In 1961, then FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow famously said, “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 you to sit down in front of your 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.”
Minow was decrying the fact that for all its vast resources and potential, TV broadcasters all too often took the easy road by catering to the lowest common denominator in their audience. Instead of challenging viewers, broadcasters fed them pablum that kept them mindlessly happy.
There are those who might wonder where the harm in that is. If TV is entertainment, then let it entertain. But Minow’s point was that TV broadcasters had unprecedented access to American homes and with that access came some responsibility to appeal to our higher nature at least occasionally.
I have two TVs in my house. One is about twenty years old and its main purpose is to play cartoons and old rock and roll music for my parrots that live downstairs. The other TV is actually from this millennium and has HD capabilities. So when my cable company called to tell me I had to change out my box whether I wanted to or not, I figured I might as well get the HD box so I could see what all the fuss was about.
A very nice young man who is not scared by multitudinous wires extruding from the back of my TV, DVR player and cable box came over and made sense of the mess. And lo and behold, 30 minutes later I had HD TV in my living room.
My upstairs parrots that also mostly listen to rock and roll and watch cartoons on TV were totally unimpressed with the upgrade I’d just provided. Apparently they don’t care if Scooby Doo is in HD or not. But I was excited at the whole new world that seemed to be opening up to me. No longer would young people look at me strangely when I said I had to put in a cassette to tape the latest NCIS. Now I had not just HDTV, I had Tivo.
So I sat down and started scrolling through the almost 800 channels to which I now had access. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled. Then I started again and scrolled and scrolled and scrolled. Surely I had missed something. Because what I seemed to be finding was that I now had 800 channels of dreck instead of the original 100 I’d been living with over the years. Eventually I just gave up, turned off the TV and went back to my book.
I don’t want to sound like a snob here. I do watch TV. I am devoted to shows like Ugly Betty and 30 Rock and the Big Bang Theory. I live on the fantasies engendered by Mark Harmon and Nathan Fillion. But I had them before the 600 channels appeared. Now I had them in HD. It wasn’t as exciting as I’d anticipated.
As far as I can tell, what I’ve gained with the additional channels is a whole lot of stations whose programs have titles I’m embarrassed to even read while sitting alone in my living room. And I’m still too much of a Catholic schoolgirl to pause at any of them
It sometimes seems as though the only difference between 1961 and now is that the wasteland is much vaster.