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Newton N. Minow, FCC Chief Who Deemed TV a ‘Vast Wasteland,’ Dies at 97
Newton N. Minow, the man famously known for labeling television as a “vast wasteland” during his tenure as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, passed away on April 25, 2021. He was 97 years old.
Minow, who served as the FCC chairman from 1961 to 1963, was regarded as a reformist who sought to improve the quality of public television. He took office at a time when the telecommunication industry in the United States was undergoing significant growth, and his appointment marked the beginning of a new era for American television.
As the head of the FCC, Minow was instrumental in instituting rules and regulations that were aimed at curbing content and programming that he considered to be of low quality or lacking in substance. In a speech he delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, he famously described television as “a vast wasteland”, a phrase that became widely recognized and quoted as a criticism of the medium.
Minow believed that television had the potential to be a force for good in society, playing a crucial role in shaping public opinion and facilitating the exchange of ideas. However, he also recognized that the industry was caught in a race for ratings, with commercial success and profits taking precedence over the content’s quality. He saw the need to set higher standards for television’s programming, calling for the establishment of educational programming and children’s educational programming, and championing the cause of public broadcasting.
Minow’s time at the FCC was marked by significant developments in technology, including the launch of the first communication satellite, Telstar. He recognized the possibilities that this technology presented for expanding the reach of television and encouraged its use. In his book “Abandoned in the Wasteland,” Minow called for greater support for public service broadcasting, arguing that it was essential for the emerging new media landscape.
Beyond his career in television regulation, Minow was also a prominent lawyer and thinker. He taught at Northwestern University Law School, where he worked on the creation of a “living constitution,” arguing that it was crucial to interpreting the laws and regulations of the United States in light of a changing society.
Minow was also a prodigious writer, authoring several books and essays that have had a significant impact on public discourse. His book “Presidential Television,” examined the role of television in shaping political contests, while his article “The Vast Wasteland Revisited,” published in 1995, reflected on the state of television in contemporary society and assessed the developments that he had witnessed in the ensuing decades.
Minow’s legacy will be remembered for the important role he played in shaping the landscape of American television. His call for greater attention to quality programming and support for public broadcasting has helped to shape the industry for decades, and his ideas continue to influence media professionals and policymakers today.
In conclusion, Newton N. Minow was a man who left a significant footprint in the telecommunications industry. His legacy will be remembered for his dedication to setting higher standards for television’s programming, calling for the establishment of educational programming, and championing the cause of public broadcasting. He recognized the importance of television in shaping public opinion and facilitating the exchange of ideas while also acknowledging the challenges it faced. Minow’s contributions may have been more than half a century ago, but his influence can still be felt even today.