsibility broadcasters had to “serve the public interest” by demonstrating “a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell.” But what is remembered most from the speech was his description of television programming as a “vast wasteland.”
Viewers, Minow said, were being presented with “a procession of game shows, formula comedies…blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder…private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”
Wait, he was describing what was available in 1961, right?
“Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America,” he told the broadcasters. And he insisted, “History [will] decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”
Minow’s words for the television industry are as relevant now as then, but the personal challenge is to be selective about the “broadcasts” we receive and embrace.
Like any other form of communication—radio, magazines, Internet—the television shows we choose to watch say more about us than they do about the medium. Sometimes, we put television down for having a lot of junk even as we consume more and more of it. Other times, we simply wallow in the junk like a pig in mud. Either way, it’s not fair to condemn an entire medium for our poor choices in the way we use it.
Television can allow us to be places we will never visit (outer space, a feeding ground for sharks, ancient Rome), to view events we couldn’t attend (the State of the Union address, a Beatles concert, a NASA press conference), and to understand things we wouldn’t without it (movie special effects, the differences between men and women, the neutral zone trap). Trouble is, very few of these topics ever come up in sitcoms or reality shows.
No one is holding a gun to our heads, forcing us to watch Dancing with the Stars, and there is no lack of outstanding alternatives. It’s a matter of what turns us on, and what we turn on. Let’s make sure the “vast wasteland” isn’t in our heads.