“A View from the Elephant’s Back-Side”

Written by Tim Winter | Published May 13, 2021

This past Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of a speech that, for those of us especially who have spent our careers in and around the television industry, is legendary. On May 9, 1962, then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow addressed the National Association of Broadcasters, and he leveled a criticism that was as powerful as it was pure. He 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 each of 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.” [emphasis mine]

From that moment even until today, the words “vast wasteland” have been etched in stone in television industry lexicon.

A decade or so ago, I had the opportunity to meet privately with Newt in his Chicago office, and I can’t remember meeting anyone who better-embodied the word “gentleman.” We discussed the mission of the PTC; the FCC’s regulatory role; his time as a member of the CBS Board of Directors; how public policy has shaped children’s television; and of course, we discussed the growing partisan divide in our country.

Among the many profound observations he shared with me that day was his disappointment that his 1962 NAB speech is remembered for “the wrong two words.” The two most important words in his speech, he told me, were “public interest,” not “vast wasteland.” The entire premise of his speech to the broadcast executives that day was to remind them that they received broadcast licenses to serve the public interest. And sadly the broadcast industry had placed their own financial interest ahead of the public interest. His displeasure is every bit as valid today as it was then.

The Los Angeles Times ran an interesting story about the 60-year anniversary of Newt Minow’s speech. In it, Newt is quoted as saying about the television industry “I’ve seen every side of the elephant, including the back side.” He certainly has. And I believe that most of America right now is stuck squarely behind the elephant’s back side.

When Brent Bozell hired me to run the day-to-day operations as the PTC’s Executive Director in April of 2003, I never could have imagined where our mission-work would be today. More than just protecting children from the graphic sex, violence and profanity that is so ubiquitous in today’s entertainment media environment, the PTC – now as the Parents Television and Media Council, reflecting the transformation of how children consume their video programming – is waging a fierce campaign against those who would produce and distribute content that sexualizes and sexually exploits children. There is an overt and covert darkness coming out of Hollywood today that I never would have thought possible.

The good news is that the world is becoming more cognizant of just how much power the media has over our lives. I hope we are at a tipping point. We certainly seem to be, for even the major Hollywood studios are removing content they believe to be offensive. They have admitted to the negative impact that their visual imagery has when it comes to the values that they hold dear. Unfortunately they have not expanded that same understanding to the values that most Americans hold dear, such as protecting the physical and moral health of our children.

The words that Newt Minow spoke 60 years ago have never been truer. And the work of the PTC has never, ever been more important.

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