In 1961 the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, set off a firestorm of controversy when he categorized the state of television as a “vast wasteland.”
According to him, TV was filled with too much violence and frivolity — the latter charge came back to haunt him as many wrote him off as an elitist snob. (You might be interested to know that the S.S. Minnow in Gilligan’s Island was named after Minow as a jab at his stuffed shirt attitude.)
Of course, Americans didn’t listen to him and continued to gobble up programs ranging from the ridiculous to the idiotic. However they also turned to TV for comfort and news in moments of national tragedy, like the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, and during moments of triumph, such as the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
Television continued to be America’s best friend, regardless of what Newton felt about it, and with a growing number of baby boomer kids, it also became America’s babysitter:
“Okay, kids! Lassie is on in 10 minutes! Get into the rumpus room and leave mommy and daddy alone for a while!”
In 1967, the government tried to make us “smarter” with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a congressionally mandated non-profit organization to be funded by the Federal government.
In 1970, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was formed, a loose collaboration of independent stations throughout the country (more of a program distributor than a conventional network), which received funding from the CPB as well as donations. It offered intelligent, informative, thought provoking programming, plus high-culture broadcasting like ballets and symphonies.
And because this is America, nobody watched. We changed the channel over to The Ed Sullivan Show to see a juggler spinning plates on long sticks. However, PBS’s Sesame Street was an immediate success in 1970 as an educational tool for children, but again, it was also hailed as the world’s best babysitter. Plop little Johnny and Mary in front of the set, and enjoy a nice bubble bath, comfortable in the knowledge you’re a good parent.
Fast forward to 2019, and boy oh boy, how things have changed! Today, “TV” no longer means just old-fashioned broadcast TV. It means cable/satellite, content streamed to computers, smart TV, and devices like pads and phones. Basically, content that looks like television, but not necessarily viewed on a conventional TV set. These new delivery platforms have resulted in an explosive growth of our viewing choices, not to mention convenience.
I don’t trust anyone who says they don’t watch television, and I put these people into three categories. The first group makes that claim because they’re embarrassed by their TV habits and are lying, to appear more intelligent than the rest of us. The next group isn’t lying, but are mentally disturbed. (You can’t find anything of interest and value to watch!?) And the final group really do have better things to do, and this is the group that scares me the most.
Don’t we all have better things to do, but just ignore all of that responsibility stuff and relax on the couch in front of Seinfeld instead? (Yes, I’m dating myself.)
In the past few days, I’ve learned everything anyone needs to know about 16th Century British Queen Jane Grey, who only served for 9 days.
I am now an expert on the Lutheran Church in Germany and its relationship to Nazism, and I now possess a superior knowledge of Mark Twain’s life. (They were back to back programs!)
Ask me any question about what’s going on today in Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
And I have finally learned that there are 45 species of seahorses, and why, if it’s the male seahorse which gives birth, it isn’t called the female. (Television is not without its controversies.)
Equally important, I can recite just about every line to every Classic 39 episode of The Honeymooners, and what’s so bad about that? It makes me laugh, and the show gives me a greater insight into the human condition, my human condition anyway, than Shakespeare.
So I’m a proud television watcher, and I make no apologies for it. It has opened up new worlds and a wealth of knowledge formerly unavailable to me in a form I can easily and best digest. TV takes the usually uninteresting in book form and makes it interesting.
Hug your TV today, because it doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves.