Better funding to public television and radio is one of Newton Minow’s six goals for the next 50 years in American telecommunications. In this month’s Atlantic, the former Federal Communications Commission and PBS chairman reflects back over the half-century since he called television programming a “vast wasteland,” in a speech on May 9, 1961, to the National Association of Broadcasters (audio and transcript here).
“The ‘vast wasteland’ was a metaphor for a particular time in our nation’s communications history, and to my surprise it became part of the American lexicon,” he writes. “It has come to identify me. My daughters threaten to engrave on my tombstone: On to a Vaster Wasteland. But those were not the two words I intended to be remembered. The two words I wanted to endure were public interest.”
He writes that public television and radio “have been starved for funds for decades.” He notes that pubTV stations, “as I saw when I was the chairman of PBS, are overbuilt, sometimes with four competing in the same market. Where that is so, stations should be sold and the revenue dedicated to programming a national news and public-affairs service, built on the foundation of the splendid PBS NewsHour.”
His other priorities: Expand freedom, improve education, improve and extend the reach of healthcare, build and maintain a new public safety and local and national security system, and require broadcasters to offer free time to political candidates.” If broadcasters are to continue as the lone beneficiaries of their valuable spectrum assignments, it is not too much to require that, as a public service, they provide time to candidates for public office. That time is not for the candidates. It is for the voters,” he writes.
What does it say about communications policy in the US that a former chairman of the FCC, particularly one as thoughtful as Newton Minnow, thinks that duplicative public TV services are those for the public television service to sell? Most are owned either by a local non profit (e.g., WMFE) or by a public entity of some sort, which would see any divestiture as a way of funding other needs or services.