Television and the Public Interest

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"Television and the Public Interest" was a speech given by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton N. Minow to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. The speech was Minow's first major speech after he was appointed chairman of the FCC by President John F Kennedy. In the speech, Minow referred to American commercial television programming as a "vast wasteland" and advocated for programming in the public interest. In hindsight, the speech marked the end of a Golden Age of Television that had run through the 1950s, contrasting the highbrow programs of that decade with what had appeared on American television in 1960 and 1961.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.[1]

In his speech Minow also shared advice to his audience:

Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television. Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.[2]

It was a landmark speech for the medium of television, at a time when there were only three networks in the United States and when the realm of television was much less vast than it would later become. Nonetheless, it is counted as one of a hundred best American speeches of the 20th century by several authorities and selected as one of twenty-five 'Speeches that Changed the World' by Vital Speeches.[3] Related writings include his book (co-written with Craig LaMay) Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, & the First Amendment.

The phrase "vast wasteland" was suggested to Minow by his friend, reporter and freelance writer John Bartlow Martin. Martin had recently watched twenty consecutive hours of television as research for a magazine piece, and concluded it was "a vast wasteland of junk." During the editing process, Minow cut the words "of junk." [4]

Minow often remarks that the two words best remembered from the speech are "vast wasteland," but the two words he wishes would be remembered are "public interest."[5]

The lambasting of the state of United States television programming prompted Sherwood Schwartz to name the boat on his television show "Gilligan's Island" after Newton Minow; the wreck was named the Minnow.[6]


  1. Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest", address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C., May 9, 1961.
  2. "Newton Minow: The 'vast wasteland' of television speech". Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  3. The Best of Vital Speeches of the Day: 25 Speeches That Changed Our World. McMurry. 4 Jan. 2007.
  4. Fallows, James (11 May 2011). "Where the Phrase 'Vast Wasteland' Came From". The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  5. Johnson, Ted (9 May 2011). ""A Vast Wasteland," 50 Years Later". Variety magazine. Archived from the original on 17 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011. {{cite news}}: Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  6. Schwartz, Sherwood (1994). Inside Gilligan's Island. pp. xv. cited in Jarvis, Robert M. (1998). "Legal Tales from Gilligan's Island". Santa Clara Law Review. Santa Clara University Law School. 39: 185. Retrieved 2014-04-01.

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