Fred Silverman vs. Newton Minow

Today, Norman is addressing the 50th anniversary (May 9) of FCC Chairman Netwon Minow’s famous “vaste wasteland” speech:

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 own 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.

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.

Now for the rebuttal by Norman Horowitz:  

I would describe myself as a “content  libertarian” — that is, a believer in freedom of thought and expression. I am and have been in favor of the commercial nature of programming in our country because it offers the opportunity for the viewers of television to “vote” with their remote controls on what they want to see and not what anyone else thinks they should see.

In the early ’60s, I went to see the head of programming at a New York station and screened a lovely five-minute children’s program called “Pick a Letter.” The potential buyer watched with great interest and then told me that he wouldn’t buy it.

Norman,” he said, “if a kid starts to watch it, in less than a minute he’ll switch off and watch a cartoon.” Five-year-olds have a “shit detector,” he explained, “and if they get a sense that you’re trying to teach them something, they’ll change the station.

It was a valuable lesson for me to have learned.

A few years later, I met “The Wunderkind” Fred Silverman at CBS, where he was the head of programming for daytime and children. He was the most dedicated programming executive that I’ve ever met. His job was to get as large an audience as possible for CBS, and boy, did he do that…probably to the chagrin of those “elitists”who would, if given the opportunity, try to “inform and educate” young people.

You can put it on, but you can’t make them watch it.

Around the same time, I met Monica Simms, who was the head of children’s programming at the BBC. She was a bright and charming woman, and we spent some time together outside of the office. I booked three tickets to whatever the “hot” Broadway show that was in fashion at the time, and Monica asked if it was possible to change the tickets and go and see “Oh! Calcutta!?” I’m still recovering emotionally from sitting in the first row of the theater for an X-rated performance with my wife and Monica. I was unable then or now to connect the woman who was in charge of children’s programming at the BBC wanting to see and enjoying that play.

In the early ’70s, I was in London, and Monica invited me to her home for dinner. There were about a dozen people there, including a bunch of very senior BBC producers  and programmers. Predictably, the after-dinner conversation centered around the “inadequacy” of American television that provided their audience with “what they wanted to see,” as opposed to the BBC, which gave their audience (to a certain extent) “what they should see.”

We have allowed the “elitist” Newton Minow’s of the world to advocate “what is good, better, or best” on television, which is wonderful as long as they are not with the FCC or any other regulatory body. Please do not deify Newton Minow and those of his ilk who will have you enjoy only what they deem acceptable.