I recently read Newton Minow’s speech, “Television and the Public Interest.” Newton Minow was FCC Chairman, and gave the speech in May 1961. It was renamed “Television and the Vast Wasteland” because that was the most memorable part of the speech. Have you ever read it? Do you read speeches? If you do not, it just may be because you watch television…
Well, the speech is very enlightening. There’s an audio version for people who can’t pay attention long enough to read all 5,417 words (if you watch television, you probably won’t get past the first 300 words). Either way, the message is very illuminating. In the speech, Minow pleads to those involved in television broadcasting to use this means of communication wisely.
Your license lets you use the public’s airwaves as trustees for 180 million Americans. The public is your beneficiary. If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public — not only to your stockholders. So, as a representative of the public, your health and your product are among my chief concerns.
Did you know that we, the public, own our airwaves? NBC, CBS, and the others do not own it. These corporations are licensed to use our own airwaves, and these corporations are expected to use them for decent, informative, and edifying purposes. He stressed that:
1. Media corporations were catering more to their stockholders than to the public.
2. The “public interest” defined was not what the public wants, but what serves the public as a whole.
This is what Minow said 45 years ago, and his words are prophetic (but not surprisingly so):
So I have confidence in your health [the corporations’ massive profits], but not in your product. It is with this and much more in mind that I come before you today. Now what do we mean by “the public interest?” Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. And so does your distinguished president, Governor Collins. In a recent speech — and of course as I also told you yesterday — In a recent speech he said,
Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product. …By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest. …But a much better job can be done, and should be done.
I could not agree more with Governor Collins. And I would add that in today’s world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep, relentless pressures on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with the technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world — in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.
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 each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game 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. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
Through Entrecards and other means, I’ve come across hundreds of people asking “What’s happening to our society today? It’s a wreck, and no one has any respect for anything anymore!” These things don’t happen without a cause. If you watch television addictively, you probably have no idea what I am talking about.
It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school, and church. Today, there is a fourth great influence, and you ladies and gentlemen in this room control it.
Has anyone noticed that “home” and “church” are not great influences anymore? These things have been replaced by school (especially public schooling with its emphasis on social engineering), television, and music. If you are wondering “what’s wrong” with our society, it’s because of these influences on our children. Certainly school, television, and music can have positive influences on our children (IF the media and school system decides to do so, which isn’t happening), but they should not be the only influences.
Why do you watch television? To vegetate in front of the screen after work? Is that why television was invented? Are you building a better society by this? One study says a person uses more brain cells to sleep than to watch television. Mindlessly watching the crap on the TV does have repercussions, on an individual and societal basis. Take a good, hard look at your own television habits. What good is television doing in your life?