In 1961, the FCC Chairman Called TV a ‘Vast Wasteland.’ Has It Gotten Better?

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We all know who wound up on Gilligan’s Island: Gilligan (of course); the Skipper too; the millionaire and his wife; the movie star; the professor and Mary Anne. But did you know that the chairman for the Federal Communications Commission made an appearance in every episode, too?

I didn’t either, until I read a fascinating little piece this weekend by fellow movie critic Nell Minow. Her father, Newton Minow, had become the FCC’s chairman in 1961. And on May 9 during his first major speech—to the National Association of Broadcasters, no less—he called the television landscape a “vast wasteland.”

Writes Nell Minow for Medium:

At the time Dad called on the broadcasters to do better, there were just three national television networks. There was no PBS, just a National Educational Television which was not even available in most of the country, including Washington, D.C., itself. My father told the broadcasters that as long as the airwaves were a scarce resource, they would have to do better to live up to their statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, especially with regard to coverage of news and programming for children.

The message didn’t sit well with everyone who heard it. The makers of Gilligan’s Island showed their disdain for the Newton’s “vast wasteland” quip by naming the show’s “tiny ship,” the S.S. Minnow, in Newton’s honor. Nell says that her father took it all in stride, and he still has an S.S. Minnow life preserver hanging on his office wall.

PBS showed up eight years later. And these days, the “airwaves” are far from, in Newton’s words, a scarce resource. Instead of three networks, we have hundreds of networks and streaming options—and more entertainment than we can possibly digest.

But it strikes me that Newton Minnow’s 1961 declaration is one worth thinking about today, too.

The vast wasteland that he spoke about included some television shows now considered classic: sitcoms such as the Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke shows. Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Creative experiments in sci-fi and horror, through The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Flintstones became the first prime-time television sitcom in history in 1960.

Certainly, Newton Minow was right: Educational programming and shows specifically made for children were in short supply. And yet, television historians would look at what was on the air and say the pickings, in retrospect, were pretty good. All the shows listed above boasted a far longer shelf life than perhaps their creators could’ve imagined. Many of them, especially The Andy Griffith Show, The Flintstones and The Twilight Zone, are now on their fourth generation of fans. Perhaps these shows were only oases in that vast wasteland, but they’re still visited today.

I imagine that Newton Minow would be rightly proud of the educational offerings on television today compared to 1961, and PBS isn’t the only one producing it. Whole families of networks are devoted to children’s programming now. And when you look at shows meant for older viewers … well, in terms of their ability to tell a riveting and sometimes profound story, we are living in perhaps television’s true Golden Age.

And yet, so many of these very same shows are burdened by blanche- and blush-worthy content, often with no discernable narrative purpose. Stories that would garner an R-rating if they were movies are aired or streamed, often unhindered, into families’ living rooms, bedrooms and, thanks to ubiquitous smartphones, jeans pockets.

In 1961, there wasn’t enough content for children. Now, unless a parent utilizes some savvy techno-gatekeepers, children can watch anything they want—be it Blue’s Clues or Breaking Bad. And parents might never know.

Our television landscape is almost unrecognizable compared to the one Newton Minnow was talking about 59 years ago. And yet, in a way, it’s much the same. In 59 years, a handful of the hundreds of shows released this year will be remembered. A few will be remembered as classics: The Andy Griffiths and Twilight Zones of our own time.

But most will be gone. Lost to time. Buried, like bleaching bones, in our own vast wasteland.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

seraph_unsung 17 days ago
This was a good post with a lot of positive food for thought.  I do think that a country with free speech as one of its core principles can't really square those with government-enforced obscenity standards that often feel unfair or arbitrary (I'm reminded of your "No Flesh, Please, We're the Grammys" blog post https://pluggedin.focusonthefamily.com/no-flesh-please-we-39-re-the-grammys/ and of the previous Super Bowl controversy it indirectly referenced).  I do think that content creators should have accountability and be accountable, but I don't think it should be the job of a secular government of a secular nation to enforce those accountability standards, especially when those standards sometimes change over time according to what the culture deems acceptable.  But it's absolutely clear that parents should at least know and be responsible for what their children are consuming and how they are doing so.
Edna Konrad 17 days ago
I personally think parents should be solely responsible for the media their children consume. 

For one, it's unfair to stifle the creativity of writer, actors, etc. Just because one child might possibly stumble onto their content. Adults deserve to have some creativity aimed at them too.

And secondly, no one has the right to tell another person what they can or can't watch or what their kids can or can't watch. We can all have our opinions (I'm appalled that parents I know let their eight year olds watch The Passion), but it's ultimately not our business. To tell the government to take out profanity in shows infringes on the rights of parents who don't see a problem with profanity.
seraph_unsung 17 days ago
Thank you for your comment, and agreed.  I most definitely think eight years old is too young to be watching "The Passion of the Christ"—yes, it's a Christian movie, and I think some parts and elements of Christian culture perennially scream "under-representation!" despite all indications to the contrary, but it's still brutally graphic and would probably be scarring for the wrong audience.  When the movie came out, I was more or less at the appropriate age, and my Sunday-school class watched the film on disc at some point later.  Some of the students covered their eyes (not even just at the violence but at the scene of the demon-kids chanting).  I re-watched the film a few years later, after the hype and controversy had long since died down.  I liked the film when it was new, but being able to watch it in a calmer atmosphere allowed me to appreciate the production values (cinematography, makeup, and incredible music, all three of which earned the film Oscar nominations) a lot more clearly and to also clearly see just how uncompromisingly *depressing* the underlying story was, even given the inevitability of its subject material.

I saw Martin Scorsese's "Silence" in a second-run theatre.  Incredible movie, but I wouldn't at all recommend it except for Christians whose faith is very strong and sturdy.  I don't even mean emotionally fervent, I mean intelligent and logically defensible.  Nonetheless, there was a family with young children in the audience, and while the film's violence wasn't nearly as prolonged as in "The Passion" or in Gibson's later sublime but horrifying "Hacksaw Ridge," children shouldn't be watching a Christian be decapitated.  One character in the movie screamed, and so did her unwitting viewers.  I myself still have some emotional issues with watching a Christian music video back in the fourth grade where a girl was martyred by burning (deeply unsuitable for a nine-year-old, but a government who would later express a financially morbid interest in a scene involving Janet Jackson did nothing to "prevent" me from seeing that).

If you would like to read more on this subject, I was reading the Wikipedia articles for the Motion Picture Production Code ("Hays Code") and the Comics Code Authority, and they're fascinating if mildly disturbing given how easily a group of subjectively offended individuals can be given authority to make policy that affects all of us.

Years ago, Focus on the Family chose to censor Coldplay's "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" album cover (Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People," wherein a woman's breast is exposed) for their Plugged In review of that album.  They probably did not have to do so by governmental writ, nor should they have to.  Subjective emotional convictions that cannot be traced to something provable and reasonable have no business being made into objective legal policy.

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"How anybody expects a man to stay in business with every two-bit wowser in the country claiming a veto over what we can say and can't say and what we can show and what we can't show — it's enough to make you throw up. The whole principle is wrong; it's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't eat steak."

~ Robert A. Heinlein, "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (source https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Man_Who_Sold_the_Moon_and_Orphans_of/ip90CwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=milk )