Today is the anniversary of a memorable speech by Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the National Association of Broadcasters. The year was 1961, and Minow did not have many good things to say about commercial television. His speech, where he called television “a vast wasteland,” sparked a national debate about the quality, or lack thereof, of television programming.
Since Minow’s speech, television has been called the idiot box and the boob tube. Television viewers have become couch potatoes (1979), and the number of channels has grown to more than 500, but “nothing is on.”
Here’s an excerpt from Minow’s indictment:
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.
You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it. (1)
While Minow’s phrase “a vast wasteland” caught on, his speech certainly did not discourage the growth of television sets in American homes. In an age of reality television, satellite television, and 24-hour sports and cable news stations, television is more popular than ever.
One question that has been asked by educators since the advent of commercial television is: What is the relationship between television viewing and reading? One particularly interesting answer to this question was given by Norman Mailer in the January 23, 2005 edition of Parade Magazine. In the article, Mailer says that the one thing that he would do to change America for the better would be to get rid of television commercials. Mailer argues that the constant interruptions of commercials disrupt our children’s ability to read effectively by denying them something that is necessary for reading: concentration.
Here is an excerpt from Mailer’s Parade essay:
When children become interested in an activity, their concentration is firm—until it is interrupted. Sixty years ago, children would read for hours. Their powers of concentration developed as naturally as breathing. Good readers became very good readers, even as men and women who go in for weight-lifting will bulk up . . . . Each of the four major networks now offers 52 minutes of commercials in the three hours from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day. It is equal to saying that every seven, 10 or 12 minutes, our attention to what is happening on the tube is cut into by a commercial. It is as bad for most children’s shows. Soon enough, children develop a fail-safe. Since the child knows that any interesting story will soon be amputated by a kaleidoscope of toys, food, dolls, clowns, new colors and the clutter of six or seven wholly different products all following one another in 10-, 20- and 30-second spots all the way through a three-minute break, the child also comes to recognize that concentration is not one’s friend but is treacherous. (2)
Today’s Challenge: Boob Tube Best or Worst
What are some of the television programs of the past or present that you would argue represent the best and worst television programs of all time? Brainstorm a list of the best and worst television programs of all time. Select one program that you know well, and make your argument for why this program is either the best or worst program. Don’t assume your audience is familiar with the program. In addition to making your argument, give some background describing the program and its genre. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: Television is a new medium. It’s called a medium because nothing is well-done. –Fred Allen