I long had the idea that the phrase “vast wasteland” was a quote from Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, or at least William S. Burroughs.
I could hardly have been more wrong – and I should have known better.
It is not from the anti-establishment, boundary-pushing writings of the beat generation. It is from a senior member of the establishment, one Newton N. Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He was addressing the most powerful people in broadcasting in America: the 1961 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Minow’s speech* challenged people to watch, without interruption or distraction, a full day of television, from the breakfast programme to sign off (they did sign off in 1961). What they would see, he assured them, would be 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.”
So what has changed in almost 40 years?
Fewer westerns and private eyes but more gangsters, more cops, more explicit violence, more so-called reality broadcasting, more amateur talent shows, more and worse commercials, dumber presenters and more mind-numbing mediocrity.
The wasteland got vaster.