Newton Minow discusses broadcasting
BROADCAST: Jan. 11, 1964 | DURATION: 00:46:43
Interviewing Newton Minow, Chicago lawyer and chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He discusses broadcasting as a public service and spends a great deal of time on the history of commercials and how they changed over time.
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Newton Minow 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. 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 in 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. And if you think I exaggerate, why you try it.
Studs Terkel The phrase, the words, those of Newton Minow, at the time making his, his debut, his first speech to the National Association of Broadcasters and out of it, of course, came a phrase, a memorable phrase now part of the American vocabulary: "the vast wasteland." Mr. Minow recently--this was 1961--appointed the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Hitherto no such member of the commission spoke in this manner to members of the National Association of Broadcasters. And since then I say history has been made, Mr. Minow, and that you have created public dialogue. At last, as to the state of we've been talking about it, and whispering about it, and finally, someone in the middle said the word to the men responsible. I suppose the reactions to that were varied depending upon the listener, weren't they?
Newton Minow Well, they were, Studs. I tell a story about what happened: a man came up to me after that speech at the broadcasters convention and he said, "Mr. Minow, I didn't think that was a very good speech." And I said, "Well that's all right. You're entitled to your opinion." A few minutes later he came back again. This time he looked a little more depressed and he said, "Mr. Minow," he said, The more I think about that speech was really terrible!" And I said, "Well, that's all right." I said, "I thank you for telling me what you think." Then he came back a third time and this time he really had blood in his eye. And he said, "Mr. Minow, that was the worst speech I have ever heard in my life!" Governor Collins was with me, at that time the president of the National Association of Broadcasters. He put his arm around my shoulder and he said, "Newt," he said, "don't let that bother you," he said, "that fella just repeats everything he hears."
Newton Minow and Studs Terkel [Laughter]
Studs Terkel And thus he heard it, and thus you roused them which, perhaps, is the most important thing. One of the most important things is to have impact and perhaps that's the subject of this conversation. This is based upon a, an excellent book, "Equal Time", and the subtitle--by Newton Minow, and collected by Lawrence, Lawrence--isn't it?
Studs Terkel Larry Lauren, that's right.
Newton Minow And he's the television editor of "The Washington Post".
Studs Terkel "Washington Post."
Newton Minow He's also the chairman of the editorial board, Studs, of the Journal of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Studs Terkel And I know he's a very perceptive critic but a good editor, too, because in it are your speeches made on various occasions and an opening, an opening--an introductory sequence, rather, called "The Barrel without a Bottom". And this is published by Atheneum, and it's certainly worth reading because it's a picture I think of, not only a public, a true public servants view of the most powerful means of mass communication in history but the state of affairs of how we think, too. The subtitle, "The Private Broadcaster and the Public Interest". That's really the key, isn't
Newton Minow Well, that's right. We have as you know a very mixed system of broadcasting in this country. We decided when broadcasting began to take a course which was unlike the course taken in most other countries. In most countries, broadcasting became an operation, really of the government, or of some publicly-financed venture which is typically the BBC in England. In the United States broadcasting began, really before regulation was established and people were in the business, Congress wanted to encourage broadcasters to invest, the business at that time was uncharted and risky. So we hit on the device of licensing broadcasters but requiring in the law that they serve the public rather than the private interest. At the same time, from a broadcaster's point of view, he must earn a profit to stay in business.
Studs Terkel That's true but there's a remarkable discovery: in one of your talks in this book, didn't realize that, when radio first came to be there were no commercials.
Newton Minow No, the original idea of radio was that it would be, perform, the programming would be performed by the manufacturers of radios as a service to the public without any commercials. Commercials developed quite a bit later and when they did, they were very unobtrusive. In fact, there was no hard selling permitted in commercials.
Studs Terkel But they happened accidentally, didn't they? Because then you quote Herbert Hoover, who was then secretary of commerce, condemning the idea, the very thought of commercials.
Newton Minow Oh, yes. He, he thought it would be, as he said, he said, "It would be inconceivable", to quote him, "It would be inconceivable to allow this great medium for public service to be," quote, "drowned in advertising chatter."
Studs Terkel This raises a fascinating question, Mr. Minow. How did this come to be, the circumstances, the nature of it since BBC, we know, BBC as such, we know there's--we know there's commercial television in Britain which has its own problems.
