The Vast Wasteland, sixty years on

Posted by Mitchell - May 9, 2021 (entry 734)

It would be the equivalent of the Pope giving a speech in the 1950s before a convention of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and saying: "You have a lot of pedophiles in your midst, and God is dead." Even if a statement like that is largely accurate, that's a bold statement to make to that audience from the position being held, at a high point (perhaps the highest point) of the conference's power and prestige.

Sixty years to the day as I write and share this post, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, longtime Chicagoan Newton Minow, gave a speech titled "Television and the Public Interest" before the lobby of commercial radio and TV broadcasting, the National Association of Bastards Broadcasters (NAB). Minow became the only FCC chair to earn an entry in Bartlett's Quotations thanks to a quote in that speech:

"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own 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. 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."

The remark is now widely regarded as a dispatch from Planet Obvious, but at the time and in that context and given the history of American broadcasting and the super-dominant position of the NAB at the time it was quite a jarring statement to make. To more fully appreciate the remark and its import, we need to delve into that history.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the NAB and allies in the government and radio engineering sectors had usurped the existing broadcasting setup in the United States to one of a sancrosanct for-profit commercial network model and had defeated a grassroots backlash of educators, nonprofits, labor unions, and civil libertarians. There had been some struggles in the following years and decades, including the FCC efforts to break up NBC to form ABC, and the Blue Book for imposing specific public-service requirements on American broadcasters, but those efforts hadn't really changed the milieu and still left the NAB and the networks in a dominant position. Heck, in the two years before, the broadcasters had successfully fought off a crisis of legitimacy resulting from the quiz-show scandals and the resulting high-profile Congressional hearings.

The FCC (and its predecessor the Federal Radio Commission) had overwhelmingly been a handmaiden the corporate power, and a stepping-stone for aspiring corporate-media attorneys to gain powerful positions within the industry. So for a new FCC chair to make these damning remarks was especially wounding, and the industry's reaction was predictably histrionic.

Ever since these remarks, the dominant position of the radio-later-television commercial broadcast networks has been steadily eroded. The means of the erosion was to expand steadily the number of available options. Minow himself spearheaded the expansion of the UHF television band, which helped expand the number of channels which by the end of the decade crystallized with the Public Broadcasting Act and the establishment (for all its flaws) of national-scale public television in the United States. The expansion continued: cable television, the internet, community radio, video on the internet (read: YouTube), and now a panoply of internet streaming options.

In the course of all this expansion, whenever a new opportunity opens, the corporations don't relinquish what they already have, and no one forced them to give up their extant holdings. Even though the extant radio networks (and the TV networks that faced the brunt of Minow's criticism) were built by the policy-driven bulldozing of existing community and nonprofit radio stations, but never mind.

The wave of cross-media consolidation which accelerated in the 1980s meant that broadcasters themselves have been bought out. ABC was bought by Capital Cities and later Disney; CBS was bought by Westinghouse and later Viacom; NBC was bought by General Electric and later Comcast. They are now pawns in a larger corporate game, and pawns with an apparently diminished social and cultural footprint, as noted by career broadcasters themselves.

But have things improved in the sixty years since Newton Minow made the NAB reach for their smelling salts? Is American television (and by extension American medi) still a vast wasteland? I would posit that yes that things have improved: more outlets and a somewhat greater diversity has meant that there are more opportunities for improvement. (The media ownership uprising of 2003 owes a great deal of credit to those additional media and opportunities.) We are seeing some progress on undoing the sacrosanct status of class-based market-driven capitalism has remained the sacrosanct set-up of our political economy, which has long been a buzzsaw against any progress against a class-based market-drive capitalist media system. The progress needs to continue and deepen, to further the oasification our vast wasteland.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.