Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow Dies
Besides his infamous 'vast wasteland' remarks, Minow also championed UHF, satellite communications
Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who became one of television’s earliest critics by calling the medium “a vast wasteland” more than 60 years ago, died May 6 at the age of 97.
Minow expressed his opinions of the state of television programming in the early days of his chairmanship during the Kennedy administration in front of a gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters.
“Stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you, and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off,” Mr. Minow said on May 9, 1961. “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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.”
“If you think I exaggerate, try it,” he added.
And while broadcasters were taken aback by Newton’s candidness, his criticisms struck a nerve, and for a period of time afterwards, TV violence did diminish somewhat and more options became available for educational programming and news programming did become more relevant. However that did not stop the industry from continuing to push Westerns and promote low-brow sitcoms, including “Gilligan’s Island,” which satirized Minow’s commentary by dubbing its shipwrecked boat the “SS Minnow.”
(Read also: Minow Assesses the State of TV 60 Years After ‘Vast Wasteland’ Remarks)
Prior to being appointed chairman of the commission (among the youngest in the agency’s history), Minow had been a law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson as well as assistant counsel to Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson during Stevenson's two Democratic presidential campaigns.
Although Minow was best known for his vast wasteland remarks, he also instituted several changes that advanced TV technology during the rest of the 1960’s. Under his leadership, the commission pushed for legislation that resulted in the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962, which mandated that TV sets be designed to receive the (at the time), little used UHF band, bringing forth dual dials that became a fixture in American households during the decade and opened up additional channel options for viewers.
But perhaps his proudest achievement was promoting legislation that led to the birth of the satellite communications industry, which paralleled the nation’s burgeoning space program in the early ‘60’s, resulting in a boom in instantaneous live coverage and greatly expanded programming distribution.
“I went to the White House and told President Kennedy that these communications satellites were more important than sending men into space, because they would send ideas into space, and ideas last longer than people,” he told the New York Times in 2019. “I testified 13 times in Congress for the legislation to create the corporations and the funding. I think this is more important than anything else I’ve ever done, for its impact on the future of the world.”
Up until his death, Minow had been senior counsel at Sidley and Austin, a Chicago-based law firm for more than five decades. "A modern-day Renaissance man, Newt occupied a unique place in firm history. During his more than 50 years with the firm," the firm said of its first and only managing partner.
Minow was also a mentor to former President Barack Obama, recruiting the former president to his law firm in the late 1980’s. Obama awarded Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 and remembered him over the weekend.
“Newt Minow was a dear friend, mentor and early supporter of mine. He also embodied the ideal of public service—helping launch the satellites that made nationwide broadcasts possible, cementing presidential debates as a national institution, helping usher in public television, and reminding the media of its obligation to foster a well-informed citizenry,” Obama said. “I will always owe a great debt to Newt, most of all because he helped introduce me to Michelle when we were both young lawyers in Chicago. We will miss him dearly, just as we miss his beloved wife, Jo, who passed away last year, and send our love and thoughts to their family.”
Years after his infamous commentary, Newton was still surprised at the reaction which he said was “astonishing.”
“Particularly astonishing was the importance the press placed upon two words—vast wasteland—which I didn’t think were that important,” he told the Federal Communications Law Journal. “But somehow that stuck in the public mind. I had two different words in mind: public interest.”
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Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.