Minow Recalls 1961 ‘Wasteland’ Remark in Forum With Genachowski

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Two FCC Chairmen, separated by 50 years of communications history and progress, got the opportunity to meet and discuss past and present issues in a special May 9 forum arranged by The George Washington University’s Global Media Institute and the National Press Club’s Eric Friedheim Journalism Library.

Newton Minow Newton Minow, who served as the Commission’s Chairman under President John F. Kennedy, was paired with the current Chairman, Julius Genachowski, for a dialog moderated by Frank Sesno, director of The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

Chairman Genachowski spoke about communications issues facing today’s FCC; however, the 85-year-old Minow was clearly in the spotlight as the evening’s event unfolded in the ballroom of the National Press Club here.

Minow is remembered by many for a speech, delivered before broadcasters at the 1961 NAB convention, in which he labeled the efforts of television’s programmers then as a “vast wasteland.”

“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and 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. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Minow’s May 9, 1961 remarks were applauded in some circles, but were considered by others as condescending of many popular television series being aired then, and also as an attack on private enterprise by the government.

At the Press Club event, Minow spoke about the events preceding his speech, which included a meeting the previous day with President Kennedy and astronaut Alan Shepard, who had just become America’s first man in space. Minow recalled that the President was just about to leave the White House to give an address at the NAB convention being held in Washington, and asked him for a suggestion for a topic.

“I said Mr. President, you ought to compare the way we do space shots and the way the Russians do it. The Russians do it in secret—you never know whether it was a success or a failure. We invite radio and television to cover our space shots, not knowing what will happen. We want the press there; we want everyone may share the experience.

“We got to the hotel, the President walked up to the podium, gave a very graceful, thoughtful, witty, charming talk about the difference between the way we handle [launches] and the way the Russians did. The audience was extremely pleased with it and gave him a standing ovation.”

Minow said that when he returned a day later to deliver his own speech, the climate had changed. One member of the audience called it “probably the worst speech he ever heard.”

In introducing Minow, Genachowski praised Minow for his accomplishments during his leadership as the Commission’s 14th and youngest Chairman.

“As FCC Chairman, Newton Minow shifted and improved the communications landscape in so many important ways, bringing UHF reception to all TVs, recognizing the opportunities of pay TV, promoting the development of public broadcasting….” said Genachowski. “Newt Minow also paved the way for communications satellites. On this too he had conviction that was visionary. Newt Minow once told President Kennedy that putting communications satellites in space was more important than putting a man on the moon, because [in Minow’s words] ‘satellites allow ideas to be sent into space, and ideas last longer than men.’”