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel But then we know that the, the listener pays each year a certain fee and there are no commercials. Now how did the commercials come to be?
Newton Minow Well, it came about as so many things do: accidentally. Although people like General Sarnoff, one of the pioneers in radio at the time, was against commercials. There were some beginning entrepreneurs in radio who needed a source of revenue in order to be on the air. One broadcaster in the east was approached by a real estate developer who said, "Would you please permit me to have some time on the air to plug my new real estate development?" Well, this fellow was facing bankruptcy and he said, "Well, I'll let you do it," he said, "but you can't really make a hard sell for this." He said, "I'll let you talk about the pleasures of living in the suburbs and talk around the point," which he did. Well, it was such an immediate success. The listeners were so intrigued by the talk that they bought many of the apartments and rented many of the apartments. As a result, the impact of broadcasting as an advertising medium was immediately dramatized to other people and very quickly other broadcasters followed suit.
Studs Terkel And bit by bit, it took over. So it seems the emphasis shifted a bit, that which might have been primarily of public interest became of private interest.
Newton Minow Yes. Now of course I don't think this is all bad or undesirable. What has happened is that we have gone too far in the direction of the commercials. You take this particular station. I happen to be a fan of WFMT. The commercials here are unobtrusive. They don't interrupt the news. They don't jar you out of concentrating on some interesting thing you're listening to whereas in many other stations the commercials become more important than the program.
Studs Terkel This raises a fascinating question. You touched, I think in a very eloquent speech before, I think it was Northwestern. The question, who owns the air? This comes to with a que--Rights and privileges. Now, suppose I'm the devil's advocate.
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel I say to you, "Now look, Mr. Minow, if you don't like a program as we hear so often," someone says, "you can just turn that dial or you can just switch to another channel or turn it off."
Newton Minow Well, I go back to Mr. Hoover, who said, in answer to that very argument 40 years ago, who said there are two parties to freedom of the air. There is the listener and there is the broadcaster. And the listener has got a right to the air as well as the broadcaster. And what has very often happens he doesn't have that much of a choice. Now I don't think that's as true as radio, in radio as it is in television. There, I think radio choice is wider. But the real problem and I think that what the whole argument is about is really a very simple fact. When I was in--and that is the scarcity of channels. When I was in the government I loved when I had the time to speak to conservative business audiences. I loved the challenge of going to them and I'll never forget going to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco which is a very distinguished forum of the West, composed largely of bankers and brokers and financial people, and as I got there I sensed hostility. I sensed a feeling 'what's the Federal Government sticking its long nose into this area of private life? Why is, or why are we now having more interference with free enterprise?' So I tossed away my prepared speech and I simply said, "Gentlemen," I said, "I'd like to give you a few facts of life about the television business." And I said "here are the figures of the four San Francisco television stations. I cannot give them to you individually but they are a matter of public record in the aggregate." And I gave them the figures and it turned out that on an average each station was earning back its investment in full every six months. So I said, "Now gentlemen, now that you know how wonderful the television business is, how many of you would like to go into the television business?" And everyone raised their hand. And I said, "I got news for you." I said, "You can't go in the television business. No matter how much talent you've got. No matter how much money you've got. No matter how much ambition you've got, there's no room for you in the television business. There's only room for four people. They happen to be using public property. Your property. My property. But they got it on a pledge that they would deliver public service." And I said the whole argument is that the government is insisting that that pledge be delivered and after the speech many of them came up to me and I could see that this had gotten through, that for the first time they realized what the whole dispute was about. And it really boils down to that simple unalterable fact, that there is a scarcity of channels. More people want them that can use them and therefore the government has said that--to those lucky few who do use them--they must serve the public rather than the private interests.
Studs Terkel Strange thing: that which is a privilege, and I think this one of your talks which is in the book, that which is a privilege they assume to be a right and a right is unquestioned.
Newton Minow Well, this happens, I think, often not only in broadcasting but I think many scholars have charted the course in the development of regulated business. Usually they follow a similar pattern: a new technological advance produces a new industry. It requires new ground rules. Those who are in it rush to the government to get some rules established, usually to protect themselves against competition. Once this has been accomplished, then, and they become secure and financially stable, then they say, "Well, this is not a privilege anymore, this is now a right, so stop bothering us." So, but these things follow a cycle and I think that's, that's par for the course.
