Mr. Vast Wasteland

Mr. Vast Wasteland
: I’ve never liked Newton Minow. The one-time head of the FCC is famous for calling TV a “vast wasteland” in 1961. The problem I had then was that, even though Minow opposed government censorship, he still put himself in a position to judge (and cancel licenses for) media of which he disapproved. I don’t want anyone in government doing that. I want the marketplace to do that.

Well, Minow pops up again — yes, he’s still alive — to resurrect his old harrange in the brouhaha over The Boob. He argues in the Chicago Tribune that we should bring back the National Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Standards and Practices. Again, he’ll argue that this isn’t censorship because the companies would do it (though under the threatening disapproval of Minow’s many-generations-later successor, Michael Powell).

I still don’t like it and don’t buy it.

The marketplace will take care of The Boob. If CBS loses money because advertisers and viewers object, they will find ways not to lose money the next time. I still say the nation is obsessing in an unnatural way on that moment; it’s still just a breast, people. But if the majority doesn’t want breasts then business won’t give them breasts.

But the bigger point is that cable — with its lack of a code — has proved Minnow dead wrong.

HBO started as the network that lived to do nothing but show naked breasts. As a TV critic, I complained loudly about that — not that I had anything against breasts (haven’t changed that tune) but because they thought the occasional flash passed for mature programming when what the mature audience wanted was intelligent programming.

And what has happened since? A spectacular flowering of quality content on cable. Yes, it also has the occasional breast and f-word. So what? It also has better TV than the regulated airwaves ever have or ever could produce.

Creative freedom — freedom from direct or indirect government imposition of standards and practices — allowed that; the marketplace supported that.

So you’re wrong, Newton Minow. Go back into your hole. TV is much better today and no thanks to you.

: Can’t resist adding this note from the comments:

Interesting OT aside: The SS Minnow from Gilligan’s Island (which ran aground etc) was named after Newton Minow, according to the commentary on the Gilligan’s Island DVD set.