Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland

Article excerpt

For the first time in human history we have available to us the ability ... to furnish entertainment, instruction, widening vision of national problems and national events. An obligation rests on us to see that it is devoted to real service and to develop the material ... that is really worthwhile.

--Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, 1924 (1)

The Federal Communications Law Journal ("FCLJ") editors have asked us to reflect upon the changes in broadcasting's content since that fateful day, forty-two years ago, when Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") Chairman Newton Minow challenged station owners to watch twenty-four hours of their own programming. (2)

Over the protests of a staff aide, who insisted the chairman remove the offensive "vast wasteland" phrase from his speech text, Minow persisted, ignored the advice, and is forever remembered for his two-word characterization of television programming in 1961.

Forty years later, the phrase is still with us. (3) Indeed, like other famous phrases, it has given rise to variations: "Television creates a vast waistline"; "Today television is only a half-vast wasteland." But the editors are rightly asking us for more serious reflection.

The phrase aside, what can be said about the role of television in the early twenty-first century compared with forty years ago? A candid appraisal would have to conclude that it is a mixed bag. Some of the complaints about broadcasting in the 1960s are still applicable; if anything, conditions are worse. Other half-century-old complaints are irrelevant in today's media environment.

In some instances ineffective efforts at government regulation have been replaced with even more inadequate efforts at marketplace non-regulation. Today's consumers suffer at the hands of largely unregulated oligopolies.

No brief article (or entire FCLJ issue) would be long enough to cover the subject thoroughly even if the author were sufficiently informed and wise to know everything that needs to be said. But here are some observations about the changes that have occurred and what still must be done.

SHIFTING SANDS IN THE VAST WASTELAND

The "broadcasting" of the 1960s--as a delivery technology, commercial industry structure, and programming source--has either disappeared or assumed a far less prominent role. True, there are still transmitters and antennas sending TV signals through the air, but most Americans who "watch television" today have programming delivered to their homes through a coaxial cable or satellite dish, rather than a rooftop antenna. Viewers have choices of 50 to 100, or more channels--rather than the three networks once characterized as a "two-and-one-half network economy." (4) Much of the programming is of a kind, and from sources, that did not exist forty-two years ago, are not FCC licensees, and that distribute their programming to cable systems via satellites.

The "wasteland" critics of the 1960s have far less to complain about today in terms of number of formats, and the quantity of news, public affairs, and cultural programming. FCC Chairman Minow's efforts at increasing consumer choice were, of necessity, primarily limited to the commendable promotion of UHF stations and educational television. Put aside for the moment the issue of program quality. Clearly there are far more choices than forty-two years ago. PBS, Bravo, A&E Television, and numerous movie channels offer a range of choice of drama well beyond the episodic series of old--including a rerun of more feature films every week than Hollywood used to produce in a year. Sports is everywhere, including multiple ESPN channels. Specialty channels, from Animal Planet to the Travel Channel, further splinter while serving the audience. C-SPAN, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and CNBC--even a twenty-four-hour weather channel--offer considerably more than the fifteen minutes of evening news originally made available by the networks. …

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