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Newton Minow is back

In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow made the speech of a lifetime. In an address to broadcasters at NAB 1961, the chairman noted that “when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. However, “when television is bad, nothing is worse.”

Then came the part that broadcasters will never forget.

“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.”

Last week, 43 years after coining one of most memorable phrases in the history of television, 78-year-old Newton Minow was back in old form, continuing to make broadcasters uncomfortable. This time Minow asked a new generation of FCC members to adopt rules that would require television and radio stations to provide free time for local political races in their communities.

Under the proposal, broadcast stations would be required to designate 20 minutes each day to “significant local races” during the 30 days prior to a general election. Five minutes of that would have to be in primetime.

Minow, along with former FCC general counsel Henry Geller, argued that such a rule is needed because there’s evidence that many broadcasters are not paying sufficient attention to local elections. “The broadcast licensee, as a public trustee, has a special obligation to present political broadcasts, including serving as an effective local outlet in this respect,” argued Minow and Geller.

The NAB, long opposed to any rules that would require free time during the lucrative election season, again responded negatively. “Way too often, broadcasters offer time to politicians and they don’t take advantage of it.”

In an unrelated bit of broadcast trivia on Minow, it is said that the S.S. Minnow (with two “n”s), the 40-foot boat used in the vintage TV series “Gilligan’s Island,” was named for the former FCC chairman.

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