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Newton Minow, FCC chairman who assailed ‘huge wasteland’ of TV, dies at 97


Newton N. Minow, the Federal Communications Fee chairman who in 1961 memorably assailed TV as a “huge wasteland” and went on to have a towering impression on broadcasting by serving to form public tv, satellite tv for pc communications and presidential debates, died Could 6 at his house in Chicago. He was 97.

The trigger was a coronary heart assault, mentioned his daughter Nell Minow, a high authority on company governance.

Mr. Minow was a politically related Chicago authorized grandee and boardroom Zelig whose skilled life encompassed almost each a part of the communications enterprise over six many years.

Throughout World Conflict II, he served in an Military battalion that constructed one of many first phone traces between China and India. As a director of Nationwide Academic Tv, a forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service, he helped get hold of the funding to place “Sesame Road” on the air in 1969. He later sat on the boards of CBS, the Tribune Co. and different main broadcasters, and he chaired the PBS board within the late 1970s.

By means of distinguished roles on panels and commissions, Mr. Minow additionally labored to create a template for the trendy presidential debate format that has conferred on tv a defining position, past political promoting, within the electoral course of.

Ron Simon, a curator on the Paley Heart for Media in New York, known as Mr. Minow “an important determine in increasing TV’s prospects.”

A former clerk for the chief justice of america, Mr. Minow had a fast and farsighted thoughts that within the 1950s helped him advance into the inside circles of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson II, the onetime Illinois governor, and John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Two generations later, Mr. Minow helped promote the political rise of future President Barack Obama, who had been a summer time affiliate in Mr. Minow’s Chicago regulation agency.

Mr. Minow was initially thrust into nationwide consideration as FCC chairman from 1961 to 1963, when he emerged as one of many boldest and most bold of President Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen.

The FCC largely centered on issuing licenses for radio and tv stations and setting charges for cellphone service, however Mr. Minow noticed the job as a pulpit from which to evangelize for the general public curiosity.

In any case, he reasoned, the general public owned the airwaves. And he had lengthy been involved — as a father or mother and as somebody who understood TV’s skill to sway minds — by the proliferation of what he thought-about shallow, dollar-grubbing programming by the networks.

At 35, Mr. Minow was one of many youngest males ever to carry the FCC chairmanship when President Kennedy rewarded him with that task in 1961. On the time, the regulatory company was reeling from payola scandals, involving bribes paid to disc jockeys in alternate for promotion of sure information, and rigged quiz exhibits. A well-liked joke was that the FCC’s initials stood for From Disaster to Disaster.

The FCC additionally was perceived to have been within the pocket of lobbyists and broadcast business leaders. A md was pressured to resign in 1960 after accepting a six-day cruise on the yacht of a radio and TV firm president.

Mr. Minow got down to revive the company as a watchdog.

In his first public deal with as FCC chairman, on Could 9, 1961, he delivered an impressive bombshell on the Nationwide Affiliation of Broadcasters conference in Washington. Mr. Minow and his speechwriters borrowed from the poet T.S. Eliot and created a permanent catchphrase concerning the “huge wasteland” of the tube.

“When tv is sweet, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is best,” he mentioned. “However when tv is unhealthy, nothing is worse. I invite every of you to take a seat down in entrance of your tv set when your station goes on the air and keep there, for a day, with out a e-book, with out a journal, with out a newspaper, with out a revenue and loss sheet or a ranking e-book to distract you. … I can guarantee you that what you’ll observe is an enormous wasteland.

“You will notice a procession of sport exhibits, formulation comedies about completely unbelievable households, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, homicide, western unhealthy males, western good males, non-public eyes, gangsters, extra violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

He known as for “a wider vary of decisions, extra range, extra options” after which threatened to carry up or revoke licenses for native TV stations; the FCC couldn’t regulate the networks straight, solely the stations they owned. “There may be nothing everlasting or sacred a couple of broadcast license,” he mentioned.

The thrust of the speech was not novel. In his celebrated “wires and lights in a field” deal with to friends in 1958, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow additionally known as for the medium to light up and encourage, as an alternative of simply to entertain.

However as Richard Heffner, the historian and longtime public tv host, as soon as mentioned, the “huge wasteland” speak was a “never-to-be-forgotten bearding proper there within the lion’s very den” from the highest federal regulator.

Mr. Minow drew recriminations from community executives, who known as the speech sensationalized, oversimplified and unfair — elitist at greatest and evoking the specter of Soviet-style censorship at worst. Sherwood Schwartz, creator of the lowbrow 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” apparently named the marooned S.S. Minnow (with the additional N) after the FCC chief as a riposte.

Sherwood Schwartz, creator of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘The Brady Bunch,’ dies at 94

The “huge wasteland” speech had little sensible impact on industrial programming, but it surely was credited with reasserting the facility of the FCC. Mr. Minow used the eye to win federal funding to tremendously enhance the variety of academic tv stations. The expanded community of stations would later coalesce into the Public Broadcasting Service in 1969.

