Newton Minow, former FCC chief who called TV ‘wasteland’, dies – KESQ

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — Newton N. Minow, who as head of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s proclaimed network television a “vast wasteland,” died Saturday. He was 97.

Minow, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, died Saturday at his home, surrounded by loved ones, said his daughter, Nell Minow.

“He wanted to be home,” she told The Associated Press. “He had a good life.”

Although Minow held the FCC post for only two years, he left a permanent stamp on the broadcast industry through government action to encourage satellite communications, passage of a law requiring UHF reception on televisions, and his outspoken defense of quality on television.

“My faith is in the belief that this country needs and can support many television voices, and that the more voices we hear, the better off, the richer, the freer we will be,” Minow once said. “After all, the airways belong to the people.”

Minow was appointed head of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy in early 1961. He first met the Kennedys in the 1950s as an aide to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956.

Minow issued his famous challenge to television executives on May 9, 1961, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, urging them to sit and watch his station for a full day, “without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit.” . a loss sheet or grade book to distract you.”

“I can assure you that you will see a vast wasteland,” he told them. “You’ll see a procession of game shows, totally awesome family comedy formulas, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private detectives, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, without ceasing, commercials, a lot of shouting, flattery and offenses”.

As he spoke, the three networks were almost all that most viewers had to choose from. Pay TV was only in the planning stages, PBS and “Sesame Street” were several years away, and HBO and niche channels like Animal Planet were far in the future.

The speech caused a sensation. “Vast Wasteland” became a catchphrase. Jimmy Durante opened an NBC special by saying, “The next hour will be dedicated to improving the quality of television. … At least, Newt, we are trying.”

Minow became the first government official to earn a George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting. New York Times critic Jack Gould (himself a Peabody winner) wrote: “At last there is a man in Washington who sets out to defend the public’s interests in matters of television and is not shy about ruffling the furthest feathers. august of the industry. Tonight, some announcers were trying to find dark explanations for Mr. Minow’s attitude. In this matter, the viewer can possibly be a bit helpful; Mr. Minow has been watching television.

CBS president Frank Stanton disagreed, calling Minow’s comments an “oversimplified, sensationalized approach” that could lead to ill-advised reforms “on the grounds that any change is change for the better.”

For criticism of his speech, Minow said he did not support censorship, preferring exhortation and measures to expand public options. But he also said a broadcast license was “a huge gift” from the government that brought with it a responsibility to the public.

His daughter, Nell Minow, told The Associated Press in 2011 that her father loved television and wished he had been remembered for championing the public interest in television programming, rather than just a few words in his much broader speech. .

“His No. 1 goal was to give people options,” he said.

Among the new laws during his tenure was the All Channel Receivers Act of 1962, which required televisions to pick up UHF and VHF broadcasts, opening television channels numbered above 13 for widespread viewing. Congress also passed a bill that provided funding for educational television and measures to encourage communications satellites.

In a September 2006 interview on National Public Radio, Minow recalled telling Kennedy that such satellites were “more important than sending a man into space. … Communications satellites will send ideas into space, and ideas outlive people.” On July 10, 1962, Minow was one of the officials who made remarks on the first live transatlantic television show, a demonstration of AT&T’s Telstar satellite.

Children’s programming was a particular interest of Minow, a father of three, who told broadcasters that the few good children’s programs were “drowned out by massive doses of cartoons, violence and more violence. … Examine your conscience and see if you cannot offer more to your young recipients whose future guides so many hours every day.”

Minow resigned in May 1963 to become executive vice president and general counsel of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. in Chicago.

Nell Minow said her father was also instrumental in televising presidential debates, beginning with Kennedy and Richard N. Nixon, after seeing Stevenson struggle to use the new medium during his 1956 presidential run.

“Minow was horrified by … the whole farce of having to create images on television,” said Craig Allen, a professor of mass communications at Arizona State University who wrote a 2001 book on Minow.

In 1965, Minow returned to his Chicago law practice and later served as a board member at PBS, CBS Inc., and the advertising company Foote Cone & Belding Communications Inc. He was director of the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies. from Northwestern University. .

It also gave Barack Obama a summer job at the law firm, where the future president met his wife, Michelle Robinson. Minow was also an early Obama supporter when the then-Illinois senator considered running for president, Nell Minow said.

Television is one of the most important advances of our century “and yet, as a nation, we pay no attention to it,” Minow said in an Associated Press interview in 1991.

He went on to push for reforms like free airtime for political ads and higher-quality programming, while lauding advances in diversity on American television.

“In 1961, I was worried that my children would not benefit much from television. But in 1991 I am concerned that my grandchildren will be harmed by it,” she said.


Former Associated Press staff writer Polly Anderson in New York contributed to this report.

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