May 1961: Television Wasteland Speech

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FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s often-repeated line about the television industry came as a surprise to members of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. After all, the medium was not quite 15 years old, and not every American had access to a TV set. Most viewers who did suffered from limited options: only three television networks existed at the time.

Broadcast commentator Edward R. Murrow’s critique of television preceded Minow’s by 3 years. He assailed television executives, chiding them for missing the medium’s potential. Murrow claimed that television threatened to be, in its worst moments, nothing more than “lights and wires in a box.”

Minow’s speech got to the point a lot quicker, and had the power of the U-S government behind it. The Chairman cited a seemingly-endless array of game shows, situation comedies, and private eye dramas. He also mentioned ubiquitous TV advertising, long before infomercials ruled the late-night airwaves.

“Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off,” Minow asserted. “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

TV programmers didn’t like Minow’s criticism. The creative industry considered him an elitist snob, unnecessarily attacking a harmless vocation. The reaction included what’s thought to be a direct reference in one of the era’s seminal TV programs: the shipwrecked cast of “Gilligan’s Island” landed after the crash of the “S.S. Minnow.”

But Minow’s view evolved into mainstream fact. Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 hit “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” at least partially echoed his sentiments. Not that it mattered much; by 2014, the Wall Street Journal estimated that the average American TV viewer’s choices included 200 channels.

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