51.Newton Minow - Television and the Public Interest
Governor Collins, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Governor Collins you're much
too kind, as all of you have been to me the last few days. It's been a great pleasure and an
honor for me to meet so many of you. And I want to thank you for this opportunity to meet
with you today.
As you know, this is my first public address since I took over my new job.
When the New Frontiersmen rode into town, I locked myself in
my office to do my homework and get my feet wet. But apparently I haven't
managed yet to stay out of hot water. I seem to have detected
a very nervous apprehension about what I might say or do when I emerged from that locked
office for this, my maiden station break.
So first let me begin by dispelling a rumor. I was not picked for this job because I regard
myself as the fastest draw on the New Frontier. Second, let me start a rumor. Like you, I
have carefully read President Kennedy's messages about the regulatory agencies, conflict of
interest, and the dangers of ex parte contacts. And, of course, we at
the Federal Communications Commission will do our part. Indeed, I may even
suggest that we change the name of the FCC to The Seven Untouchables.
It may also come as a surprise to some of you, but I want you to know that you have my
admiration and my respect. Yours is a most honorable profession. Anyone who is in the broadcasting business has a tough row to hoe. You earn your bread by using public property.
When you work in broadcasting you volunteer for public service, public pressure, and public
regulation. You must compete with other attractions and other investments, and the only way you can do
it is to prove to us every three years that you should have been in business in the first place.
I can think of easier ways to make a living.
But I cannot think of more satisfying ways.
I admire your courage but that doesn't mean that I would make life any easier for you.
Your license lets you use the public's airwaves as trustees for 180 million
Americans. The public is your beneficiary. If you want to stay on as trustees, you
must deliver a decent return to the public not only to your stockholders. So, as a representative of the public, your
health and your product are among my chief concerns.
Now as to your health, let's talk only of television today. 1960 gross broadcast revenues of
the television industry were over 1,268,000,000 dollars. Profit before taxes was 243,900,000
dollars, an average return on revenue of 19.2 per cent. Compare these with 1959, when gross
broadcast revenues were 1,163,900,000 dollars, and profit before taxes was 222,300,000, an
average return on revenue of 19.1 per cent. So the percentage increase of total
revenues from '59 to '60 was 9 per cent, and the percentage increase of profit was 9.7 per cent. This,
despite a recession throughout the country. For your investors, the price has indeed been right.
So I have confidence in your health, but not in your product. It is with this and much more in
mind that I come before you today.
One editorialist in the trade press wrote that "the FCC of the New Frontier is going to be one
of the toughest FCC's in the history of broadcast regulation." If he meant
that we intend to enforce the law in the public interest, let me make it perfectly clear that
he is right: We do. If he meant that we intend to muzzle or censor broadcasting,
he is dead wrong. It wouldn't surprise me if some of you had expected me to come here today and say to
you in effect, "Clean up your own house or the government will do it for you." Well, in a limited sense, you
would be right because I've just said it.
But I want to say to you as earnestly as I can that it is not in that spirit that I come before you
today, nor is it in that spirit that I intend to serve the FCC. I am in Washington to help
broadcasting, not to harm it. to strengthen it, not weaken it. to
reward it, not to punish it. to encourage it, not threaten it. and to stimulate it, notcensor it. Above all, I am here to
uphold and protect the public interest.
Now what do we mean by "the public interest?" Some say the public interest
is merely what interests the public. I disagree. And so does your distinguished president, Governor Collins.
In a recent speech he said,
Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning
desire to excel, as well as to sell. the urge to build the character, citizenship, and
intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product. ...By no
means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest. ...But a much better
job can be done, and should be done.
I could not agree more with Governor Collins. And I would add that in today's world, with
chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep,
relentless pressures on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of
the gravest nature, yes, and with the technological knowledge that makes it
possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world in
a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of actionadventure
and situation comedies is simply not good enough.
Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an
inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership.
In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on
the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that
newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.
Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the
television age. And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today's world employed
the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind's benefit, so will history decide
whether today's broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.
If I seem today to address myself chiefly to the problems of television, I don't want any of you
radio broadcasters to think that we've gone to sleep at your switch. We haven't. We still
listen. But in recent years most of the controversies and crosscurrents in broadcast
programming have swirled around television. And so my subject today is the television
industry and the public interest.
Like everybody, I wear more than one hat. I am the chairman of the FCC. But I am also a
television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I
have seen a great many television programs that
seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much
bemoaned good old days of "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One."
I'm talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as "The
Fabulous Fifties," "The Fred Astaire Show," and "The Bing Crosby Special". some were
dramatic and moving, such as Conrad's "Victory" and "Twilight Zone". some were marvelously
informative, such as "The Nation's Future," "CBS Reports," "The Valiant Years." I could list
many more programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his
family. 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.