In 1962, Mr. Minow helped foster laws that required all TV units to be manufactured with built-in UHF (ultrahigh frequency) tuners. The industrial networks dominated the already-crowded VHF (very excessive frequency) spectrum out there on most TV units till that point. Academic stations corresponding to WETA in Washington used the UHF band.

Mr. Minow mentioned he was initially unaware of communications satellites however shortly grasped their significance within the Chilly Conflict and persuaded the president to spend political capital to hasten their growth. He as soon as instructed Kennedy they have been extra vital than sending a person into area “as a result of they are going to launch concepts, and concepts last more than women and men.”

Mr. Minow helped persuade Congress to move laws that led to the creation of the Communications Satellite tv for pc Corp., broadly often known as Comsat Corp., which over the many years grew to become a significant supplier of satellite tv for pc communications companies.

Beneath Mr. Minow, the FCC additionally granted a license to launch Telstar, which in 1962 grew to become the primary industrial U.S. satellite tv for pc. It was a crude machine, restricted in relaying cellphone and TV indicators. However Telstar proved a steppingstone to the multibillion-dollar satellite tv for pc business, which has been crucial to the expansion of cable TV in addition to the web and varied navy purposes.

“His actions laid the groundwork for therefore many issues that might occur sooner or later,” Simon mentioned of Mr. Minow. “He was in a position to remodel this huge wasteland by strategies he didn’t even anticipate.”

Newton Norman Minow, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 17, 1926. His father co-owned a affluent chain of laundries. The household emphasised training, insisting that Newton’s older brother, who had a type of cerebral palsy, be mainstreamed in public faculty to attend faculty, which he did.

After serving within the Military Sign Corps, Mr. Minow entered Northwestern College on an accelerated program for returning World Conflict II veterans. He earned an undergraduate diploma in 1949 and a regulation diploma the subsequent 12 months. He was first in his regulation faculty class and clerked for Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson earlier than becoming a member of then-Illinois Gov. Stevenson as an aide.

He was lively in Stevenson’s failed presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956, within the latter race attempting unsuccessfully to influence his boss to make then-Sen. John F. Kennedy his working mate. Mr. Minow was Stevenson’s regulation accomplice in Chicago when Kennedy tapped him to guide the FCC.

Regardless of the fears of broadcasters after his “huge wasteland” speech, he vigorously defended the free speech rights of TV networks and controversial programming. He denounced advertisers for threatening to cancel contracts after ABC aired an interview with Alger Hiss, who had been convicted of perjury in a Chilly Conflict espionage case.

After leaving the FCC in June 1963, Mr. Minow was an govt with Encyclopaedia Britannica and Curtis Publishing, which owned the Saturday Night Submit and different magazines. He grew to become a accomplice and later senior counsel within the blue chip Chicago-based regulation agency Sidley Austin, creating a specialty in communications regulation and company technique. (Certainly one of his authorized proteges, future President Barack Obama, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2016.)

He wrote or co-wrote books about broadcasting, together with one on the historical past of televised presidential debates. Mr. Minow helped make these debates commonplace, working with the League of Ladies Voters within the mid-1970s to discover a workaround answer to the FCC’s equal time provision.

That rule pressured the inclusion of even fringe-party candidates at any time when radio and TV gave publicity to a significant get together’s candidates. An exemption had been made in 1960 for the primary televised presidential debates, between then-Sen. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

There have been no basic election presidential debates for the subsequent 16 years; the candidates had declined to take part. Viewing the debates as a matter of important public curiosity — a job interview and a method “to get a really feel of the persona and character of the individual” — Mr. Minow helped persuade the FCC to decree that presidential debates held by outdoors teams such because the nonpartisan league might be interpreted as information occasions not topic to the equal time rule.

Mr. Minow was concerned in subsequent televised debates sponsored by the league and, in 1987, helped type the bipartisan Fee on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored basic election debates ever since. He served as vice chairman of the fee for greater than 25 years.

He was additionally a previous board chairman of the Carnegie Basis of New York and the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corp., a analysis group closely funded by the Protection Division. Within the early 1970s, he helped steer Rand by means of a interval of tumult after one its analysts, Daniel Ellsberg, had leaked to the New York Occasions the suppose tank’s copy of the key Vietnam Conflict historical past known as the Pentagon Papers.

Mr. Minow’s spouse of 72 years, the previous Josephine Baskin, died in 2022. Survivors embody three daughters who grew to become legal professionals, Nell Minow of McLean, Va., MacArthur Basis board chairwoman and former Harvard Legislation Faculty dean Martha Minow of Cambridge, Mass., and Mary Minow of Chicago; and three grandchildren.

In interviews, Mr. Minow preferred to emphasise that he was a TV “junkie” who devoured information and sports activities applications, police dramas and sitcoms. He thought-about tv a significant supply of connectedness with the world, going as far as to put a TV in each room of his home — together with the lavatory.

As he as soon as mentioned, “For individuals who inform me — tutorial intellectuals fairly often — ‘I don’t have a tv set in my home,’ I inform them, ‘You’re not alive.’ ”

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