Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9: Turn Off the TV Day

Today is the anniversary of a memorable speech by Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the National Association of Broadcasters. The year was 1961, and Newton did not have many good things to say about commercial television. His speech, where he called television "a vast wasteland," sparked a national debate about the quality, or lack there of, of television programming.

Since Minow’s speech, television has been called the idiot box and the boob tube. Television viewers have become couch potatoes (1979), and the number of channels has grown to more than 500, but "nothing is on."

Here's an excerpt from Minow's indictment:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

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. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.

To see the entire speech go to:

While Minow’s phrase "a vast wasteland" caught on, his speech certainly did not discourage the growth of television sets in American homes. In an age of reality television, satellite television, and 24-hour sports and cable new stations, television is more popular than ever.

One question that has been asked by educators since the advent of commercial television is: What is the relationship between television viewing and reading? One particularly interesting answer to this question was given by Norman Mailer in the January 23, 2005 edition of Parade Magazine. In the article Mailer says that the one thing that he would do to change America for the better would be to get rid of television commercials. Mailer argues that the constant interruptions of commercials disrupt our children’s ability to read effectively by denying them something that is necessary for reading: concentration.

Here is an excerpt from Mailer’s Parade essay:

Television is seen as the culprit, since the ability to read well is directly related to one’s ability to learn. If it is universally understood that the power to concentrate while reading is the royal road to knowledge, what may not be perceived as clearly is how much concentration itself is a species of psychic strength. It can be developed or it can go soft in much the manner that body muscle can be built up or allowed to go slack. The development of physical ability is in direct relation to use. Reading offers its analogy. When children become interested in an activity, their concentration is firm—until it is interrupted. Sixty years ago, children would read for hours. Their powers of concentration developed as naturally as breathing. Good readers became very good readers, even as men and women who go in for weight-lifting will bulk up. The connection between loving to read and doing well in school was no mystery to most students . . . . On the major networks, the amount of time given to commercials and other promotional messages increased by 36 percent from 1991 to 2003. Each of the four major networks now offers 52 minutes of commercials in the three hours from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day. It is equal to saying that every seven, 10 or 12 minutes, our attention to what is happening on the tube is cut into by a commercial. It is as bad for most children’s shows. Soon enough, children develop a fail-safe. Since the child knows that any interesting story will soon be amputated by a kaleidoscope of toys, food, dolls, clowns, new colors and the clutter of six or seven wholly different products all following one another in 10-, 20- and 30-second spots all the way through a three-minute break, the child also comes to recognize that concentration is not one’s friend but is treacherous. For soon enough, attention will be turned inside out. The need to get up and move can become a frantic if routine response for highly keyed children. Other kids, stupefied by the onslaught of a quick series of ads that have nothing to do with each other, suffer a dire spiritual product—stagnation. They sit on the couch in a stupor, they eat and drink, and alarms are sounded through the nation. Our children are becoming obese.

To see the complete text of Mailer's article go to:

Today’s Challenge: Trivial TV Tidbits
It should be noted that no one on the Word Daze staff has owned a television since 1992. In fact nowhere in the palatial offices of Word Daze Plaza is there anything resembling an idiot box. Try your hand at the questions below, and congratulate yourself if you get none of them correct.

1. What word uttered repeatedly by Homer Simpson was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001?

2. Who was on the cover of the first edition of TV Guide, published on April 3, 1953?

3. What is the most watched TV episode of all time?

4. What TV Theme song hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1976?

5. "I’ll see you all in the cafeteria." Is the final line of what TV series?

6. What country watches the most TV?

7. What was the first image shown on television?

8. What was the first TV series to broadcast a rerun?

9. What television series features a boat named after Newton Minow?

Quote of the Day: Television is a new medium. It's called a medium because nothing is well-done. --Fred Allen

Grobman, Paul. Vital Statistics: An Amazing Compendium of Factoids, Minutiae, and Random Bits of Wisdom. New York: Plume Books, 2005.

Answers: 1. "Doh" 2. Desi Arnez, Jr. 3. MASH 4. Welcome Back, Kotter 5. Seinfled 6. Japan (an average of 4 hours, 29 minutes) 7. A statue of Felix the Cat 8. Dick Tracy 9. Gilligan's Island (the S.S. Minow)

1 comment:

Nell Minow said...

I've forwarded your thoughtful comment on to my dad, who will be very appreciative of your kind words about his speech. Many thanks.