On May 9, 1961, Newton Minnow, John F Kennedy’s appointee to the Chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered his now-famous “Vast Wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters and described the state of television at that time thusly …
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 you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you–and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.
I would encourage you to read the entire edited version of that speech at the link cited above. It isn’t long and it is, in my view, well worth the effort. Then ask yourself whether in the ensuing 45 years the Broadcasters have taken his advice to heart.
My answer is that the deplorable situation he described back then has deteriorated … considerably. As bad as he thought things were at the time, those days can only be seen as the Golden Age of television in light of what has happened since then. The landscape has become vaster, now sporting hundreds of channels where there were previously only a few, and the wasteland of that time now seems almost like the Garden of Eden. Compare what existed then to today’s mix of so-called reality shows, inane family shouting matches, and what Fox news calls “fair and balanced” reporting but is nothing more than a one-sided propaganda machine that merely serves to exacerbate the division of these once-United States into red and blue camps that can no longer talk sanely to each other or focus on the common good. We’re making great progress alright … along the road to Hell.
Yet, I think Minnow’s basic statement is still true. When television is good, there is nothing better and when it’s bad, nothing is worse. So to turn this rant in a somewhat more positive direction, I’ll report that I recently caught a one-hour presentation on PBS (what else?) about PopTech and was fascinated. They (PopTech) have a web site and a blog that I’ll be monitoring. Though I’d love to attend one of their annual conferences, the price ($2,295.00) for a three-day conference is a bit steep for my budget. In addition to the consistently worthwhile offerings of PBS, I find that the group of channels that Discovery offers are worth the time spent watching them. So it is possible to find things on television that improve the mind rather than rotting it.
As with anything else in life, a great deal of how you see things depends on the choices you make. What you attend to determines your outlook and consequently what you think about reality. I just shudder at the choices some people make, particularly when they wish to vent their feelings about how the world is because I know their point of view is based on “data” from sources that I consider suspect. Of course, I suppose they may feel the same way about me and my choices too.
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