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. Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can't do
better? Well a glance at next season's proposed programming can give us little heart. Of 73 and 1/2 hours of prime
evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours of categories of actionadventure,
situation comedy, variety, quiz, and movies. Is there one network president in this
room who claims he can't do better? Well, is there at least one network president who
believes that the other networks can do better? Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your
beneficiaries is long overdue. Never have so few owed so much to so many.
Why is so much of television so bad? I've heard many answers: demands of your advertisers.
competition for ever higher ratings. the need always to attract a mass audience. the high cost
of television programs. the insatiable appetite for programming material. These are some of
the reasons. Unquestionably, these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers. But I
am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them.
I do not accept the idea that the present overall programming is aimed accurately at the
public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and
of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don't tell
us what the public might watch if they were offered halfadozen additional choices. A rating, at
best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately, it does not
reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what
the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better if
all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been
unleashed. I believe in the people's good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.
My concern with the rating services is not with their accuracy. Perhaps they are accurate. I
really don't know. What, then, is wrong with the ratings? It's not been their accuracy it's been their use.
Certainly, I hope you will agree that ratings should have little influence where children are
concerned. The best estimates indicate that during the hours of 5 to 6 P.M. sixty per cent of
your audience is composed of children under twelve. And most young children today, believe
it or not, spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom.
I repeat let that sink in, ladies and gentlemen most young children today spend as much
time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. It used to be said that there were
three great influences on a child: home, school, and church. Today, there is a fourth great
influence, and you ladies and gentlemen in this room control it.
If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings,
children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school. What about
your responsibilities? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to
uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children? Is there no room for programs deepening
their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children's news show
explaining something to them about the world at their level of understanding? Is there no
room for reading the great literature of the past, for teaching them the great traditions of
freedom? There are some fine children's shows, but they are drowned out in the massive
doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence. Must these be your trademarks? Search your
consciences and see if you cannot offer more to your young beneficiaries whose future you
guide so many hours each and every day.
Now what about adult programming and ratings? You know, newspaper publishers take
popularity ratings too. And the answers are pretty clear: It is almost always the comics,
followed by advice to the lovelorn columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on
the front page of all newspapers. the editorials are not replaced by more comics. and the
newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn. Yet
newspapers do not even need a license from the government to be in
business. they do not use public property. But in television, where your responsibilities as public trustees are so plain, the moment that the ratings indicate that westerns are popular there are new imitations of
westerns on the air faster than the old coaxial cable could take us from Hollywood to New York. Broadcasting cannot
continue to live by the numbers. Ratings ought to be the slave of the broadcaster, not his master. And you and I
both know that the rating services themselves would agree.
Let me make clear that what I am talking about is balance. I believe that the public interest
is made up of many interests. There are many people in this great country and you
must serve all of us. You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a western
and a symphony, more people will watch the western. I
like westerns too, but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. We all know
that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not
satisfied if you look only to popularity as a testof what to broadcast. You are not only in show
business. you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation.
And as Governor Collins said to you yesterday when he encouraged you to editorialize as
you know the FCC has now encouraged editorializing for years. We want you to do this. we
want you to editorialize, take positions. We only ask that you do it in a fair and a responsible manner. Those stations that have editorialized have demonstrated to you that the FCC will always encourage a fair and responsible clash of opinion.
You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough
to cater to the nation's whims. you must also serve the nation's needs. And I would add
this: that if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common
denominator, you may very well lose your audience. Because, to paraphrase a great American
who was recently my law partner, the people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcasters
and politicians think.
As you may have gathered, I would like to see television improved. But how is this to be
brought about? By voluntary action by the broadcasters themselves? By direct government
intervention? Or how?
Let me address myself now to my role not as a viewer but as chairman of the FCC. I
could not if I would, chart for you this afternoon in detail all of the actions I contemplate.
Instead, I want to make clear some of the fundamental principles which guide me.
First: the people own the air. And they own it as much in prime evening time as they do at six
o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you you owe them something.
And I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.
Second: I think it would be foolish and wasteful for us to continue any wornout
wrangle over the problems of payola, rigged quiz shows, and other mistakes of the past. There are laws on
the books which we will enforce. But there is no chip on my shoulder.
We live together in perilous, uncertain times. we face together staggering problems. and we must not waste
much time now by rehashing the clichés of past controversy. To quarrel over the past is to lose the future.
Third: I believe in the free enterprise system. I want to see broadcasting improved, and I want you to do
the job. I am proud to champion your cause. It is not rare for American businessmen to serve a public trust. Yours is a special trust because it is imposed by law.
Fourth: I will do all I can to help education television. There are still not enough educational
stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels. If there were
a limited number of printing presses in this country, you may be sure that a fair proportion of
them would be put to educational use. Educational television has an enormous contribution to make to
the future, and I intend to give it a hand along the way. If there is not a nationwide
educational television system in this country, it will not be the fault of the FCC.
