Newton Minow’s Lasting Legacy

Fifty years to the day (May 9, 2011), the writer of this tribute to Newton N. Minow was privileged to hear him, in an address at the National Press Club, recall his NAB ‘vast wasteland’ remark. He reflected not only on the 1961 NAB speech, but also on the excitement generated at the show with introduction of astronaut Alan Shepard, who, only days before, had become America’s first man in space, by President John F. Kennedy. (Image credit: James O'Neal)

In my seven decades on this earth, nearly 30 individuals have chaired the doings of the Federal Communications Commission. Truth be told, most of those individuals and their names now blur with the passage of time. Oh, a few stand out in one way or another, and I’ve even been privileged to have been invited to hear addresses by some who were given this position of responsibility for shaping and re-shaping our communication laws, rules and regulations. 

My first recollection of the name of any of these policymakers dates back to 1961 and the promise of the “New Frontier” by the youngest president to be elected, John F. Kennedy. I was 14 and just becoming aware of the political side of things as I plied my way through middle school and my first weekend job at a radio station.

(Also read: Minow Recalls 1961 ‘Wasteland’ Remark in Forum With Genachowski)

 Something happened that spring that was to indelibly etch its way into the American vernacular and culture, the declaration in an address before those assembled for the 1961 NAB Show in Washington, that television was “a vast wasteland.” The press immediately picked up on this and the name of Kennedy’s newly-minted FCC chair, Newton N. Minow, instantly attained universal recognition. It was there in the headlines of the newspapers, front covers of popular magazines of the day, and was heard in evening newscasts and broadcast commentaries. 

The concept of a “vast wasteland” and the name of Newton Minow became indelibly intertwined in virtually all collective memories, mine included. (It is speculated that the distressed charter boat—the S.S. Minnow—in the popular 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” was so-named as a slam against the FCC chair and his remark about the mindlessness of television programming.)

However, Mr. Minow—who passed away earlier this month at the age of 97—needs to be remembered for more than his criticism of television programming. In his infamous May 9, 1961 NAB address he also enumerated “pay TV,” UHF broadcasting, and international television” as worthy of his attention during his FCC tenure. 

I won’t address “pay TV,” as we are all only too aware of its meteoric growth and reshaping of the television industry.

However, for the benefit of those who weren’t around during the first decade or so of the postwar television boom, I need to note that the world of broadcast television was markedly different then. Most programming originated from the three “classic” networks, cable TV existing only for providing service to communities shut out from OTA TV service by terrain. 

The vast majority of broadcasters unfortunate enough to have been assigned a UHF television channel were considered to be “second-class citizens” by their VHF counterparts, and while there were a handful of man-made satellites whizzing by overhead, none could relay television programs. 

And what was offered in large part as “children’s programming (this was really a “hot-button” issue for Minow) consisted of a late afternoon and Saturday morning mixture of cartoons, seemingly endless cowboy “shoot-em-ups,” and similar pap all interspersed with commercials directing young minds to sponsors’ products. (Unfortunately, this last bit of history hasn’t changed all that much, even with the passage of six decades.) 

In particular, the situation for most UHF TV broadcasters in mixed V/U markets was quite dire indeed when Minow took office. The networks almost universally inked affiliations with VHF stations due to their better coverage and market penetration. (In 1961, only about five percent of TVs sold were equipped with UHF tuners, with most set owners not wanting to pay the extra expense to receive the meek offerings of those fledgling U stations.) 

I’m certain that Minow realized that he would not be able to affect any sort of overnight change in the caliber of TV programming, so he homed in on areas they were within his reach as FCC chair. Just a few months after Minow’s being sworn in, the Commission put together a package of proposals for bettering the lot of UHF stations. 


In 2016, President Barack Obama recognized Minow with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the only member of the FCC to ever receive the honor.  (Image credit: Northwestern University)

Topping these was a request for Congressional action on legislation to authorize the FCC to require that all new sets be capable of receiving both V and U stations. Minow shepherded this legislation and in a remarkably short time (the “all-channel law” was signed into law on July 10, 1962), the manufacture VHF-only sets ended, making it a much more viable proposition for would-be broadcasters to consider applying for a UHF channel. (In his address, Minow prophesized that making UHF broadcasting more viable could pave the way for additional national TV networks— “We may have half a dozen networks instead of three.” And in his push for better programming, it could not have been lost on Minow that many of the FCC’s “educational TV” channel assignments were in the UHF band.)

With equal speed, the 35-year-old Minnow also jumpstarted a stalled initiative to launch the world’s first communications satellite, a concept that he had touched on in his NAB address— “International television will be with us soon. No one knows how long it will be until a broadcast from a studio in New York will be viewed in India as well as in Indiana, will be seen in the Congo as it is seen in Chicago.”

In recalling his first day on the job as FCC chair, Minow noted that he was asked if he knew anything about telecommunications satellites, to which he answered in the negative. He learned that plans were already underway to tap satellite technology for this purpose and that the action on the part of the FCC would be needed to make it viable and help ensure America as a leader in this area of communications technology. 

Minow fast-tracked this initiative, with President Kennedy signing off on Public Law 87-624 on Aug. 31, 1962, just weeks after the “all-channel” legislation was finalized. Public Law 87-624 (aka “The Communications Satellite Act of 1962”) established the commercialization of this new vehicle for transporting television, radio, and other signals to virtually any point on the globe.

So, when you switch your television set to Channel 24 this evening to watch the evening network newscast, which begins with live coverage of some breaking news from Kyiv, please recall that the 15th chair of the FCC, Newton Minow had a big hand in making this possible. He should be remembered for much more than calling out television for being “a vast wasteland.”