How today's TV compares with the 1960s

MGN Online
Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 9:03am

The history of television is a history of insults.

The idiot box, it's been called. The boob tube. "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." "Kill your television" says the bumper sticker.

In 1961, it was famously deemed a "vast wasteland."

After all, there were just three TV networks at the time. Most major cities didn't have public television stations (PBS was still years away). And the UHF band, where independent stations would later flourish, was barely used. The first communications satellite didn't go up until 1962.

And the content? With few exceptions, the networks carried mostly dumbed-down, formulaic cop shows, Westerns, situation comedies and musical-variety programs. News was something people got from newspapers.

"It was a very limited choice," says Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman who coined the "vast wasteland" phrase in his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters and has heard it repeated regularly over the last five decades.

Times have changed, right?

Actually, yes, says TV critic Eric Deggans. Of the many flaws of '60s entertainment TV, he says, a major one was that it didn't reflect what was going on in America, whether it was the civil rights movement or the escalation of the Vietnam War.

"Back then, there was a lot of TV that was created by producers who really underestimated the audience," Deggans says.

As the decade continued, television gingerly addressed some social change but certainly nothing like what was to come -- first in the 1970s with such Norman Lear sitcoms as "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Son" and in more recent years, novelistic shows such as "Breaking Bad."

In fact, Deggans says even today's widely popular sitcoms and dramas, such as "Parenthood," engage with real life in ways that were forbidden 50 years ago. That's true even with "The Walking Dead," an end-of-the-word horror show about zombies.

"What it's really about is man's inhumanity to man, and when something happens and all the chips are down, how do you respond as a human being?" he says, referring to "The Walking Dead." "When you think about what's going on in Nigeria or the Arab Spring or Syria, that's real life."

Moreover, even the more formulaic shows don't take their viewers for granted.

"I don't think any of those shows pander to their audience in the way that a show like 'Petticoat Junction' or 'Gilligan's Island' did," he says. "Those were classic comedies, but they were really, really simple. A show like 'NCIS' is absolutely about all these issues we're struggling with as a society."

Ironically, Minow's 1961 speech was somewhat taken out of context. He actually praised the medium before lowering the boom: "When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better," he said.

His concern that TV wasn't properly serving the public is what prompted his criticism. Indeed, the speech was titled "Television in the Public Interest."

The last half-century has been mostly positive, says Minow today -- and he observes that the federal government played a positive role in that growth. Minow, now 88 and an attorney in Chicago, was instrumental in requiring television sets to include a UHF dial and promoting the use of communications satellites.

"I felt that the basic role of the government was to expand choice, because the government should not be in the business of deciding what's on the air," he says. "I think the expansion of choice was the government's main contribution."

He does have some concerns, however, about the increasing consolidation of the communications industry over the last 50 years.

"I think the idea of having local ownership has pretty much disappeared," he says. But he shrugs, "The horse is out of the barn."

Deggans notes, however, that despite the corporatization of media, there's still a much broader range than in the '60s -- or even in the '90s. After all, 50 years ago we had three networks. Now there's cable, the Internet is a major player allowing for video streaming, and technology lets anybody "broadcast themselves," to borrow YouTube's old slogan. They can choose when to watch, too.

Yes, TV is still belittled. But the argument flows both ways. After his speech, Minow was tweaked by "Gilligan's Island" producer Sherwood Schwartz, who made the FCC chairman the namesake of a certain shipwrecked boat.

Minow appreciated the gesture.

"I told him I considered it a great compliment," he says. "It exposed my name to two generations of television viewers."

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