Fifth: I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes. Censorship strikes at the tap root of our free society.
Sixth: I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public's airwaves.
The squandering of our airwaves is no less important than the lavish waste of any precious natural resource. I intend to
take the job of chairman of the FCC very seriously. I happen to believe in
the gravity of my own particular sector of the New Frontier. There will be times perhaps when
you will consider that I take myself or my job too seriously.
Frankly, I don't care if you do. For I am convinced that either one takes this job seriously or one can be seriously taken.
Now how will these principles be applied? Clearly at the heart of the FCC's authority lies its
power to license, to renew or fail to renew, or to revoke a license. As you know, when your
license comes up for renewal, your performance is compared with your promises. I understand that many people feel
that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: renewal will not be pro forma
in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.
But simply matching promises and performance is not enough. I intend to do
more. I intend to find out whether the people care. I intend to find out whether the community which each
broadcaster serves believes he has been serving the public interest. When a renewal
is set down for a hearing, I intend, whenever possible, to hold a welladvertised public hearing, right
in the community you have promised to serve. I want the people who own the air and the
homes that television enters to tell you and the FCC what's been going on. I want the people
if they're truly interested in the service you give them to make notes, document cases, tell
us the facts. And for those few of you who really believe that the public interest is merely
what interests the public, I hope that these hearings will arouse no little interest.
The FCC has a fine reserve of monitors almost 180 million
Americans gathered around 56 million sets. If you want those monitors to be your friends at court, it's up to you.
Now some of you may say, "Yes, but I still do not know where the line is between a grant of a
renewal and the hearing you just spoke of." My answer is: Why should you want to
know how close you can come to the edge of the cliff? What the Commission asks of you is to make a
conscientious, goodfaith effort to serve the public interest. Everyone of you serves a community in which
the people would benefit by educational, and religious, instructive and
other public service programming. Every one of you serves an area which has local needs as
to local elections, controversial issues, local news, local talent. Make a serious, genuine
effort to put on that programming. And when you do, you will not be playing brinkmanship
with the public interest.
Now what I've been saying applies to the broadcast
stations. Now a station break for the networks and will last even longer than 40 seconds: You
networks know your importance in this great industry. Today, more than one half of all
hours of television station programming comes from the networks. in prime time, this rises to
more than three fourths of the available hours.
You know that the FCC has been studying network operations for some time. I intend to press
this to a speedy conclusion with useful results. I can tell you right now, however, that
I am deeply concerned with concentration of power in the hands of the networks. As a result, too
many local stations have foregone any efforts at local programming, with little use of live
talent and local service. Too many local stations operate with one hand on the network switch
and the other on a projector loaded with old movies. We want the individual stations to be
free to meet their legal responsibilities to serve their communities.
I join Governor Collins in his views so well expressed to the advertisers who
use the public air. And I urge the networks to join him and undertake a very special mission on behalf of this
industry. You can tell your advertisers, "This is the high quality we are going to serve take
it or other people will. If you think you can find a better place to move automobiles, cigarettes, and soap, then go ahead and try." Tell your sponsors to be less concerned with
costs per thousand and more concerned with understanding per millions. And remind your stockholders that an
investment in broadcasting is buying a share in public responsibility. The
networks can start this industry on the road to freedom from the dictatorship of numbers.
But there is more to the problem than network influences on stations or advertiser influences
on networks. I know the problems networks face in trying to clear some of their best
programs the informational programs that exemplify public service. They are your finest
hours, whether sustaining or commercial, whether regularly scheduled or special. These are
the signs that broadcasting knows the way to leadership. They make the public's trust in you a wise choice.
They should be seen. As you know, we are readying for use new forms by which broadcast
stations will report their programming to the Commission. You probably also know that special
attention will be paid in these forms to reports of public service programming. I believe that
stations taking network service should also be required to report the extent of the local
clearance of network public service programs, and when they fail to clear them, they should
explain why. If it is to put on some outstanding local program, this is one reason. But if it is
simply to run an old movie, that's an entirely different matter. And the Commission should
consider such clearance reports carefully when making up its mind about the licensee's overall programming.
We intend to move and as you know, and as I want to say publicly, the FCC was rapidly
moving in other new areas before the new Administration arrived in Washington. And I want
to pay my public respects to my very able predecessor, Fred Ford, and to my colleagues on
the Commission, each of whom has welcomed me to the FCC with warmth and cooperation.
We have approved an experiment with pay TV, and in New York we are testing the potential of
UHF broadcasting. Either or both of these may revolutionize television. Only a foolish prophet
would venture to guess the direction they will take, and their effect. But we intend that
they shall be explored fully, for they are part of broadcasting's New Frontier. The questions
surrounding pay TV are largely economic. The questions surrounding UHF are largely
technological. We are going to give the infant pay TV a chance to prove whether it can offer a
useful service. we are going to protect it from those who would strangle it in its crib.
