Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Tribute to Newton N. Minow on His Birthday

Although he may not be well known among the general public now, Newton N. Minow may well be the most famous chairman of the Federal Communications Commission of all time. Appointed as chairman of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, it is estimated that Newton Minow was the subject of more column-inches of press coverage than any Federal official of the time except for the President himself.  Today he turned 87 years old.

Newton Minow has always been best known for the famous speech he made before the National Association of Broadcasters on 9 May 1961, forever known as "the Vast Wasteland Speech" after his reference to American television programming as "a vast wasteland." While "the Vast Wasteland Speech" may remain Mr. Minow's best known achievement, it is by no means his only achievement, nor is it even necessarily one of his achievements with the most far reaching impact.

Indeed, among Newton Minow's achievements as FCC chairman was fostering the All-Channel Receiver Act  of 1961. The All-Channel Receiver Act  of 1962 required all television sets to have UHF tuners (channels 14 to 83 at the time), allowing anyone with a TV to pick up UHF-band television stations. It was largely because of Newton Minow's hard work that Congress passed the All-Channel Receiver Act and President Kennedy signed it into law on 10 July 1962.

The passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act would have far reaching effects. By the Fifties the VHF band was largely tied up by the two major networks at the time, NBC and CBS. This left little room for growth with regards to the third network ABC, independent stations, or public stations. The passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act then made UHF based television stations more viable. In the wake of the All-Channel Receiver Act, ABC was able to expand until it was finally competitive with NBC and CBS. Passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act would also see the growth of independent stations, television stations not affiliated with any network. Relatively rare in the Fifties and the early Sixties, independent television stations would become common by the Seventies.

Passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act also permitted the spread of public television stations. While public television stations had existed in the United States since the late Forties, by the early Sixties they were still relatively few and far between. In 1960 there were only 44 public stations nationwide. The All-Channel Receiver Act having made broadcasting on the UHF band feasible, by 1969 there would be 175 public stations across the United States. It was on 5 October 1970 that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was founded, which encouraged the further growth of public stations.

Newton Minow would also have another achievement with far reaching consequences while he was chairman of the FCC. While Telstar was in development before Mr. Minow was appointed the FCC chairman, he would play a very important role in the history of communications satellites. It was on his first day of work that FCC Commissioner T.A.M. Craven (who had been Chief Engineer at the FCC from 1935 to 1937, a commissioner on FCC from 1937 to 1944, and would be again from 1956 to 1963) told Mr. Minow about communications satellites. Mr. Minow then learned everything he could about communications satellites. Thereafter he pushed through the licence for a test of Telstar that occurred in July 1962. He also campaigned for Congress to pass the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, the act that created COMSAT, a corporation partially owned by the U. S. government and partially owned by telecommunications companies that manages satellite communications services. Although controversial at the time, the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 was signed into law on 31 August 1962. This would not only create COMSAT, but would also lead to the formation of  the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), an international consortium for the management of communications satellites.

In the end communications satellites would revolutionise the world. Among the first applications for communications satellites was their use in long distance telephony, making telephone calls to even the most remote places on the earth possible. As the Sixties progressed communications satellites would play a bigger and bigger role in television. Today they are nearly indispensable to the medium. Over the years communications satellites would be utilised for everything from military communications to the internet to radio.

While Newton Minow's support of the All-Channel Receiver Act and the development of communications satellites may have ultimately had more far reaching effects, it is the "Vast Wasteland" Speech for which he remains best known. Mr. Minow delivered the speech, officially titled "Television and the Public Interest," to the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Accustomed to past speeches from FCC chairmen that did little more than congratulate them on a job well done, the NAB were not prepared for what Mr. Minow had to say. At the time the media seized upon Mr. Minow's remark that anyone watching a station from the start of its day to its sign off at night would "...observe is a vast wasteland," leading many to believe that the speech was a condemnation of all television programming. In fact, Mr. Minow cited a number of programmes from television's past he considered to be of a high quality (Kraft Theatre, See It Now, and so on), as well as shows from the past season (The Twilight Zone, CBS Reports, and so on).  Rather than condemning broadcasters, Newton Minow was simply reminding broadcasters that they must serve the public interest and as a result they must do better. Indeed, the phrase "public interest" occurs no less than fifteen times in the speech.

