The Wasteland at 50

May 9, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Newton Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech.  That’s the manifesto in which Minow, President Kennedy’s newly-appointed FCC chairman, applied that term to contemporary television programming in front of an audience of sour-faced industry executives.  In the decades since, there have always been shows of such egregious awfulness, from The Beverly Hillbillies (which debuted the season after Minow’s epithet) to Jersey Shore, that the quote has remained in constant use.  Yours truly even adapted it as a snarky subhead for this blog.

To commemorate the occasion, James Warren has a good interview with Minnow, who’s still active at 85.  Also in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan offers an unfocused take on the speech, arguing that Minow motivated broadcasters, who “felt existentially challenged, and immediately pushed themselves to prove him wrong.”  Yeah, right.  Heffernan acknowledges that many classic TV shows work in defiance of Minow’s ideals (in other words, they’re great trash), but she doesn’t sort out exactly how that doesn’t render Minow irrelevant.

More insightful, and provocative, is Aaron Barnhart’s takedown in the Kansas City Star.  Barnhart calls the speech a “failure” and describes Minow’s plan for reform as ineffectual or even (in the area of local news) inadvertently counterproductive.

I have a lot of complicated ideas about the “vast wasteland,” and no time today to sort them out.  I’ve covered a lot of that territory on this blog already.  Barnhart calls Minow a “snob,” and argues that he was trying to impose his “patrician tastes” on a popular medium – an idea doomed to fail.  I agree with that, more or less.  Minow’s speech was very much of its particular moment, and so the term “vast wasteland,” potent as it is, is almost always used out of context. 

In 1961, there was reason to fear that television had (forgive the pun) gone down the tubes.  Paradigm shifts: live television and the dramatic anthology had abruptly died; the networks were aggressively cloning formulas (westerns and private eye shows) that were dumber, more violent, and more cynical than prime time had yet seen.  Minow denies nostalgia for Playhouse 90 and Studio One.  I think that’s a strategic misdirection, and that his speech is a clandestine eulogy for precisely that kind of programming.

But the fall lineup in 1961 included the debuts of The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Alcoa Premiere, and The Dick Powell Show.  Those were literate, sophisticated shows, and in no way created a response to Minow’s screed.  Also during the next couple of years, cloned Warner Bros. westerns (Cheyenne, Lawman) and adventure shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) would abruptly fade in popularity.  During the early sixties you could see, for the first time, how television would rebound on its own from periods of creative enervation and commercial pandering.  Minow was just a little too early to detect the pattern.  He was speaking from the dark before the dawn. 

Minow essentially advocated for staking out space for noncommercial television.  He wanted to force symphonies down the throats of people who would prefer to watch a western or, more charitably, to make sure that minority of symphony-lovers was never ignored.  (Minow used that example; the full text of the famous speech is here.)  Was that noble, or naïve?  PBS has practiced the Minow doctrine, with valuable results.  But I fall into the camp that prefers the thrilling highs and lows of commercial television.  For me, the excitement in watching television is not found in staid documentary specials, placed on a non-commercial pedestal.  It is the fight to save shows that are too smart for TV (like Arrested Development or Veronica Mars), the elation when one of them becomes a crossover cultural touchstone (The Sopranos), the secret pleasure when a mainstream show smuggles in subversive ideas (CSI).  I’m citing recent examples, but this tug of war has gone on since the beginning of television.  Minow had a great line.  But if television had really been a vast wasteland in 1961, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now, would we?

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