Is Television Still a “Vast Wasteland”?

A “vast wasteland” was the description Newton Minow used for television programs in one of his landmark speeches. As President Kennedy’s chairman for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Minow used this metaphor to “tell broadcasters that the FCC would enforce the law’s requirement that they serve the public interest in return for their free and exclusive use of publicly owned airwaves”. Although he had the right idea back then, I believe that little progress has been made; television is still a “vast wasteland”.

Just like everything else in this world, television has the power to do both good and evil. Good programming could be considered as educational shows, historical features, exercise programs, etc. Bad programming, on the other hand, could be considered adult cartoons and almost the entirety of reality shows. Unfortunately, television stations tend to air what is more profitable, and the more mind-numbing a program is, the more money it makes. We’ve gone from a society that quested for knowledge and expansion to a society that just wants to escape from it all. The most popular shows are just shallow repetitions of each other, all with the same central theme – drinking, sex, and being as ridiculous as possible. Reality shows like The Bachelor and The Real World are some of the most watched programs shows in the nation, and yet, what do these shows actually teach us? Children used to watch cartoons growing up, and now they watch Mac Miller having parties with strippers on his MTV reality show. I’ve actually walked in on my eleven-year-old brother watching this.

Minow provided six goals he believes we should commit to making our television more substantive in his article A Vaster Wasteland. I would have to say I agree with him the most on the sixth one – we must make better use of our air-time in politics. Minow states, “We are nearly alone in the democratic world in not providing our candidates with public-service television. Instead we make them buy it – and so money consumes and corrupts our political discourse.” Our nation was built on the notion of free speech and the equal pursuit of happiness, and yet our government is charging for access to the airwaves – something the public owns itself. This basically sends the message that only the wealthy are able to run our country – not necessarily the smartest or morally upright. As voters, we deserve to hear the platforms of each candidate equally in order to make an informed decision. Also, since airtime is so expensive, “they talk to us in slogans and slurs, and only obliquely, if at all, about substance”. Shouldn’t politics, the very skeleton or our nation, be exempt from the “vast wasteland” that is American television?

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