Electronic Oases Take Root in Mr. Minow's Vast Wasteland

By Markey, Edward J. | Federal Communications Law Journal, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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Electronic Oases Take Root in Mr. Minow's Vast Wasteland

Markey, Edward J., Federal Communications Law Journal

The famous "Vast Wasteland" speech that Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") Chairman Newt Minow delivered to a roomful of broadcast industry partisans in 1961 has influenced telecommunications policy, as well as perceptions of television itself. (1) Newt Minow's blunt assessment of the contemporary media fare offered by the marketplace, coupled with his stalwart defense of public interest telecommunications policy, captures the essence of many telecommunications policy debates today. Whether the subject is children's television, the E-rate, access to Internet content, labeling issues, alcohol advertising, or the general fights and obligations of FCC licensees, imbuing marketplace competitors with obligations addressing those societal needs that the marketplace fails to meet adequately is part and parcel of current debates in Congress and at the FCC.

Since 1961, public interest-based telecommunications policy has certainly had its high points and its setbacks. We have made some progress in populating the "wasteland" of the Minow FCC era with additional viewer choices of educational, cultural, and informational merit. Moreover, significant policy battles have resulted in a better articulation of the public interest obligations of recipients of FCC licenses and the public trust. Although advances have been made in certain areas, much of Newt Minow's public interest critique abides. In my view, the awesome power of our technological resources still has not been harnessed fully to meet the challenges facing society today.


First, I want to discuss some of the progress that we have achieved in telecommunications policy since Newt Minow's speech. America has seen the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the development of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. In my view, the nation's public broadcasting system stations are the brightest stars in our national constellation of viewing and listening choices. During the day, public television continues to meet the needs of children with hours and hours of educational programming, and at night it brings the adult audience unparalleled free over-the-air programming.


In the 1970s and 1980s, Congress and the FCC facilitated the construction of the cable television infrastructure across the country through the 1978 enactment of pole attachment provisions to the Communications Act of 1934, (2) and the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. (3) Cable television developed many highly prized consumer programming services for news and information, which included CNN and C-SPAN. Cable television also extended cultural, educational, and entertainment programming to viewers in the form of The History Channel, Lifetime, Discovery Channel, Black Entertainment Television, Oxygen, HBO, Showtime, and Bravo. That is not to say, obviously, that all cable programming is of an elevated or enlightened quality, but I believe that consumers welcome and continue to enjoy the array of programming choices cable offers, though they all too often pay excessive rates for the service.


In the early 1980s, the Reagan FCC eliminated the children's television rules that obligated broadcasters to meet the educational and informational needs of the child audience. Congress twice responded with legislation to restore the rules. On the first occasion, my bill to reinstate the rules and to make service to children a condition of license renewal was approved by Congress only to be "pocket vetoed" by President Reagan in 1988. In the subsequent Congress, I again battled successfully for passage of the Children's Television Act (the Act), (4) which President Bush signed into law in 1990.

The Act put a cap on the number of advertising minutes that could be jammed into a half-hour of children's programming, and led to the adoption of the "Three 4 Kids" rule by the FCC, which obligates every broadcaster in the United States to provide no less than three hours of educational programming for children per week.

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Electronic Oases Take Root in Mr. Minow's Vast Wasteland


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