Talking Back to TV: Newton Minow
Minow came to the FCC after an era of considerable scandal. This had been a time of alcoholic commissioners and bribe-taking, of padded expense accounts, influence-peddling, and collaboration with the businesses supposedly being regulated. According to maverick Chicago broadcaster Sterling "Red" Quinlan, "What Minow saw when he came to Washington literally gave him heartburn. The real Whorehouse Era of the FCC had largely passed...but there was still much that Minow did not like."
After fifteen years of FCC drift, Newton Minow embodied a return to the activist spirit of the early 1940s. The new chairman moved beyond the quantitative arguments of fames Lawrence Fly, who had championed increased competition and diversity. Minow was in the tradition of Paul Porter, who felt the commission had a role to play in improving the quality of programming.
Appearing at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, the chairman declared provocatively, "I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as you assume." And in one of those phrases for eternity, he summarized American television as "a vast wasteland." This was Minow the chief regulator of broadcasting, Minow the lawyer and intellectual point man for a new Kennedy administration that prided itself on prestigious university educations and, although the president kept abreast of the latest developments in TV programming, an appreciation of high culture.
Therefore, there was concern in the industry when Minow told executives that by watching their own stations they would encounter an arid and monotonous "procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation 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."
The FCC chairman directed much of his scorn toward operators of local stations. He was direct, asking them "to make a conscientious, good-faith effort to serve the public interest" by recognizing that "Every one of you serves a community in which the people would benefit by educational, religious, instructive, or other public-service programming. Every one of you serves an area which has local needs." The root of the problem, according to Minow, was in the "concentration of power in the hands of the networks," which caused "too many local stations [to] operate with one hand on the network switch, and the other hand on a projector loaded with old movies."
This was a lecture like none ever delivered by the FCC to U.S. broadcasters—biting, sarcastic, and on-target. And it struck at the core feature of American television: network domination and its stultifying effect on public broadcasting and American culture. Minow recognized the limiting results of network indifference toward the diversity of tastes and needs of the national audience. He wanted television that gave the people not only what they wanted, but also what they needed. "We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed," he noted.
But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as the test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation. You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation's whims—you must also serve the nation's needs.
To many it was elitist to think that popular culture could be shaped by symphony-lovers and those desiring educational uplift from the medium. To others it was time to rescue television from mediocrity and waste. A collection of critical essays about television published in 1962 as The Eighth Art captured the debate into which Minow had moved. Leo Rosten, for example, argued that "Most intellectuals do not seem to understand, or are unwilling to admit, that the mass media are meant for the masses, not for the intellectuals." And Marya Marines warned, "It is time, then, that the intellectuals learned a little humility; at least enough to recognize that a five-minute talk by a man like [Eric] Sevareid or [Chet] Huntley or Howard K. Smith or [David] Brinkley might do more to inform the American people than six issues of 'little reviews' or a fifty-page thesis."
On the other hand, the well-known British anthropologist Ashley Montague rebuked the programmers:
Too often the television audience has been treated as if it were some conglomerate mass of low intelligence and of even lower taste, incapable of appreciating the best that is being said and done in the world."
Without putting too fine a point upon it, those who will guide the future development of television should understand that it is not so much what the public wants as what the people 'need' that should be considered, and what the people 'want' is not incompatible with what they need.
One of the more telling arguments against Minow came from producer Roy B. Huggins in a perceptive article published in Television Quarterly a year after the speech. Here Huggins dealt with one of the most troubling implications of the liberal agenda for TV. While conceding that the Communications Act was irritatingly ambiguous in defining FCC functions and that the industry still needed federal regulations in certain problem areas, Huggins argued that the logical result of Minow's policy would be to turn the FCC into an office of censorship.
Certainly, the chairman had not proposed such a development, but to deny a license renewal on the grounds of poor program performance was to cede to government the power to decide indirectly what was televised. As Huggins phrased it, "denial of a license on programming grounds must mean that the licensee broadcast too many programs aimed at tastes different from those of a majority of a seven-man regulatory agency of government." His conclusion was forthright: "If television is to remain free to be good, it must remain free to be bad."
Minow had little area in which to maneuver. He could call for hearings, and he did; he could further condemn video violence, the lack of children's programs, and the banality of many shows, and he did; he could even threaten to say and do more to improve U.S. video. But he could not operate effectively unless both the president and Congress were supportive of him.
