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I recently read the text of a speech delivered by an FCC commissioner to the National Association of Broadcasters. Here are some excerpts.
"Why is so much of television so bad? I have heard many answers: demands of advertisers; competition for higher ratings; the need to attract a mass audience. These are tough problems, but I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.
If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school.
We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than informed, but your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast.
Your license lets you use the public's airwaves...you are trustees of the public, and the public is your beneficiary. If you want to stay on as trustees, you must deliver a decent return to the public - not just to your stockholders.
We have a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, and an endless number of commercials - many screaming, cajoling, and offending.
(Ladies) and Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your beneficiaries is overdue. At the heart of the FCC's authority, lies its power to license, to renew, or fail to renew, or to revoke a license. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.
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 toward his society. These words are not mine. They are taken directly from your own Television Code.
(Remember) the people own the air. They own it as much in prime evening time as they do at 6 o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something. I intend to see that your debt is paid with service."
What a great speech. The problem is it wasn't given recently, but it should have been.
In fact, it was delivered by Newton Minow in 1961! Minow was FCC chairman back then, and he is the man who accused television of being a "vast wasteland".
TV in 1961 was a vast wasteland, then today's programming is nothing short
of a toxic dump.
Call me old fashioned, but if television was intended to be a toilet, then Philo Farnsworth would have designed a flush handle into every set.
Yes, I am over 50, and yes, I am partial to TV dramas. That's what I have written books about, and it is for that category that I serve as a judge for the EMMY awards. That does not, however, disqualify me from having a legitimate objection to the dangers of bad programming, especially so-called Reality TV.
American Idol, Fear Factor, Elimidate, and Hell's Kitchen are just a few of the many reality (game) shows where people will do just about anything for a prize, or for a chance at stardom. Today's hot shot reality producers will argue that they aren't doing anything new. After all, people were dressing up as barnyard animals on Let's Make a Deal before most of today's reality contestants were even born.
But what Monty Hall encouraged was good clean fun. No one was humiliated beyond their willingness to dress up in funny garb, and no one performed lewd or grotesque acts just to score points.
Modern day game shows (they are mistakenly referred to as "Reality") are abhorrent to me, but it was actually an entertainment news show that put me over the edge just a few nights ago.
Entertainment Tonight, once a tasteful, faux news show, spent several nights glamorizing the nuptials of felon Mary Kay LaTourneau and her child groom , who she raped 8 years earlier when he was one of her 6th grade students. Their wedding was the lead story for an entire week. I couldn't believe it. ET glorifying a sex crime!
20 years ago I was fortunate enough to produce several reports for ET, including an exclusive interview with the legendary Oscar winning actress Helen Hayes, and a story about a troupe of actors performing Shakespeare in factories. I am now ashamed to tell anyone that my stories were on ET, for fear that they might think I meant recently.
Television programs, like films, should at least pretend to have some snippet of redeeming value, otherwise they are trash. And while I do not condone censorship in any form, I do wish that all of the trashy News, Talk, and Reality shows could be exiled to a special, pay cable channel, away from the prying eyes of children, and I wish that News programs of any genre would use a bit more discretion in what they hype.
Why? Well, the same night of ET's LaTournaeu coverage, there was also a story reported about two teenage boys who refused to buckle their seat belts while riding on a school bus. The boys then proceeded to throw punches and shout vile obscenities at the bus driver.
What's the big deal? That's the entire premise of Growing Up Gotti. Anyway, the leap in logic and accountability is not a big one to make. Kids who are fed a steady diet of violent video games and trashy reality shows see nothing wrong with breaking rules, disrespecting their elders, and flaunting authority. And, I don't need to commission a PEW study to bolster my theory. Just check the headlines. Every day there's another report of a student either having sex with, assaulting, or holding a gun on his teacher.
Somewhere along the way, rock bands stopped writing important lyrics and started smashing guitars on stage.
Somewhere along the way, Pac Man turned into Mortal Combat.
And, somewhere along the way, television was hijacked by a bunch of no talent producers and network executives who think all they are breaking is new ground. They're wrong. They've also broken my TV set.
I wish that Newton Minow was Chairman of the FCC today so he could revoke the licenses of every station that airs obnoxious game shows, trash talk shows, and irresponsible news shows. And, while he's at it, he could refuse to renew the license of any TV station who wasn't providing local, public service programs. That, however, is a topic for another column.
For now, I'll just keep circulating copies of Minow's speech, and hope that his words will finally ring true with Broadcasters. And, I'll keep purchasing classic TV episodes on DVD from TVparty.com. I prefer to hear Archie Bunker flush a toilet, than to obsess about the medium I love being flushed down it by broadcasters.
Jim Longworth is a veteran talk show host, columnist, and lecturer, and the author of TV Creators: Conversations With America's Top Producers of Television Drama, volumes 1 & 2.