When Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to broadcasters in 1961, he warned that the three television networks had become so commercialized that they had all but abandoned programming in the public interest.
Instead, he implied, they focused on repetitive low-brow content that offered immediate gratification for viewers and a quick jolt to the networks’ bottom line.
Minow's phrase “vast wasteland” became part of the public lexicon, and indeed, the phrase endures nearly 60 years later. But in those six decades, the media environment has grown far more vast, and definitely more complex.
The recent explosion of streaming services, combined with the continued consolidation of large entertainment companies, should make us want to revisit Minow's warning.
Unless modern viewers become educated about the workings and structure of the current entertainment industry, the “wasteland” Minow described could return in a much more virulent form.
A growing number of television viewers who for decades passively sat back and surfed the channels their cable companies offered have voluntarily cut the cord.
But switching to streaming services today requires that viewers acquire a sophisticated and updated understanding of the new media. Without that knowledge, they may find themselves paying for an expensive array of multiple streaming services without getting the programming they want.
Most viewers don't spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the fact that nearly everything they see on their screens is controlled directly or indirectly by four mega-corporations; after all, this is the province of the FCC, business writers and perhaps a few CEOS.
But the complicated intermingling of these four huge companies (Disney, AT&T, Comcast and Viacom) with each other, and their own relationships with their sister companies, could eventually impact almost everything we watch -- on television and in movie theaters.
The newly revamped structure of the industry began to trickle down to consumers when Netflix switched from offering DVDs of films by mail and began streaming existing films and original shows.
Now that trickle is a torrent, forcing us to become amateur network programmers just to watch our favorite shows.
Take, for example, the popular show "The Good Place." NBC aired the show's fourth season this fall at 9 p.m. Thursdays on network television, while NBC had loaned seasons 1 to 3 for viewing on Netflix for those who missed those first three seasons.
It's a good bet, though, that when NBC launches its streaming service Peacock in the spring, it will yank the show from Netflix over to Peacock. Ditto for some of the NBC shows offered on Hulu.
That process could repeat itself many times over. Millennials who notoriously never had cable -- and may not even own a television -- have grown accustomed to relying on Hulu to watch some new shows the day after they air on the networks.
That will no doubt change as Disney now owns the lion's share of Hulu.
As Julia Alexander of The Verge recently noted, Peacock, WarnerMedia and Disney are likely to reclaim shows that once aired on Hulu as they launch their own streaming services. Alexander notes that the launching of so many individual streaming services has made Hulu a “child of divorce,” and a service that might soon be fighting for survival.
Confused? But that's just the beginning. Media consolidation along with the government's seeming reluctance to regulate it will also affect what we see in movie theaters -- and giants will prevail.
The explosion of streaming has so blurred the line between conventional content creators (like movie studios) and content distributors (movie theaters) that small and independent studios and films can't help but take a hit.
Netflix and Amazon Prime began as distributors, but their entry into original content gives them dominance in the content-creating field; they are becoming so big that they can call the shots regarding what movie theaters show.
As is the case with most mass entertainment, whatever becomes a hit and makes money is replicated over and over. This smothers small and original independent films, which are often written, acted and produced by unknown names.
Complicating things further is a move last month by the U.S. Justice Department to end 70-year-old anti-trust legislation that regulated exactly what is happening today: the overtaking of movie theaters by large studios.
In U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, the court ruled in favor of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and prohibited studios from purchasing large theater chains. The ruling ultimately brought an end to the old Hollywood studio system.
Ironically, a supporter of that 1948 anti-trust legislation and a member of the independent producers group is a name that is familiar today: Walt Disney.
Still, we need not be completely pessimistic about the changing entertainment environment.
When viewers realize that they could be paying lots of money for content they don't like – and if they are unable to find content they do like -- they may indeed take a more aggressive role in learning how to control their entertainment destiny: by taking an active role in understanding how government and business control what they and their children watch.