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