Studs Terkel This other myth, this little legend which so many subscribe, that we're getting something for free, that is, think of all the marvelous performers, the great, we're getting for free, and yet we do--we pay for it in every tube of toothpaste we
Newton Minow Of course you do. And there--well, I don't have to tell you, there's--you get nothing in your life for nothing.
Studs Terkel But the fact that it's, continuously this is this free entertainment comes now to our home, is this part of the advertising budget? Isn't it so? Is this applies to every, every shaving cream, every bar of soap--
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel every soap flake we buy.
Newton Minow Right. Now there's another side to that, of course, and a side to which I understand and I'm sympathetic to: by creating more demand and more information about products, we are able to expand consumption and have a growing economy. So there are benefits as well as disadvantages in this system.
Studs Terkel The question you've always had to face, I imagine, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during those three very, I'm sure, hectic years, memorable ones, is censorship. The head of government. But there is a censorship, isn't it? You point out the censorship of ratings, the censorship of the dollar.
Newton Minow Well, there is. Many broadcasters complain that the government, of course, is censoring. Well, this is in my opinion totally untrue. The government by law is prohibited, I think quite wisely, from censoring programs and doesn't censor programs. There is a censorship in broadcasting. It exists, however, on the part of the broadcasters themselves, very often on the part of their advertising agencies, and of course some of the examples that have come up through the years are silly. Such as the fact that in a, in a program sponsored by the Chrysler automobile company, they refused to allow the name of President Lincoln to be mentioned. The. There are--
Studs Terkel It's the classic case of judgment of Nuremberg.
Newton Minow Judgment of Nuremberg where, where a gas company was the sponsor and where the death in the gas chamber was being portrayed in the concentration camps, they deleted the word "gas". Well, this is, you know, they think the audience are a bunch of fools and that, that they have no intelligence.
Studs Terkel Of course, I should point out that the book is filled with humorous sidelights, aside from the wit of Mr. Minow, the si--the humorous, the humor is unconscious in so many cases and this, and these instances, the non-filtered cigarette company had the villain smoke a filtered cigarette.
Newton Minow Right. My favorite story and it came up at an FCC hearing, Studs, was one by a very talented author, playwright named Robert Alan Aurthur. He was commissioned to adapt the play, "What Makes Sammy Run?" for television and he worked on it and he finished it and it was done in three acts. And the sponsor came to him and said he'd have to do it over and do it in four acts. And he said, "Why?" He said, "You're going to kill the story. You're going to kill the drama. You're gonna kill the whole tempo of it," and they said no, it has to be in four acts because there has to be room for another commercial. And he said, "Well," he said, "you're, you just don't understand," he said, "You are ruining this play", and the agency, the advertising agent, he looked at him and said that, "Don't you think that the commercial is important? Don't you think the Crest story is important?" And Robert Alan Arthur said, "Why don't you just cancel 'What Makes Sammy Run' and announce that next Sunday night you're going to present the Crest story." And then Robert Alan Aurthur said, I'll never forget his words, I think I quote them in the book, he said, "As I looked into their cold, slitted eyes I knew that they thought the Crest story was really more important." [laughter] And then that, that war between the creative people and the advertising people is an eternal one.
Studs Terkel Yes. There's one case you mention here and again when Fred Allen was in flower, and a marvelous flower, too, a call for Philip Morris and the little, of course, this is a familiar voice, that little midget in the immature voice calling for [unintelligible], Allen says, "You've just been drafted," and the sponsor was another cigarette company, he said, "Why not make it call for something else?"
Newton Minow That's right. [unintelligible] and Lucky Strike.
Studs Terkel Didn't quite. Didn't quite-
Studs Terkel Of course, it's this, I don't know, as a battle scarred veteran of commercials, this is, this amazes me. I'm sure you're in, you're aware of this Mr. Minow, the love that is lavished on a commercial. I mean the, the hours, the musicians, the creative, in--on some line that is, aside and might be, aside from being venal is just innocuous and
Newton Minow Well, it is. But let me tell you another side of this, though. You know in Italy, by law commercials must contain a certain percentage of artistic material. They cannot be all pure
Studs Terkel commercial. Really?
