April 22, 2011
Fifty years ago a man named Newton Minow, who was the head of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he characterized the television landscape as a "vast wasteland". This is akin to telling a room full of young mothers that, "All your babies are ugly". The speech made a lot of industry people defensive, but the phrase struck a chord with the public and was remembered.
If you are old enough to remember 1961, you will no doubt remember there were only three TV networks back then, and most people just got one or two channels delivered, because only the largest cities had all three. And you will no doubt remember the shows "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Maverick" as stellar examples of programming back then. It got worse as the decade went on, with studios spawning such classics as "Beverly Hillbillies"; "My Favorite Martian"; and "Gilligan's Island" in the mid-60s. Not exactly the kind of fare to raise the national IQ, as television was touted as capable of doing in the early days.
Programming has gone through many phases in the decades since, but here is the question that was posed by Advertising Age this week, "Is TV still a vast wasteland?" We've progressed to more networks with more shows, more content, more targeting of audiences, more movies, more talk, more sports, cartoons, and history, etc. But we are left with countless reality shows, most of which seem set up just to create empty conflict between "real" people. We look forward to "American Idol" as our most popular show, and "Lost" as water cooler conversation. Then there's "Family Guy", "Southpark" and "The Simpsons" for stimulation. The taboos are lower, the subjects baser, the language less nuanced, but that doesn't always translate to better viewing.
So, how far has TV come, really? I'm not much of a TV watcher, because as the old song says, "There's 57 channels and nothing's on". I believe that TV hasn't gotten any closer to fulfilling its original promise these past 50 years, though I will say it has occasional shining moments. I also believe modern TV programming has had a hand in tearing down the shared culture, if for no other reason than because of the sheer number of choices available and the variety of viewing options in that number. People don't watch the same programs any more, so there's little shared experience. The programming does more to polarize than to unite, and makes us more cynical than educated. It's not all bad, but overall, television leaves me cold and sad and empty. So, I don't tune in very much.
One interesting little aside on the legacy of Newton Minow; his speech inspired the writers of Gilligan's Island to sarcastically name the Skipper's shipwrecked boat the "S.S. Minnow". Given the fact that stupid reruns seem to run forever, Minow has been immortalized.