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About That Wasteland

"Fifty years ago this week, Newton N. Minow delivered one of the most electrifying speeches ever given by a bureaucrat of the U.S. government," Aaron Barnhart writes for the Kansas City Star.

"'I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public's airwaves,' he declared. 'When your license comes up for renewal, your performance is compared with your promises . . . Many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: Renewal will not be pro forma in the future.'

"That line set off alarms across the TV industry. Minow was basically saying: Start serving the public interest (whatever that was), or I'll give your station license to someone else . . .

"As a plan of action, though, the speech was a failure. Minow bears most of the responsibility for that."

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"[M]aking good on that vow would require a level of public oversight the FCC had never attempted - and wouldn't under Minow.

"Meanwhile, as media scholar Craig Allen has documented, TV stations launched a rapid response to the chairman's speech. As they frantically scanned his remarks, looking for something he liked, they saw that Minow liked local news. And how would you know if your station's news was serving the public?

"Ratings!

"Like any good snob, Minow hated audience measurement - 'Ratings ought to be the slave of the broadcaster, not his master,' he sniffed - but soon it became clear he had no alternative method for gauging public interest. Logically, station managers concluded that they would be judged by the ratings their newscasts got.

"Management at stations with last-place newscasts grew nervous. A few brought in consumer research firms, the kind that helped GM sell cars and Sears sell appliances. They were going to help these stations sell the news.

"Those first focus groups were brutal. That newscast is boring. The anchor talks down to me. Who cares about Europe? I want to know about that fire down the street.

"The consultants worked wonders. Last-place stations zoomed into first. Other stations were now in last place, and they hired news doctors . . .

"And so, if you have ever gritted your teeth about the vast wasteland of local TV news, you can thank the author of the 'vast wasteland' speech."

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I'm not so sure about that, but television has never been better - the poor quality of local (and national) TV news notwithstanding.

Dreamy Garden
"[P]eople have been asking me if I still think television is a vast wasteland," Minow writes in a Tribune Op-Ed. "It is certainly vast, far vaster than we could have imagined in 1961. And parts of it are a wasteland, but most of what I hoped for has far exceeded my most ambitious dreams."

It's unfortunate, then, that his piece in the Atlantic was given the headline "A Vaster Wasteland."

"Television is not a vast wasteland anymore," Matthew Lasar writes in Wired. It's a crazy, weed-filled, wonderful, out-of-control garden . .

"The irony of Minow's immortal phrase is that the landscape to which he referred wasn't very vast compared with today. In any given major market, such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, TV usually consisted of three network outlets, three locally owned stations, and a chronically underfunded nonprofit venue, which didn't get any PBS support until 1970.

"As tedious as the network fare often was, the locally owned stations were worse. They were jokes - their best efforts focused on children's programming, followed by 'professional wrestling,' old movie reruns, and talk shows hosted by local lunatics - the clearest link between then and now.

"And your regional 'public' TV station invariably front-loaded itself with World War II documentaries. They were endless. If Adolf Hitler had shown up during a public TV pledge drive segment in 1966 asking for viewer support, I'm not sure that I would have been surprised."

Mission Accomplished?
"Some ask why we need public broadcasting," Minow writes in his Trib piece. "I believe we need it for the same reasons we support public libraries - while we also have bookstores. We need it for the same reason we support public parks - while we also have country clubs. We need it to provide more choices for all of us."

But perhaps we have more than enough choices these days. Sure, that includes cable, which is increasingly unaffordable, but the answer to that is to regulate sleazy monopolists like Comcast more stringently.

Affordability is also a good reason to look to the Internet, where net neutrality and broadband access are the answers, not Antiques Roadshow and Router Workshop.

Yet in his Atlantic piece, Minow writes:

"[W]e need to give greater support to public radio and public television. Both have been starved for funds for decades, and yet in many communities they are essential sources of local news and information - particularly public radio, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and is a valuable source of professionally reported news for millions of Americans. There is virtually nothing else like it on the air."

Overrated.

"Public-television stations, as I saw when I was the chairman of PBS, are overbuilt, sometimes with four competing in the same market. Where that is so, stations should be sold and the revenue dedicated to programming a national news and public-affairs service, built on the foundation of the splendid PBS NewsHour."

Overrated.

"And a crucial part of that service - as with public media around the world - should be to promote the country's arts and culture."

Even conservative arts and culture? And to who, elites? I'd rather see more public funding to local public access stations - the real public television.

It may be time, in other words, to declare victory for PBS, WTTW and the lot and get out, in part because the wasteland is no more.

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See also: Chicago Too-Lite?

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Comments welcome.



Permalink

Posted on May 9, 2011


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