June 2, 2024
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TV: A Theater in Every Home or a Vast Wasteland?

On May 9, 1961—63 years ago this month—Newton Minow, President John F. Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was invited to address the National Association of Broadcasters at their annual dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Only 35 years old and in his position only about three months, Minow strode to the microphone and said (early in the speech but not quite at the beginning), “I am here to uphold and protect the public interest.”

And then he went on to deliver one of the most cogent comments of the century:

“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 you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you, and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”


A Vast Wasteland!

Well now, the 63 years since Minow’s speech, have confirmed and validated two things:

Minow was right.

  1. TV has only gotten more vast and, if you’ll permit me my opinion, more of a wasteland too.
  2. If you let a good thing, like water, seek its own level, that’s what happens.

What makes this so interesting is that sitting in the audience that evening was none other than David Sarnoff. A titan of 20th century American business, Sarnoff was a pioneer of radio and television, and for many decades, led the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Basically, he and William S. Paley (CBS) created commercial television and fostered its prominence and dominance in American life.

In fact, on July 13, 1930, when Minow was only 4-years-old, Sarnoff reported in The New York Times that “TV would be a theater in every home.” Let it not be lost upon us that he made this statement long before TV grabbed hold as a cultural cornerstone, which didn’t happen until after World War II, into the 1950s.

So you can imagine Sarnoff was not too thrilled with Minow’s indictment. Sarnoff was 70 years old at this point, had literally changed the world and was considerably more than agitated by young Minow’s public chastisement. Suffice it to say Minow did not make many friends that night.

Be that as it may, the history of television is what it is and very few people today know who either of those two visionary, bold people were. Sarnoff and Minow are 21st century footnotes at best, unfittingly.

But since I have already suggested my opinion of all this, I will close with three points:

  1. Years after that long-forgotten but momentous evening, when the two-word “vast wasteland” phrase had become legend, Minow wistfully said that the two words he wished to be remembered for were not those. They were “public interest.”
  2. They were both right, these two visionaries, right for their times in history, proving what Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
  3. Go read a book. It’s so much better than TV.

Eli Amdur has been providing individualized career and executive coaching, as well as corporate leadership advice since 1997. For 15 years he taught graduate leadership courses at FDU. He has been a regular writer for this and other publications since 2003. You can reach him at [email protected] or 201-357-5844.

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