Although he enjoyed the strong support of JFK, who abetted Minow's crusade with other liberal appointments, the reformers on the FCC, even though they formed a majority coalition, could not overcome impediments placed in their way by Congress. As James L. Baughman has noted, these included laws passed decades earlier that "provided broadcasters so many guarantees against swift and arbitrary justice that the commission had difficulty deciding anything quickly, if at all. The resulting regulatory lag normally served the status quo, while weakening the resolve of those favoring punitive measures against a violator-licensee." The moderate-to-conservative Congresses of the early 1960s repeatedly embarrassed the commission, refusing to reform the old laws that impeded speedy, effective action, even passing a resolution rebuking FCC efforts to curb the number of commercials on TV.
Broadcasters were not relieved, however, when Newton Minow resigned from the FCC in June 1963. His successor as chairman, E. William Henry, was already on record in his beliefs that a broadcaster was "not free to maximize profits at the expense of the public interest" and that "the essence of the Communications Act's public-interest mandate is that broadcasting must be more than a business." Speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters four years after the "great wasteland" speech, Henry proclaimed his agreement with Minow's assessment of TV as imitative and barren, overemphasizing amusement and relaxation while neglecting stimulation, ideas, and information. Chairman Henry also let the broadcasters know that he was pleased with neither the many entertainment shows nor the few public-service offerings they were televising.
Television entertainment has changed very little....Still present in daytime schedules are the same vast bulk of movies and cartoons, repeats from former network seasons, sob stories, and game shows. They still sell the same vast bulk of soap, peanut butter, and painkillers. Late afternoon is still the Children's Hour—still dominated by cartoons, slapstick, and adventure serials. In prime evening hours, feature movies have won a larger and larger place. Situation comedies have taken over from action-adventure shows; untouchable mobsters have given way to unwashed monsters; and the newest innovation—the spicy nighttime soap opera—has top priority on Hollywood's drawing boards....Entertainment "specials" bring some rare and wonderful moments...[but] the overall size of network public service has remained static or declined. Using the Nielsen rating service and its definition of public-service programs [which excludes hard news] in the 1963-1964 season, only 210 network hours made the grade. Thus the so-called barren season of 1960-1961 had 22 percent more network public-service hours than the season just past. In all the years from 1961 to 1965 the proportion of total network time devoted to public-service programs ... has remained about 4 percent.
This was potentially devastating criticism. But the broadcasters were used to the bluster of occasional FCC idealism. Given the political nature of the commission and its historic reluctance to become involved in matters of program quality—even though an outspoken chairman or commissioner might publicly call for improvement—Henry's zeal, like that of Minow, led nowhere.
But Henry had even more difficulty than his predecessor in waging the crusade. Whereas Kennedy supported Minow, Lyndon B. Johnson—involved through his wife in the ownership of an Austin television station—was reluctant to battle station owners and network chiefs. LBJ needed the allegiance of broadcasters to help him on the broader issues: the Vietnam War, civil rights legislation, the War on Poverty, and the Great Society. Of the six appointments he made during his presidency, all but one—the aggressive young reformer Nicholas Johnson, whom President Johnson soon regretted appointing—opposed the activism represented by Minow and Henry.
Proof of Henry's isolation from the White House could be recognized early. At the same NAB convention where he shared his disgust with contemporary television, Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey addressed the group with praise for the industry. "I'm no snob, I like television," Humphrey announced, adding that U.S. television was "the greatest single
achievement in communication that anybody or any area of the world has ever known." And Humphrey assured the broadcasters that his boss also liked TV. "Government doesn't own you, government is not your master," he said. "Government is here to help you serve. President Johnson made it clear, he does not believe in government by scare or threat."
If national programming did not change it was because the networks had no reason to change it. Commercial TV would never become a vehicle for education and social uplift because not enough millions wanted to see this type of TV fare. The oligopoly that was
national television could always rally around the argument so concisely put by Frank Stanton in 1960: "We cannot force people to like what they don't like or want what they don't want." Of course, the networks could have broadcast informational shows, if only for the few million viewers who would watch such productions. But in the United States, television was a private business, and channel scarcity was a tool for maximizing profit.
Unlike FCC chairmen, moreover, television networks were social fixtures. Critics urging upgraded programming would last at best a term or two on the commission. That is one reason why the legacy of Minow and Henry lies in speculation about what broadcasting could be, rather than in any profound reshaping of its reality.
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