Newton Minow, Former FCC Chief Who Declared Network TV a ‘Vast Wasteland,’ Dies at 97
Newton N. Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chief, died May 6 at his home in Chicago, after suffering a heart attack. He was 97.
Minow’s death was confirmed by the Associated Press on Saturday afternoon.
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Minow served for two years as the FCC chief during President John F. Kennedy’s administration and made waves in 1961 when he described network television programming as “a vast wasteland.”
In his historic speech delivered to the National Assn. of Broadcasters, Minow proclaimed that “you will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation 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.”
Throughout his time as FCC chief, Minow required TV sets in America to be equipped to receive ultra-high-frequency (UHF) signals and very-high-frequency (VHF) broadcasts — a move that dramatically expanded the number of broadcast channels available on the local TV dial. Additionally, Minow developed legislation that opened up pathways for satellite communications to transform television in the 1970s and ’80s. As a result, the legislation allowed the U.S. to dominate satellite communications after his tenure, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This piece of legislation then helped lead the television industry to achieve program diversity. In an interview with the New York Times, Minow explained how he believed the legislation led to the global information revolution, by allowing for the growth of the internet and digital communications.
In 1963, Minow resigned from the F.C.C. and became an executive at Encyclopedia Britannica. Then in 1965, he joined a Chicago law firm and was a partner until he became senior counsel in 1991.
In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Minow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. However, the ceremony wasn’t the first time that Minow and President Obama had interacted; in 1988, he recruited the former President to work as a summer associate at the Chicago firm, where President Obama then met his future wife.
Throughout his career, Minow wrote books and articles, lectured, campaigned for programming reforms and served as co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates board.
Born on Jan. 17, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wis. By World War II, Minow enlisted in the Army. By 1946 he became a sergeant. Three years later, Minow graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in speech and political science. Minow then received his law degree at Northwestern and graduated top of his class. Throughout his education, he served as the editor of the law review.
He is survived by three daughters, Nell, a writer, media critic and prominent investor advocate; Martha and Mary; and three grandchildren. His wife of 72 years, Josephine Baskin Minow, a prominent philanthropist and advocate for underprivileged children, died in February 2022 at age 95.
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