The “Vast Wasteland” Continues

A few days ago I presented a keynote address for an educational group that specializes in media and its affects on children. I assumed many in the room would be familiar with what is often referred to as the "Vast Wasteland" speech given by Newton N. Minow, President Kennedy’s newly appointed chairman of the FCC, to the National Association of Broadcasters in May of 1961.

I played an audio clip of the speech (available, along with the entire text of Minow’s address at this location: and then asked if anyone knew who it was and when it was presented. Some guessed that, based on the recording quality, it must have been a while ago. But no one recognized the speech or the speaker.

Granted, I am in Canada, but Minow’s address ranks high on my list of "Great Media Literacy Moments" (many also attest the speech is one of the most quoted from the 20th Century) and was a defining point when broadcasters were called upon to recognize and remember that they are not there to simply entertain the public, but to serve the common good of society.

Listening to the above referenced audio clip alone, this man could have been speaking to our current crop of network rulers this very day. Consider this excerpt:

"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.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it."

By today’s standards, having this much contempt for television in 1961 is almost laughable. I suspect Mr. Minow, who is still very active in public policy issues, doesn’t watch a whole lot of TV today during his "free time."

My reason for digging up this speech from close to fifty years ago is to simply point out how too many network and broadcast executives are still using the same modus operandi today. Minow emphasized he was "unalterable opposed to governmental censorship," yet those in charge of using our public airwaves continue to exploit this freedom. They refuse to cooperate within the intent of the law and instead insist on meeting only the letter of the law. Parents should be used to this, because our children frequently run on the same ethical track.

Here’s an example…

"You can’t play on the computer until your homework is done!" is an oft-heard phrase in our home. "But I am doing homework!" is the just as oft heard response. Upon inspection of the computer monitor, I discover there is one window open with three words typed on a title page, but that’s lost behind windows sporting music players, chat software, and other Internet distractions.

After a very predictable cycle of a few days, we finally say, "No one uses the computer on school nights." I bet most of you know what happens next.

"But my teacher says I need to look something up on the Internet!" Or, we find out the next day that homework wasn’t completed. "Why?" we ask. The response: "I needed the Internet and you told me I couldn’t use it!" (Read this sentence back with your voice raised a couple of octaves for the full effect.)

Now the child is in the highly supervised phase of this cycle with myself, or my wife, watching over his every move. But, after a few days, we parents slack off a little, and next thing you know you are back to the beginning.

Isn’t it amazing how "mature" corporate broadcast executives use the same tactics? We, as citizens, want to give them the freedom to communicate to the masses, and we expect some responsible behavior in return. Yet, how often have we looked over their shoulders to find they are handing us token moments of "community service" between hours of violent and sex saturated programming?

When the hammer came down on profanities a couple of years ago, they haven’t got the common sense (or, perhaps maturity is a better word) to understand the difference between a celebrity mouthing off a sexual expletive versus a solider using the same word in a properly rated dramatic movie with warnings after every commercial break. (The Bono versus Saving Private Ryan debate.)

Now, these networks are whining in court because the FCC hasn’t told them exactly what the letter of the law is. It was wishful thinking on the part of our regulators to expect networks to use good judgment in understanding what the intention of the broadcast regulations meant.

Perhaps Minow summed it up best when he said, “It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims you must also serve the nation’s needs.”

Forgive me if I have repeated what you already know. However, I suspect there are a great many readers who were not aware of this specific moment in US broadcast history. And, like children, broadcast executives must be continually reminded to do their homework.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…