Today, with a television landscape littered with exploitative reality shows, bland talent competition shows, and humourless sitcoms, it might seems as if the speech "Television and the Public Interest" had no impact at all. And while it might sometimes seem the case today, it certainly is not. The most immediate impact of the "Vast Wasteland" Speech was in the area of news and documentary production. By 1963 both NBC and CBS had expanded their evening newscasts from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes. ABC did so in 1967. In 1957 the three networks had produced no prime time documentaries. In 1962 the three networks produced nearly 400 prime time documentaries. While the networks would not continue prime time documentary production on such a level for very long, the prime time documentaries would lead to such news programmes as 60 Minutes and its imitators, programmes that have lasted to this day.

And while it might not seem to be the case today, "Television and the Public Interest" would have an impact on children's educational programming. At the time that Newton Minow made his speech in 1961, children's educational programming was a rarity on American television. Captain Kangaroo on CBS may have been the only notable educational programme on any of the networks at the time. The network's initial response was to incorporate educational content into the cartoons that they aired. In fact, the show Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales was created in direct response to the "Vast Wasteland" speech. Among the penguin Tennessee Tuxedo's friends was Phineas J. Whoopee, "the Man With All the Answers," who educated Tennessee (and hence viewers) on a number of topics. It debuted on CBS in 1963. That same season saw the debut of The Hector Heathcoate Show. Hector Heathcoate was a character who had made his debut in theatrical shorts made between 1958 and 1963, a patriot from the Revolutionary War who could travel through time and hence witness various historic events. The Hector Heathcoate Show was comprised of new shorts made for television, as well as older theatrical shorts.

While the networks would not continue incorporating educational elements into their cartoons, they would make attempts at children's educational programming throughout the Sixties and the Seventies. These efforts would include such programmes as The First Look (a short lived NBC news show for children), Exploring (a NBC show dedicated to science and the arts), Hot Dog (a NBC documentary series for children), The CBS Children's Film Festival, and The ABC Weekend Special, as well as shorter segments such as In the News and Schoolhouse Rock. It is perhaps not far fetched to consider that such children's educational programmes as Sesame Street and The Electric Company might have emerged because of the "Vast Wasteland" Speech. While children's educational programming once more seems to be a rarity on the broadcast networks, it must be pointed out that it is to be found on such cable channels as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, WAM, and so on. At any rate, there is much more children's programming on television now than there was in 1961.

It is true that some of Newton Minow's criticisms in the "Vast Wasteland" speech would go unanswered. The broadcast networks still rely all too much upon the Nielsen ratings, rather than a show's quality, to determine its survival. Advertisers still wield an enormous amount of clout with the networks. In the end, however, while some might insist that the "Vast Wasteland" speech was a failure, the evidence suggests otherwise. There is much more in the way of television news programmes, public affairs programmes, and educational programmes today than there was in 1961. Newton Minow's speech "Television and the Public Interest" was largely responsible for that.

Newton Minow's work in the communications field would not end with his departure as chairman of the FCC. He served on the board of governors of both National Educational Television and its successor the Public Broadcasting Service. From 1978 to 1980 he was Chairman of PBS. He also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Carnegie Corporation, a foundation founded by Andrew Carnegie "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding" and one of PBS's chief sponsors.

Newton Minow was only 34 when he became chairman of the FCC. At the time there were those who thought he was too young for the office. Despite this Newton N. Minow would become possibly the most famous FCC chairman and quite probably the most influential one as well. He was pivotal in the passage of the All-Channels Receiver Act, which required all television sets to have UHF receivers. This would in turn allow for the expansion of ABC, independent stations, and public stations by making broadcasting on the UHF band viable. He supported the the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 and INTELSAT, paving the way for the communications satellites that have proved so pivotal in the world ever since. Finally, he made the speech "Television and the Public Interest," encouraging broadcasters to strive for something better. This would result in expanded news coverage and more educational programming. Even though he was not a broadcaster himself, Newton N. Minow can then be counted along such people as William S. Paley and Pat Weaver as having shaped television as we know it today.

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