TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2022
...Gilligan's Island responded: Long ago and far away, Newton Minow gave a famous speech.
He spoke on May 9, 1961. He was delivering his first major address since the newly elected President Kennedy made him head of the FCC.
At that time, a basic view was widely held, at least within certain cultural groups. We refer to the widespread belief that American popular culture tended to possibly be a bit dumb.
Needless to say, the question of whether something is dumb always involves matters of judgment. Also, issues of courtesy may arise when popular entertainment, or widely held beliefs, are described as being dumb.
That said, for better or worse, Minow pulled few punches that day. In what became a famous speech, he said the typical contents of American television were unhealthily violent and dumb.
As Minow spoke, he employed a turn of phrase which became quite famous. Here's part of what he said:
MINOW (5/9/61): 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 each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
American television had become "a vast wasteland," Minow famously said. As he continued, he described what you'd see if you were willing to chain yourself to your TV set for a day:
MINOW (continuing directly): You will see a procession of game 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'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow! Still and all, Minow said it.
We ourselves were just 13 when Minow delivered his speech. That said, the notion that our popular culture was possibly dumb was widespread among many teens of the day.
Newton Minow took a swing at the TV of the day. Before we make a modern-day point, we'll offer two more observations about his original speech:
First, the speech occasioned some pushback. That said, we have to chuckle when the leading authority on the speech recalls this stinging retort:
The speech was not without detractors, as that lambasting of the state of United States television programming prompted Sherwood Schwartz to name the boat on his television show Gilligan's Island the S. S. Minnow after Newton Minow.
Was commercial television "a vast wasteland?" Aggressively, the fellow who gave us Gilligan's Island decided he had to push back!
Also, there was Minow's sense of who was to blame for what he saw on the tube. Again, we quote the leading authority:
Minow went on to dismiss the idea that public taste was driving the change in programming, stating his firm belief that if television choices were expanded, viewers would gravitate toward higher culture programming.
If television choices were expanded, viewers would gravitate toward higher culture! On balance, we'll guess that Minow was basically wrong in that assessment.
What makes us think that Minow may have been wrong? We'll cite two relatively recent examples:
First, we'd cite the way modern basic cable channels started out with high-brow aims, then steadily ratcheted their programming downward, presumably in the face of public preferences.
Bravo "originally focused on programming related to fine arts and film." It now pays its bills thanks to the battles of its fatuous gangs pf "Real Housewives."
Meanwhile, the History Channel fills its days, and burns away its nights, with silly/dumb UFO shows. The pattern is widely observed among an array of cable channels which started out with high aims.
For a second example, consider the way the Internet was originally expected to serve as "the information superhighway." (Never mind who said it!)
The Internet does provide instant access to astonishing amounts of information. On balance, though, it isn't always used that way, not even by major journalists.
Instead, the Internet has served as a medium for endless mis- and disinformation, along with lots of puppy videos and rumored boatloads of porn. The information is there for the taking, but we simply don't run on such fuel.
Minow's turn of phrase became famous. The fact remains that public taste may not always turn toward the high-brow, or even the accurate.
Alas! Our "cable news" could perhaps be seen as a type of vast wasteland! Conversations in the medium tilt strongly toward the familiar and scripted. Some basic product tilts toward the insane. Large chunks of the rest tilt toward simple-minded, reassuring and dumb.
What does a person have to do around here to see a good solid discussion? The questions isn't easy to answer. Despite the ways our stars get branded and sold, does Minow's basic point live?
Newton Minow stated his point. Gilligan's Island responded!
Still coming: Can you believe the things you hear? (former vice president edition)