Fishko Files from WNYC

Vast Wasteland

May 7, 2021

On May 9th, 1961, a still-celebrated speech rocked the world of broadcast television. In it, FCC Chairman Newton Minow zeroed in on television's vapid programming landscape, and the words "vast wasteland" became a contemporary catchphrase. More from WNYC's Sara Fishko in this edition of Fishko Files. 

Newton Minow told broadcasters that they might lose their licenses if they didn't improve the content of their television. Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz felt that Minow was interfering with broadcasters. To rib Minow, Schwartz named the ill-fated boat on his show, Gilligan's Island, the S.S. Minnow.

Minow and Public Television

Newton Minow played a major role in the creation of Public Television in the United States. Channel 13 in New York began in the 1940s as a Commercial Television station with a cultural bent. After going through several owners, Channel 13 was put on the market in 1961. Minow and a number of interested broadcasting colleagues got together to help Channel 13 make the transition from a Commercial Television station to a Public Television station. 

One day I read in the paper that Channel 13 was being sold. And there was a group of people in New York --  particularly led by some of the foundations --  that were trying to buy it and make it into an educational station. And I decided then and there that we were going to help them, and then we did. And Channel 13 became an educational station. And we did the same thing in Los Angeles, the same thing in Washington. And without those three we would never have had a national system. My main goal was to expand choice. To let the viewer have a wider range of programming. And that’s why we created, really, public television. By expanding choice it seemed to me that was the best role for the government.  

Channel 13’s first day as a Public Television station was September 16, 1962. Edward R. Murrow introduced the first broadcast.

Mike Dann – then a programming executive at CBS -- remembers Minow’s role in Public Television.

I think he was a great advocate of it. And made broadcasters and the public conscious of the difference between PBS and the broadcast networks. There was a sense of dignity. We didn’t have public broadcasting practically at all at the start. There was none. It wasn’t until a number of us banded together and helped start channel 13 in New York. I think he helped make public broadcasting more important. 

Jack Gould

Newton Minow cited Jack Gould as a major influence: "At the time [of the FCC appointment] I had been deeply influenced by a television critic named Jack Gould, who was the television critic for the New York Times. He was writing very often about the failure, as he perceived it, of the FCC to uphold the public interest in regulating broadcasting. And I went to the FCC with his message very much in my mind."

From 1948 to 1972, Jack Gould was the head television reporter and critic for the New York Times. Gould’s columns were devoured by television executives. And because he worked with the Times as television critic for so long – from TV’s beginnings to its installation as a cultural mainstay -- even these selected article titles show the progression of the medium, in just his first few years on the job (Excerpted from Watching Television Come of Age, by Jack Gould).

  1. “Matter of Form: Television Must Develop Own Techniques If It Is To Have Artistic Vitality, October 31, 1948”
  2. “Edward R. Murrow’s News Review ‘See It Now’ Demonstrates Journalistic Power of Video, November 19, 1951”
  3. “Celebrity Time: Murrow Puts Camera into Their Homes in ‘Person to Person,’ October 7, 1953”
  4. “Man on the Street: The Public Often Can Outshine TV Stars, August 14, 1955”

For more from the people heard in this episode of Fishko Files

  1. Newton Minow is a lawyer living in Chicago. He writes often – his most recent article, on the 50th anniversary of his speech, appeared in The Atlantic.
  2. Mike Dann’s book about his years in television, As I Saw It: The Inside Story of the Golden Years of Television, is available here.
  3. Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. One of his books is Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture.
  4. Mary Ann Watson wrote The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years.

This is the final edition of Fishko Files at WNYC. The episodes will live online and in the WNYC archives. You can find more extended Fishko work on our website.

Fishko Files with Sara Fishko

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