A graduate level media law class would intimidate anyone given the subject matter alone. But when I walked into my seminar room I was greeted by not one, but two instructors. One, a youngish, overly-casual Craig LaMay, sporting shorts and flip-flops. The other, a smiling, grandfatherly man smartly attired in a sharp, but not overly ostentatious, tailored suit.
Professor LaMay introduced his teaching partner: Newton Minow.
I almost fell over. I didn’t know him on sight, but by reputation. He was a personal hero – once removed. As new chairman of the FCC in 1961 he did the unthinkable. He took broadcasters to task – to their face – for the content of network television and reminded them that they had a legal obligation to produce a product that served the public interest in return for the priceless gift they had been given – unfettered use of the public airwaves.
He delivered that speech 50 years ago. (Three years before I was born, in fact.) But the phrase that he hoped that would be remembered from that speech, “the public interest,” was lost in the face of the far sexier, and much more damning, quote: “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.”
Broadcasters were aghast. But some people listened. When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it was seen as a response to the challenge that Minow put forth – to create high-quality programming that meets the public interest.
“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 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.”
Minow was my hero because here was a government bureaucrat putting his new career on the line advocating courageously for the American people. Minow took his governmental position seriously as a trustee for the public, not the corporation, the public. And here was was advocating for the public to the corporations – reminding them that they have a societal responsibility.
That didn’t make him a fan of Sherwood Schwartz, creator and producer of a vast swath of 60s fare such as The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. Schwartz named the battered shipwreck in Gilligan’s Island the S.S. Minow as a dig at the FCC chair.
Minow’s speech was delivered 50 years ago this spring. And now we have a new medium challenging television for our time and attention. Will it, too, become a vast wasteland? I’m hopeful that it won’t. My proviso here is twofold.
1) That the interactive innovations of Web 2.0 grow because of the participation of the users.
2) And that corporate America can be kept at bay – lest it succumb to the monotony of monopoly.