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Newton Minow, former FCC chief and public TV advocate, has died at 97

Newton Minow, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appears before the House Antitrust Subcommittee which was probing newspaper competition, in 1963, in Washington, D.C. Minow died on Saturday.
AP
Newton Minow, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appears before the House Antitrust Subcommittee which was probing newspaper competition, in 1963, in Washington, D.C. Minow died on Saturday.

Updated May 6, 2023 at 6:19 PM ET

Newton N. Minow, who as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s famously decried the state of American television as a "vast wasteland," died Saturday at age 97.

Minow, appointed to head the FCC by President John F. Kennedy, stayed in the post for just two years. Even so, his stinging critique of television programming, delivered during a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, reverberated long after he had left the job.

When he spoke to television executives gathered at an NAB meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 1961, Americans were consuming a steady stream of black-and-white TV programming from just three networks — CBS, ABC and NBC.

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better," Minow said. "But when television is bad, nothing is worse."

He then invited the assembled executives to watch a full day of their own programming, without distractions. "Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off," Minow said. "I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."

The daily fare he insisted was little more than "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."

Minow's chairmanship of the FCC came at a key moment in the early age of television. By 1960, nine out of ten U.S. households owned a television set. That same year saw the first televised presidential debate, between then-Sen. John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. By the summer of 1962, the first communications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched.

Speaking with NPR in 2006, Minow said that during his brief tenure at the FCC, he found himself on a visit with Kennedy to various space sites in the early days of the American program. "The president was surprised I was on the trip. He said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'Mr. President, I'm here because we're in charge of the communications satellite program. And that's more important than sending a man into space.' "

In the same 2006 interview, Minow said some things had changed for the better in the 45 years since his famous speech. "The marketplace seems to be making decisions about what succeeds and what fails," he said, adding that, "one of the best things that's happened from my perspective is the growth in both public television and public radio, a noncommercial service, which really didn't exist in any in any major sense at all at that time."

The Public Communications Act of 1968 opened the door for the first time to public broadcasters, such as PBS and the network of radio stations that air programs produced by NPR.

Gilligan's Island, the 1964 TV comedy about a cast of characters shipwrecked on a deserted island, was just the sort of programming that fit into Minow's "vast wasteland." It turns out that the show's creator, Sherwood Schwartz, named the show's ill-fated boat, the S.S. Minnow, after the FCC chairman.

"He didn't like that speech at all," Minow told NPR. "And he decided that he would get even with me by naming a boat the S.S. Minnow."

Minow came to know John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy in the 1950s, while he was an aide to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic presidential nominee. He left the FCC in 1963.

In the 1970s, he served on the Board of Governors of the Public Broadcasting Service. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Minow was appointed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to head a panel to study the use of data mining to track potential terrorists. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Minow died at his home on Saturday, surrounded by loved ones, his daughter, Nell Minow, told The Associated Press. "He wanted to be at home," she told the news agency. "He had a good life."

In his NPR interview, Minow said he'd embraced his legacy and that his children had jokingly already picked out his epitaph: "On to a vaster wasteland."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.