Saturday, October 8, 2016

Newton Minow: An American Story (WTTV-PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Newton Minow at the time of the “vast wasteland” speech

Newton Minow in 2006

Our “feature,” to the extent we had one, was the show KPBS aired right after Washington Week and KPBS Roundtable: “Newton Minow: An American Story,” a documentary produced by the PBS station in Chicago (except for his three  years in the Burma-China theatre in World War II and his two and one-half years as President Kennedy’s appointee to head the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] he seems to have lived in Chicago or its suburbs all his 90-year life) about this fascinating figure. You’ve probably never heard of Newton Minow but you’ve almost certainly heard the two most famous words that ever came out of his mouth: “vast wasteland,” his description of what television programming was like when he took over as FCC chair in early 1961. It came from a speech he delivered on May 9, 1961 in which he went, like Daniel, into the lion’s den: in his case a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. After acknowledging that there was some quality programming on TV, including specials featuring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and series like The Twilight Zone and news shows like CBS Reports, Minow delivered his blast:

[W]hen television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game 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. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Read today, Minow’s speech makes me want to take him aside and ask him, “You think it was bad in 1961? It’s even worse now” — and since he’s still alive, it’s almost certain he’s well aware of how much worse it is now despite, or arguably because of, two of the issues he fought hardest for in his tenure at the FCC. One was the UHF band, which expanded the number of channels the standard TV set could receive from 12 to 82. It was Minow who pushed through the FCC a requirement that all new TV’s sold in the U.S. receive UHF (Ultra-High Frequency) channels 14 through 83 and the picture and sound quality be just as good on these as the Very High Frequency (VHF) channels 2 to 13 on which people had got TV in the 1950’s. At the time Minow did this it cost an extra $150 per set to add the receiver for UHF channels, but with the threat looming the TV set manufacturers and companies like Fairchild Semiconductor managed to miniaturize the circuitry enough so it could be put on a chip and the cost of adding UHF capability to a standard TV dropped to just $1.50. This, the show explained, made Minow an unlikely midwife of the computer revolution, since the technology Fairchild had developed to miniaturize the UHF circuitry also turned out to be useful in making computers several orders of magnitude smaller, so the idea that ordinary people could have computers in their homes became technologically possible and was eventually fulfilled. (A person who worked for Fairchild at the time is shown making a statement confirming this.) The other big thing Minow did to encourage an increase in the number of channels was push the Kennedy administration and the private telecommunications industry to develop the telecommunications satellite, partly because it was one part of the Space Race the U.S. could “win” (the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite in space in 1957 and sent the first person into space into 1961, and they had developed all kinds of uses for satellites but beaming TV signals around the world was not one of them) and partly because it created the potential to broadcast a TV show over the entire world at the same time.

I’m old enough to remember Telstar, the first telecommunications satellite, even though it orbited the earth so rapidly that though it could broadcast live TV images from Europe to the U.S., it could only do so for about 15 minutes at a time before it went out of range; what made the communications satellite practical was the development of Earlybird in 1964, three years after Telstar, which was the first satellite to fulfill Arthur C. Clarke’s idea of “geosynchronous orbit” — i.e., the satellite’s orbiting speed would match that of Earth’s rotation so that, wherever both it and Earth were in space at any given moment, it would always be over the same part of Earth. Thanks to those two innovations Minow pushed at the FCC, the number of TV channels available to American viewers expanded dramatically, first to the UHF band and then the number of additional channels available to cable or satellite subscribers and made possible by communications satellite technology (which also made cell phones possible and eliminated the hefty surcharges long-distance calls once cost — one of the things I’m old enough to remember was when making or receiving a long-distance call was a big event, and families crowded around the phone when one of their members was talking long-distance, waiting with baited breath to hear what was so important they were willing to pay so much money to have that conversation). What hasn’t changed, alas, is the mix of programs available: virtually all the items on Minow’s list of the “vast wasteland” (Minow’s speechwriter originally wrote “vast wasteland of junk,” but Minow decided the last two words would have been overkill) still dominate programming, and the vast new universe of channels has just been used as that many more outlets for the same old junk. Indeed, another innovation Minow pushed for — the creation of PBS — has been used as an excuse for the commercial broadcasters to dump what little cultural programming they ever did (like the CBS Omnibus program from November 1954 Charles and I recently watched in which Leonard Bernstein did his famous demonstration of the rejected sketches for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and how it would have sounded if Beethoven had used them, or the NBC Producer’s Showcase from 1955 in which Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling gave an incandescent performance of the end of Act I of Puccini’s La Bohème) on the grounds that they don’t need to do that because anyone who wants to watch that sort of thing can do so on PBS.

What’s interesting about Newton Minow: An American Life is that its makers, Mike Leonard and Mary Kay Wall, showed not only Minow’s public life but his family life as well; he and his wife Josephine had three daughters, all of whom became both lawyers and college professors and all of whom have been involved in the sort of progressive political and cultural activism their dad was famous for. It also mentioned that as an attorney in a major law firm he recruited new talent, and he recalled that he was once asked to hire a hotshot new lawyer named “Barack Obama.” Minow’s first response was to ask the person recommending Obama to spell the name — he’d never heard anything like it before — and then he found his law firm had already hired Obama and he was working under the supervision of another promising up-and-comer named Michelle Robinson, whom Obama started dating (so he was dating his boss!) and later married. A few of the things Minow said and did rankled Charles and I — like his accusation that primary elections attract the far Right of the Republican Party and the far Left of the Democratic Party (it’s hard to look at the more recent Presidential nominations process and seriously argue that the system represents the far Left of anything — while the Republican process has skewed right the Democrats have kept producing big-time centrists like Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton — since the institution of superdelegates in the mid-1970’s Obama is the only even mildly progressive alternative candidate who has wrested the Democratic nomination from the party insiders’ grasp) and his association with the Commission on Presidential Debates (misnamed the “Committee on Presidential Debates” in this program), which I’ve referred to elsewhere as the “Commission on Making Sure Voters Don’t Hear from Anyone Other than Republicans and Democrats in Presidential Debates.” Still, Minow’s story is an inspiring one, and the criticism of the media in general and TV in particular in the “vast wasteland” speech is, alas, all too cogent and all too representative of what happens to any new communications medium in a society as dedicated to capitalism and the dominance of the “free market” as ours is!