Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Newton N. Minnow, a respected Chicago attorney, to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Shortly after his appointment, Minnow addressed the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters and challenged attendees to spend a day – without distraction or interruption – simply watching commercial television.
“You will see a procession of game shows,” Minnow said. “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.”
Minnow famously concluded that commercial television was a “vast wasteland,” and one can certainly argue that little has changed in the intervening half-century.
True, these days one can tune in a classic drama, watch specialty channels focusing on nature, even scrutinize the workings of Congress at any time of the day or night. The proliferation of broadcast channels, available by cable or satellite and increasingly over the Internet, ensures that there is something to watch somewhere for everyone of every taste.
But more is not necessarily better. Much of what is broadcast today, 50 years later, remains just as Minnow described it.
In particular, one genre of television programming that has flourished is the game show, a kind of contest where ordinary people, just like those in the viewing audience, compete for prizes. In the early days of television, the prizes were modest amounts of cash or material goods considered luxuries that would be nice to have. Thus, contestants answered trivia questions or engaged in amusing takes on familiar parlor games in order to win a washer and dryer, or even a new car.
These days, the prize money is gaudy and the games bizarre, but people still love to compete and many more love to watch.
An especially popular feature of modern television is a twist on the traditional game show that has come to be called the “reality show.” Reality shows involve real people in real-life situations, or quasi real-life situations, captured in unscripted and unrehearsed action by the camera as they compete for prizes ranging from a job to a vacation to a husband.
It does not make for inspiring viewing.
Yet of all the depressing oddities on television, perhaps none is more pathetic than “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” This show features families who are facing financial or personal crises and are just barely getting by, living in homes that are falling apart, unhealthy, or even dangerous.
These families are often remarkable for their spirit, for their commitment to community, for the love they share with each other and with those still less fortunate. They spend what little they have on others, and they often have nothing left to spend on themselves. They don’t deserve what has befallen them.
Then, happily, in response to a neighbor’s intervention, or at the request of the family itself, in swoops the team from “Extreme Makeover,” and the entire community works together to build the family a new and healthy home. A tearfully happy ending ensues.
Don’t get me wrong: the show is quite moving, and the families featured are often extraordinary, as is the generosity of the community that donates time and materials to build the home that will literally change the family’s life.
Recently, however, the prizes awarded to families have been going beyond home and hearth, beyond appliances and additions. In several episodes, families have actually been awarded checks from drugstore chains with which to purchase needed medication.
In other words, we have now come to the point where Americans compete on national television not only to win creature comforts, or even cash, but somehow to secure prescription drugs not covered by their insurance.
There is something grotesque about families – and they are inevitably hardworking, decent people – living in the richest society in the world, sending in audition tapes and hoping to be chosen by the producers of a television show that will give them not only a new home but, if they are really fortunate, life-saving medication.
Back in Minnow’s day, a popular game show featured ordinary people “Bowling for Dollars,” hoping to win cash at their local bowling alley.
Today, the zeitgeist has produced what might be called, “Extreme Makeover: Health-Care Edition.”
Whatever we call these shows, Minnow’s characterization of commercial television remains accurate, but in ways he could not have foreseen. Today, much of commercial television remains not only vapid, but has become tragic beyond words.
And that is a sad reality indeed.