Newton Minow, The Man Who Called TV A 'Vast Wasteland'

A two-word phrase from a 1961 speech might be the most durable two words in the history of television.

“Vast wasteland” is the descriptive phrase, and it was uttered by Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech in which he admonished the TV industry for failing to live up to the medium’s potential (as he saw it) for improving people’s lives.

Minow died Saturday at his home in the Chicago area. He was 97.

He was FCC chairman from March 1961 to June 1963, and then went on to a distinguished career as a telecommunications lawyer.

Among other achievements, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 by President Obama.



Years before, Minow gave a summer job at his law firm to a young Barack Obama, and it was there that Barack met his future wife, Michelle.

Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech dates back 62 years, but the phrase endured -- so much so that it was in the lead paragraph of every obituary on Minow that was published over the weekend.

The phrase is famous, but the context in which it was delivered is not.

The two words were plucked from a speech that was nearly 5,500 words in length and ran for 40 minutes.

It was delivered on May 9, 1961, to an audience of network executives and TV station managers gathered at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. 

“When television is bad, nothing is worse,” said Minow, newly installed as FCC chairman in the fledgling administration of President John F. Kennedy.

“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,” Minow suggested.

“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.”

With all due respect to Chairman Minow, if we had the quaint procession of “mayhem, violence, sadism [and] murder” that he observed in 1961, we would all be marveling at the miraculous chastity of television.

Dated though it surely is, Minow’s speech gave TV critics (and anyone else) a handy, accurate phrase -- “a vast wasteland” -- for describing television in virtually any era. 

But it is doubtful the speech persuaded any members of Minow’s audience to actually engage in the exercise of self-evaluation that he suggested, much less come to personal epiphanies about the woeful state of television that Minow was sure they would experience. 

Those who heard the FCC chairman’s speech likely saw no way in which they could profit from keeping their eyes “glued” to their sets.

They also likely felt, if they bothered to contemplate it at all, that watching television in such a marathon fashion -- from sign-on to sign-off, as the old broadcasters once referred to the broadcast day -- was not a realistic reflection of the way most people watched TV.

Over the years, Minow graciously agreed to be interviewed countless times on the state of TV in whatever year or era the interviews were being conducted. 

“In 1961, I worried that my children would not benefit much from television,” he said in a 1991 interview with the Associated Press. “But in 1991, I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it.”

4 comments about "Newton Minow, The Man Who Called TV A 'Vast Wasteland'".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 10, 2023 at 7:51 a.m.

    I believe the vast wasteland description was highbrow virtue signaling among the erudite people in the 1960s. It echoed their "we don't even own a TV" claims at cocktail parties of the day. Reading books is sometimes lowbrow, too, but disliking television content enjoyed by the common folk was a sport for the elites and more about snobbery than concern for protecting the children. Newspapers latched onto the phrase as they fought a death struggle with broadcasters for local advertising dollars.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 10, 2023 at 9:17 a.m.

    Brace yourself, Douglas---but I agree with you. As I describe in my book, "TV Now and Then" ( Media Dynamics Inc, 2015 ), at the time there had been a huge surge of "violent" action, adventure, detective and  western series pouring out of the Hollywood studios after they decided if you can't fight you TV might as well join it. And viewers, who were tired of set-bound drama anthologies,  game shows, variety shows , etc. and craved action flocked to watch programs like  "Gunsmoke" , "The Untouchables", and hosts of others. Hence the reaction of the elites--against the quality of TV and its "deluge"of commercials---which, in reality, was more like a light rainy mist compared to what we have today.

    As I describe in my book, our 1957-1960 TV screens were soon filled with too many"action" shows---including many copycat series---and the inevitable happened. Ratings dropped so in the early 1960s the TV networks decided that the elites were right and went whole hog the other way---with hosts of idealistic lawyer, doctor and shrink shows, programs about school teaching and socialworkers, and many, many documentaries.  But except for "Ben Casey" and "Dr Kildare" too many of these shows were mostly talk---but not that much happening and they, too, flunked in the Nielsens---to be replaced by the likes of "The Beverly Hillbillies", "Bewitched", Get Smart", "The Andy Griffith Show", etc.all,  at the top of the rating charts.

  3. John Luma from iLumaNation, May 10, 2023 at 10:30 a.m.

    Television in the 1950's and '60s can easily be criticized for being a vast wasteland, but it was a direct reflection of our American society that watched it: Post WW2 surging middle-class in a surging economy with new money, adults who had grown up with all the tensions and poverty of the Great Depression, the disruption and personal tragedies of the War, who just wanted to come home at night for some relaxing, mindless diversion. And there were only three national TV networks competing for viewers and advertising dollars that really had no place else to go for a mass audience-- so why would each network want to be too "different" ? And of course, only a half-hour of national nightly news on each network to occasionally remind us (then) of those really uncomfortable inequalities of race and gender and education and economic opportunity?... Now, at least, we get to program our own vast wasteland hour by hour among a couple hundred shows at any one moment, or find the highbrow programs as well.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 10, 2023 at 12:32 p.m.

    John, I agree with you about TV in the early-mid 1950s largely refelecting the tastes---and needs---developed as a result of the recent past--the Great Depression, WW2,  TheCold War, etc. However, by the 1960s the situation had changed. Now, many of us were looking for a new beginning  and the roots of the still present "age of me' were laid---replacing the "age of we". In many ways , TV  played on our  maturing concerns, delving into previously taboo subjects---as "The Defenders" often did---using staire to mock 'The Establishment" etc. By this time the three networks were sharply differentiated where prime time fare was concerned. ABC was clearly targeting the young and the "in crowd", generally, while CBS wanted the largest audiences---and usually got them with hosts of old viewer appeal programs. Leaving NBC in the middle---going both way as targets of opportunity dictated---on a night by night basis.

    My point being that after the networks took control over their primetime fare and went to Hollywood for filmed dramas and sitcoms in the late 1950s TV became more than a reflection of past societal worries and concerns. What had worked for radio in the 1930s and 1940s---quizzes, variety shows, dramatic anthologies, etc. ---mostly created and spnosored by advertisers ----were largely dropped. Instead TV dealt with current issues---the war in Nam, the civil rights crusade, women's emancipation, etc. not perfectly---but still quite daringly.

    Sadly, what we have today is often an attempt to lead society---mainly the younger segment---and promote causes that not everyone might buy into. Where that will lead us is anyone's guess.

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