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Fred H. Cate
IU School of Law

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2003

The "vast wasteland" revisited

Former FCC chairman and 24 commentators reassess famous speech in law journal

Note: The new issue is available online at:

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A special issue of the Federal Communications Law Journal, co-published by the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington, features a timely re-examination of a famous speech by former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow to national broadcasters, in which Minow called television "a vast wasteland."

The special issue, given the theme, "The Vast Wasteland Revisited," includes commentary by 24 leading communications attorneys, government officials, producers, entertainers, commentators and public interest advocates, including a posthumous article by Fred Rogers, creator and host of the longest-running PBS series, "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." The issue is dedicated to Rogers.

Minow's address in 1961 to the National Association of Broadcasters is among the most quoted of all 20th century speeches. His phrase "vast wasteland" has become an icon of American culture, memorialized in hundreds of editorial cartoons, listed in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, quoted in popular fiction, and featured as an answer to questions on TV game shows such as "Jeopardy!," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "Trivial Pursuit."

The Federal Communications Law Journal issue republishes the 1961 speech and includes a new article by Minow and Fred H. Cate, IU Distinguished Professor and Ira C. Batman Faculty Fellow, reassessing that speech, the media market of today and Minow's illustrious career. They also discuss key communications policy issues, including competition among media, the role of the government, digital television, children's programming and the First Amendment.

"The reaction [to the 1961 speech] was astonishing to me," Minow writes. "Particularly astonishing was the importance the press placed upon two words -- "vast wasteland" -- which I didn't think were that important. But somehow that stuck in the public mind. I had two different words in mind: public interest.

"A lot of people take issue with me on the ground that the marketplace will provide everything. I say, if that's true, why do we have public libraries? Why do we have public parks? Why do we have public hospitals? We do these things because the marketplace does not provide everything."

The article includes Minow's candid assessment of communications regulators at the FCC: "From time to time there have been some very good people there. ... But taken as an institution, I would give the FCC, at the very best a B- and probably a C."

The journal is the official publication of the Federal Communications Bar Association. Since 1993, it has been co-published by the IU School of Law-Bloomington. The issue marks the 10th anniversary of the co-publishing arrangement and the 40th anniversary of the end of Minow's term as FCC Chairman in 1963.

Other contributors include Kathleen Abernathy, Michael Copps and Kevin J. Martin, FCC commissioners; Edward O. Fritts, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Broadcasters; Henry Geller, former general counsel to the FCC; Robert Leger, editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader and president of the Society of Professional Journalists; Condace L. Pressley, president of the National Association of Black Journalists; Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet; and Elizabeth Thoman, founder and chair of the Center for Media Literacy.

Journal editors asked each author to respond to an updated version of the challenge that Minow gave broadcasters in 1961: "If you watched an entire day of video programming -- from whatever source -- would you find that the public interest is any better served or has the vast wasteland simply grown more vast?"

Cate, the journal's advisor, said the contributors' often-surprising answers provide a diverse array of perspectives on the video market of today. Many stress the dramatic expansion in choices of video programming.

National Association of Broadcasters President Edward Fritts wrote: "I am not sure I ever subscribed to the notion of television as a vast wasteland, but putting that aside, today's TV landscape bears little resemblance to the three-network era when Newton Minow uttered his memorable catch phrase ... Even if one eliminates cable and satellite from the mix, it is undeniable that U.S. broadcasters provide a far more diverse menu of news, information, sports and entertainment than that which is available anywhere else in the world."

Other contributors doubt whether the increase in viewer choice has been paralleled by an increase in programming quality. In the view of Geoffrey Cowan, an Emmy Award winner and dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, "the vast landscape is bleaker than ever." SPJ President Leger argues that "the wasteland has not disappeared. It may be greener, but it is no rainforest."

A number of contributors point to television's coverage of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as an example of the industry's potential to do good.

NABs Fritts stressed: "In the midst of the worst media recession in fifty years, stations all over America provided viewers with round-the-clock, advertising-free coverage of the horrific attack for nearly a week ... In the aftermath of Sept. 11, stations rallied the American spirit with PSAs, charity fundraising appeals, blood drives and pleas for tolerance for our immigrant neighbors. I could not have been more proud to be associated with the broadcasting community at that time. Indeed, it was broadcasting's finest hour."

Constitutional law scholar Cass Sunstein suggested that broadcasters might hesitate before taking too much comfort from the popularity of their programming, "Tastes are formed, not just served, by broadcasters," he writes, "and market activities cannot easily be justified by reference to tastes that they themselves generate."

Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson lamented that it is "not so much the harm that it [television] continues to do (which is not trivial), but the good that it fails to do ... To be given so much access to such a huge audience, an audience with such serious needs, only to fritter it away," he writes,"is the difference between malfeasance and nonfeasance. It is television's having been given the power and opportunity to do such enormous good, and then failing to do it ... By offering the ideas of the marketplace rather than a marketplace of ideas, we are, in effect, rotting our seed corn."

The journal is published three times a year and is entirely student-edited. Third-year law student Deborah Salons is editor-in-chief. For further information or to order a printed copy contact Cate at or 812-855-1161.