TV Fan and Critic Newton Minow Dies at 97

Newton Minow
Newton Minow (Image credit: Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Former Federal Communications Commission chairman and public broadcasting pioneer Newton Minow, who died May 6 at 97, coined one of the most famous reviews of the television industry when he told a National Association of Broadcasters convention crowd that their medium was "a vast wasteland."

Driven in part by that belief that TV could be more, Minow worked to create a public broadcasting system and to promote televised presidential debates.

At the time of his death, Minow was senior counsel at law firm Sidley and Austin in Chicago, where he had been in some capacity for over half a century, including as the firm's first and only managing partner. "A modern-day Renaissance man, Newt occupied a unique place in firm history. During his more than 50 years with the firm," the company said in a statement.

Before joining Sidley & Austin, Minow served in World War II and earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a degree from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law. He was a law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson in 1951-1952 and was assistant counsel to Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson during Stevenson's Democratic presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956.

In 1961, Minow was named by President John F. Kennedy to chair the FCC. It was his inaugural speech as chairman that the 35-year-old Minow suggested broadcasters could offer up better programming. 

Also Read: ‘Wasteland’ Revisited

Minow only served as FCC chairman for two and a half years, but he may be the TV industry’s most famous (or infamous) regulator thanks to that “vast wasteland” speech and the phrase that has remained stuck in the public consciousness — and in broadcasters’ collective craw — for six decades.

After that phrase became famous, and with tongue firmly in cheek, TV producer Sherwood Schwartz was said to have named the boat in his oft-derided but wildly successful sitcom Gilligan's Island the S.S. Minnow after the chairman.

But Minow was also instrumental in early testing of the pay-TV business and creating noncommercial television, where he chaired the Public Broadcasting Service and helped get the funding to launch one of its most iconic shows, Sesame Street. He also was instrumental in creating the Commission on Presidential Debates to put that "wasteland" to better use. 

B+C, then known as Broadcasting, was there for Minow's May 9, 1961 (opens in new tab), speech to the NAB convention in Washington, where the magazine was then based. 

While the show also featured an address by Kennedy and an appearance by an astronaut at a time when they outshined sports figures and movie stars, what is most remembered was Minow’s branding of TV as a “vast wasteland.”

The magazine reported on the speech under the headline “Black Tuesday at the NAB Convention.” (opens in new tab)

But what is sometimes forgotten is that the day before, NAB’s own president gave his members what Broadcasting called an “eloquent spanking.” In a way, Minow was simply putting an exclamation point on the issue of content quality already raised by the industry itself.

NAB's own president, Gov. LeRoy Collins, had told attendees that the public was waiting for broadcasting “to measure up to the full stature of its mighty potential,” especially in terms of more quality and diversity in programming, B+C reported.

“I do not indict broadcasting now as wholly failing to serve the public interest,” he said, damning somewhat with faint praise. “In many important ways broadcasters now respond magnificently to this challenge. But when measured against the range of our potential, there is still much more we can and should do … We simply cannot adjust a thinking broadcaster’s future with a mediocre program taste.”

According to the Minow at the time, as reported by B+C, in the week or so following his speech, the chairman received almost 800 letters and telegrams from the public, only two of which criticized him.

Recalling the speech with this author in 2016, Minow maintained that he came not to bury the medium back in 1961, but — at least in some fashion — to praise it. Among the less-remembered passages from that speech is this one: “It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my admiration and my respect.” But that overture was followed by a stern critique that called the emerging medium to the better angels of its programming nature. The fault, he said, lay in a medium whose programmers had become enamored of the novelty of television and had saturated the airwaves with cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers and, well, more cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. It was a medium he felt offered so much more promise than was being delivered. 

Patrick Butler, president of America’s Public Television Stations, said of Minow: “[Minow's] leadership and advocacy were instrumental in creating the nationwide system of educational programming and community service that distinguishes our work today.

“Essential as this work is, Mr. Minow’s impact on our national life went far beyond his seminal contributions to public television to encompass the launch of communications satellites, the tradition of televised presidential debates and a host of other innovations which contribute so much to modern life in America.

“His rare and protean intellect was a great gift to our country," said Butler.

Minow is survived by thee daughters, Nell, Martha and Mary.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.