As for UHF, I'm sure you know about our test in the canyons of New York City. We will take
every possible positive step to break through the allocations barrier into UHF. We will put this sleeping giant
to use and in the years ahead we may have twice as many channels operating in cities where now there are only two or three. We may have a half dozen networks instead of three.
I have told you that I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe that most of television's
problems stem from lack of competition. This is the importance of UHF to me: with more
channels on the air, we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to offer
service to all parts of the public. Programs with a mass market appeal required by mass
product advertisers certainly will still be available. But other stations will recognize the need to
appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes. In this way, we can all have a much
wider range of programs. Television should thrive on this competition, and the country should
benefit from alternative sources of service to the public. And, Governor Collins, I hope the
NAB will benefit from many new members.
Another and perhaps the most important frontier: Television will rapidly join
the parade into space. International television will be with us soon. No one knows how
long it will be until a broadcast from a studio in New York will be viewed in
India as well as in Indiana, will be seen in the Congo as it is seen in Chicago. But as surely as we are meeting here today, that day will come. and once again our world will shrink.
What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our western bad men and
good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting? What will
the Latin American or African child learn of America from this great communications industry? We
cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas.
There is your challenge to leadership. You must reexamine some fundamentals of your
industry. You must open your minds and open your hearts to the limitless horizons of
tomorrow. I can suggest some words that should serve to guide you:
Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for
respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the
advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials
chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This
responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be
discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home,
applied to every moment of every program presented by television.
Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with
wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the
responsibilities which the citizen has towards his society.
Now those are not my words. They are yours. They are taken
literally, verbatim, from your own Television Code.
They reflect the leadership and aspirations of your own great industry. I
urge you to respect them as I do. And I urge you to respect the intelligent and farsighted
leadership of Governor LeRoy Collins, and to make this meeting a creative act. I
urge you at this meeting and, after you leave, back home, at your stations and your networks, to
strive ceaselessly to improve your product and to better serve your viewers, the American people.
I hope that we at the FCC will not allow ourselves to become so bogged down
in the mountain of papers, hearings, memoranda, orders, and the daily routine that we close our eyes to
this wider view of the public interest. And I hope that you broadcasters will
not permit yourselves to become so absorbed in the daily chase for ratings, sales, and profits that you lose this
wider view. Now more than ever before in broadcasting's history the times demand the best of all of us.
We need imagination in programming, not sterility. creativity, not imitation. experimentation,
not conformity. excellence, not mediocrity. Television is filled with creative, imaginative people. You must
strive to set them free.
Television in its young life has had many hours of greatness its "Victory at Sea," its ArmyMcCarthy
hearings its "Peter Pan," its "Kraft Theaters," its "See It Now," its "Project 20," the
World Series, its political conventions and campaigns, and the Great Debates. And it's had
its endless hours of mediocrity and its moments of public disgrace. There are estimates today
that the average viewer spends about 200 minutes daily with television, while the average
reader spends 38 minutes with magazines, 40 minutes with newspapers. Television has grown
faster than a teenager, and now it is time to grow up.
What you gentlemen broadcast through the people's air affects the people's taste, their
knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world and their future.
Just think for a moment of the impact of broadcasting in the past few days. Yesterday was
one of the great days of my life. Last week the President asked me to ride over with
him when he came to speak here at the NAB. And when I
went to the White House he said, "Do you think it would be a good idea to
take Commander Shepard?" And, of course, I said it would be
magnificent. And I was privileged to ride here yesterday in a car with the President and the
Vice President, Commander and Mrs. Shepard. This was an
unexpected, unscheduled stop. And Commander Shepard said to
me, "Where are we going?" "What is this group?" And I said, "This is the National
Association of Broadcasters at its annual convention."
This is the group, this is the industry that made it possible for millions of Americans to share
with you that great moment in history. that his gallant flight was witnessed by millions of
anxious Americans who saw in it an intimacy which they could achieve through
no other medium, in no other way. It was one of your finest hours. The depth of broadcasting's
contribution to public understanding of that event cannot be measured. And it thrilled me as
a representative of the government that deals with this industry to say to Commander
Shepard the group that he was about to see.
I say to you ladies and gentlemen I remind you what the President said in his stirring
inaugural. He said: Ask not what America can do for you. ask what you
can do for America."1 I say to you ladies and gentlemen: Ask not what broadcasting can do
for you. ask what you can do for broadcasting. And ask what broadcasting can do for America.
I urge you, I urge you to put the people's airwaves to the service of the people and the cause
of freedom. You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You
must help a great nation fulfill its future.
Do this! I pledge you our help.