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TV's Vast Wasteland Blooms
The Triumph of Television Programming with Satellite and Cable Channels, and Public TV.

By: John Shepler

In 1961, Newton Minnow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission just appointed by President John F. Kennedy, told the nation's TV broadcasters that they had created a "vast wasteland" of the television medium. There have been times since, when it seemed that the quality of TV programming could barely even live up to that reputation. Yet today we are starting to enjoy a richness of information and entertainment that blurs the boundaries between homes, schools, libraries, museums, and even computers. New media such as The History Channel, The Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, The Golf Channel, and the Public Broadcasting System are flowering in that once vast wasteland.

Nostalgic TelevisionThank satellites, thank cable TV, thank the Internet. The diversity of communication channels available to us now has multiplied the options. Compared to thirty years ago, we are awash in media. In the Eisenhower / Kennedy days even color TV was a curiosity for most of us. We were happy that the rabbit ears on the black and white set could be twisted to pick up the local stations, one for each of the three networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. On a good night, you could rotate the beam antenna on the roof of the house and get snowy signals from independent stations in the larger cities. Most of the time, though, we were quite content to enjoy What's My Line, Leave it to Beaver, The Jack Parr Show, Saturday Night at the Movies, and perhaps Science Fiction Theater. Nobody even fantasized that every detent of the tuner dial would click into a completely different program.

The transformation is more profound than just more television as we've come to know it. The sitcoms, the game shows, the nightly news broadcasts are all still there as they always have been. It's just that they no longer command everyone's attention. There is a cornucopia of choice now, as we sit back and surf the channels by 1, 10, or 100 in a row. Each push of the remote, each listing in TV Guide or the satellite guide, vies for our immediate attention. We have become the programming execs, making customized viewing schedules on the fly. Can we do better than the network broadcasters that Newton Minnow chastised, or do we create our own vast wastelands?

The light bulb of sudden realization just lit up for me this week, as I found myself spending hours mesmerized by The History Channel. Have you ever heard of the "Titanic of the Mississippi?" Right after the Civil War, a steamboat carrying Union Troops back to their homes in the North blew up in the middle of the river, causing more loss of life than the famous 1912 sinking. Why was this such an unfair and unnecessary disaster? How did it affect the steamboat industry? The fascinating details are exposed on "In Search of History."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's plan to drive the country back out of economic depression included pouring so much concrete in a structure that it could have built a sidewalk around the equator or a two lane highway from New York to Seattle, down to Los Angeles and back to New York. The project was the Grand Coulee Dam, still a modern public utility that generates low cost, no pollution electricity, and irrigates the once desolate farmlands of eastern Washington state. That fascinating story was on "Modern Marvels."

Finally, we enjoyed "Movies in Time" featuring Jimmy Stewart's portrayal of Charles Lindbergh making the first transatlantic airplane flight in "Spirit of St. Louis." It's been on before, but the breaks during this performance featured an interview with Lindbergh biographer Joyce Milton, who commented on the authenticity of the movie scenes and added more details of what Lindbergh went through to succeed.

Perhaps I'm a bit giddy since this is a new channel on our cable system, and it's something for general viewing that seems worthy of a pay channel. Even so, with work and writing and a personal life, I find myself with few hours in front of the tube these days, and I really enjoy the mental stimulation from these shows, Discovery Channel and most everything on PBS.

The increasing variety and richness that blends education with entertainment today is even further enhanced by the companion web sites for each channel. For instance, on The History Channel site, you can hear Prime Minister Winston Churchill's inspiring 1942 address to the nation "...this was their finest hour", peruse the programming schedule, play quiz games to win prizes, and discover historical festivals and events. Discovery Channel Online has features for the Oshkosh Air Show, an expedition to the Titanic, and much more about sharks than you want to internalize if you're heading for the beach.

So where is this all leading? The lines are blurring. smart TVs provide television and the Internet on the same TV screen. Encyclopedias come on CD ROM so you can read and search them on a personal computer, but they also have Internet links for the latest stories. Some Encyclopedias are completely online. Most networks have interactive web sites that solicit viewer feedback and offer more information about featured stories. Laptop computers now have DVD disk players so you can watch videos on the computer. Cable modems and high speed phone lines bring live TV to the computer screen. So where do books, magazines, TV sets, telephones, pagers and computers start and leave off? It's getting hard to tell. Our options are multiplying, not decreasing. Right before our eyes, "the vast wasteland "is transforming into "the lush rainforest" of opportunities.

Books of Interest:

Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, & the First Amendment by Newton Minow and Craig L. LaMay. Appointed Chairman of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy, Newton Minow is often remembered for his characterization of television programmng as "The Vast Wasteland." Here he discusses the responsibility television has to serve the public interest, especially in programming for children.

Glued to the Set by Steven D. Stark. National Public Radio's Steven Stark focuses on 60 American television programs, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, telling how they have shaped the American viewer and modern American culture.

PBS: Behind the Screen by Laurence Jarvik. This irreverent, behind-the-scenes account of America's only taxpayer-supported public broadcasting television network shows how the original dream of a network run by educators and philanthropists dedicated to public service has given way to a highly political institution funded largely by major corporations.


Also visit these related sites:

PBS Online - Public Television's site has information pages on many programs plus a link to your local PBS station.

Federal Communications Commission - Official site of the FCC, regulator of everything that uses the airwaves in the US.

Discovery Channel Online - Find and watch your favorite shows.


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