'Vast Wasteland' Take Two: Is The Public Interested?

On May 9, 1961 FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, an appointee of President Kennedy's administration, delivered his historic speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC. The speech is best known for two words he uttered in reference to the programming found on TV stations nationwide: vast wasteland. The term became a cultural touchpoint for critics of television, and remains so to this day.

If you listen to the entire speech, you'll see that "vast wasteland" was not intended to be Minow's career catchphrase. In his 1999 Archive of American Television interview he reiterates that. His point was:  In 1961, the major networks and affiliates controlled much of America's television content production and distribution using the airwaves, which were granted to the networks by the people of the U.S. In his opinion, much of that content, although highly rated, was not necessarily in the "public interest" - particularly when it came to children's programming.

"I believe that most of television's problems stem from lack of competition," Minow stated in the speech. "This is the importance of UHF to me: with more channels on the air, we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to offer service to all parts of the public. Programs with a mass market appeal required by mass product advertisers certainly will still be available. But other stations will recognize the need to appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes."

He then discussed his goals of widening of distribution through more channels on UHF, satellite transmission and public television - all things that came to fruition soon after. He left his chairmanship early (after two years), but he certainly made his mark.

Last week, 50 years to the day later, Minow took the stage at The National Press Club, along with current FCC chair Julius Genachowski. What a difference 50 years makes! Content is practically unlimited (Minow fessed up to having a smartphone and a tablet) and the public has plenty, if not too much, to be interested in from a content standpoint. And, of course, Minow still feels that his speech was misinterpreted.

Also, almost 50 years later, current FCC chair Julius Genachowski gave his keynote at the 2011 NAB Show in April. Did he coin a new phrase? Inspire a national dialogue? State more than the obvious? Hardly. The speech centered on how broadcasters will need to embrace new platforms, and, at the same time, relinquish pieces of the broadband spectrum (yes, the same publicly owned spectrum Minow was talking about) to make way for mobile and DTV. How will the public interest be "served" this time? His answer: by adding lots of money to the U.S. Treasury from the auction of these valuable airwaves -- and through the promise of new jobs in the burgeoning wireless industry. Maybe the public airwaves are all-business after all, or maybe the public's just lost interest....

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