April 8, 2014

We've lost the "context" of the "most famous libel" of television: "a vast wasteland."

Writes Emily Nussbaum in a New Yorker article titled "The Great Divide: Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and the rise of the bad fan." She explains the context:
That description comes from the first official speech given by Newton Minow, shortly after President Kennedy appointed him chairman of the F.C.C., in 1961. Minow wasn’t arguing that what aired on television was bad; he was arguing that it was amoral. He quoted, with approval, the words of the industry’s own Television Code and urged the networks to live up to them: "Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society."

From a modern perspective, the passage feels prissy and laughable, the residue of an era when television was considered a public utility: it was in everyone’s best interest to keep it pure, and then add fluoride...

17 comments:

mesquito said...

In our little houses made of tricky-tacky we turned on the teeve each night to be edified and uplifted by the grifters of Camelot.

Rockeye said...

Minow's exhortations had to die for our sins on the altar of Nielsen Ratings.

Andy Freeman said...

Newton Minnow is best known as the inspiration for the Minnow, the boat from Gilligan's Island.

tim in vermont said...

"remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society."

Um, the above is alive and well. Every Family Guy episode is like a little sermon preached by Pastor Macfarlane.

Try watching The Simpsons, if you can stand the preaching.

Almost every storyline has a moral, except that they are now almost without exception, left wing morals.

madAsHell said...

"There's nothing on the telly."

I believe the content to commercial ratio is less than one.

traditionalguy said...

I disagree with her take on the "Vast Wasteland" accusation.

Minow wanted a PBS type world. That would have been a real waste land. He wanted an American BBC. But Americans wanted a Disneyworld and gogo dancers, and we won.

Michael K said...

It is a vaste wasteland which is why I don't watch. Except for football and Pawn Stars, of course.

Ralph Hyatt said...

TV, like Radio before it, and the Internet afterwards, was supposed to uplift us all into a social utopia where we all had the same elevated tastes and the proper attitudes toward our betters.

Brando said...

There may be a lot of crap on TV, but there's also a great deal of quality, and that is increasing constantly because of the many channels (expanding into the Internet these days) as well as the fact that we have access to all the quality that came before us. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants!

It's easy to look at the mindless dreck that exists (and has existed since the dawn of television) and lament that so much of that exists and gets watched enough to stay on the air. But I find the greater challenge is having the time available for all the terrific shows that are and have been out there.

Thorley Winston said...

TV, like Radio before it, and the Internet afterwards, was supposed to uplift us all into a social utopia where we all had the same elevated tastes and the proper attitudes toward our betters.

What it’s actually done is enable millions to realize that our “betters” are anything but.



Insufficiently Sensitive said...

Minow wasn’t arguing that what aired on television was bad; he was arguing that it was amoral.

Then Minow's network became NPR, kicked out all the creative volunteers, forced all its talkers into their insufferable accents, carefully omitted any examination of topics raised by critics of the blue-state faculty lounge, and became Obama's major support group.

Not amoral, immoral.

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

In our little houses made of tricky-tacky we turned on the teeve each night to be edified and uplifted by the grifters of Camelot.

Now in the blue-state, densified paradises of 'smart growth' like Seattle, we live in multistory big boxes made of ticky-tacky and watch PBS on our big-screen HDTVs to be uplifted by the ruling grifters of Chicago.

Not much improvement, and it's still a vast PC wasteland. There's more and better stuff on YouTube.

ALP said...

It's easy to look at the mindless dreck that exists (and has existed since the dawn of television) and lament that so much of that exists and gets watched enough to stay on the air. But I find the greater challenge is having the time available for all the terrific shows that are and have been out there.
*********************
THIS! I was watching the latest episode of "Cosmos" recently, and the only reason some of the explanations regarding the light spectrum really resonated and made any sense is because I had recently slogged through an Intro to Chemistry course via Coursera. Hardly mindless dreck, and produced by the much-maligned Seth McFarland and broadcast on the Evil Fox no less!

The kind of action that is being filmed these days for nature shows is simply breathtaking. Anyone who claims there is nothing good on what we still call "TV" outs themselves as one who isn't all that interested, and isn't looking very hard. Just admit it: you can't be bothered to look beyond a handful of channels.

J Lee said...

Minnow's still around, BTW, even though his most famous speech is now 53 years old. He showed up in the Times with an op-ed about the 2012 presidential debates, and three weeks ago had one in the Chicago Tribune where he endorsed Republican Bruce Rauner for governor.

William said...

I'm binge watching Game of Thrones in high definition. Boobs and arterial bleeding. They didn't have any of that on tv when I was a kid. Broadswords are just awesome when it comes to bloodletting. What with special effects and close ups, this is better stuff than they offered at the Coliseum.......I don't think watching this makes me a better person, but, to paraphrase Al Smith, I never heard of any boy who was saved by reading Proust. And watching boobs and broadswords is infinitely more entertaining than reading Proust. It's not a wasteland. It's a carnival.

Jupiter said...

"Anyone who claims there is nothing good on what we still call "TV" outs themselves as one who isn't all that interested, and isn't looking very hard. Just admit it: you can't be bothered to look beyond a handful of channels."

I grew up watching TV, but as I matured I found it increasingly annoying. One night back in the seventies I threw a beer bottle through it, and I haven't had one since. What bothers me about the thing is that it insists upon its own pace. If you are reading a book, you can set it down and think about it for awhile. But TV just natters on.

Peter said...

The reason why Minow's comment is no longer relevant is bandwidth.

In Minow's day, most TVs were VHF only and most viewers could only receive a few channels.

That being the case, Minow thought there should be highbrow stuff on at least some of them.

What makes Minow's comment quaint is the availability of zillions of channels- providing content for just about any taste.

There's content via digital broadcast, Cable, streaming, etc, as well as availability of recorded content.

Although I suppose Minow might be shocked by the huge demand for a zillion flavors of porn ...