Newton Minow There must be a certain amount of artistic material. Furthermore by law in Italy, the commercials are all run consecutively for a 15-minute pro--period on television in the evening. The most popular program in Italian television is that 15-minute period when the commercials are on. That is when the audience really lines up to watch television because the commercials are lively and entertaining, probably better than the programs. So [laughter] it shows you how, how the world changes.
Studs Terkel Mr. Minow, there is another aspect to this, it's fascinating, since you brought up Italy and the European and the foreign point of view: I find out with many visitors from countries what most--what is the most impressive thing of America, the most shocking thing, and they say a commercial coming in at a certain time.
Newton Minow Particularly [there
Studs Terkel You know, you--it's, there's something quite dramatic, quite good on the air, it comes in and completely knocks the whole thing out of
Newton Minow Particularly the news programs. This I find the most offensive to people who, who are not used to it. Where the announcer comes on and he says there's been a terrible, terrible tragedy today and I'll tell you about it after I tell you about the new commercial for this deodorant. Well this is, particularly for people from England and Europe, it is, it is intolerable.
Studs Terkel Well, this must, I'm thinking of the, the impact of this, the eventual impact, it must do something to our values. It must make the comment by the newscaster of less value, less importance than it really
Newton Minow Well, I have seen and I'm sure you have to when you watch even a presidential news conference on television and within two seconds before and after you'll find a commercial which is very often in questionable taste and you wonder, you know, what kind of a society this is that permits that.
Studs Terkel Another aspect of censorship that you, you hit--you hit, always, your target--the question: the nature of ratings and there's something, the flaw in it. That is they think of a number and you raise the question what about the impact upon a person? That's never rated ever.
Newton Minow No, and it isn't. All, all that's counted, really, are the number of sets on without attention to who's listening or paying or who's out of the room or paying any attention and so on. The real thing about the ratings to me is not whether they're accurate. I'm willing to pass that issue by. The real question to me is what use do you put to the ratings even assuming that they're accurate? Do you slavishly, continuously follow the ratings? The classic example of that, I think, is a television program on some years ago called Playhouse 90 which was an attempt to provide some serious drama on television. Something like 18 million people watched it every week. But something like 21 million people watched something else. So the result was that those 18 million people who loved Playhouse 90 found Playhouse 90 no longer on the air. This is the tragedy of the ratings system and it is not the ratings themselves but the, the use and the fact that they become a crutch for people in broadcasting rather than using their own judgment.
Studs Terkel Completely ignoring this minority that is huge by anybody's standards of other centuries, millions,
Newton Minow More than, well, you can imagine but that's nothing if more millions, a few more millions are on the other side. Now again, I seem to be quoting General Sarnoff but he told me a story once that made a deep impression on me when he was running the NBC radio network in the early days. He happened to love good music and he insisted that Sunday afternoon that the Philharmonic would be on the air with Stokowski and he's told me that he'd go to an NBC board meeting month after month and they'd practically throw rocks at him. They'd say, "What are you doing? This is costing us thousands of dollars and nobody's listening. It's a disgrace and it's expensive." He said, "I don't care. I want it on the air." And he kept it on the air despite its cost. Well the result of that was that millions of Americans were exposed to good music for the first time who never would have heard it otherwise. And because of that, because of the fact they were exposed to it, they grew to love it. And this is--going by the ratings that never would have happened.
Studs Terkel That's true, and since you quote--this is marvelous--since you quote General Sarnoff, I suppose I must quote his son, head of a network, who says "We give the people"--this is during the time of the great [unintelligible]--"We give the people what they want." And here you raise a point in one of your talks in this book, "Equal Time", of responsibility, nations' needs as against nations' whims. "We give the people what they want."
Newton Minow I don't think anyone really knows what the people want. No one can really know what the people want until the people are given a choice. There's, the classic statement is, you know, a person living in China loves rice because he's never tasted steak. He doesn't know what he wants because he's never had the, the options to try something new. I think that broadcasting is the greatest medium we've ever developed to give people an insight, an opportunity to find out what they want by exposing them to a wide range of
Studs Terkel And isn't there a matter of, I hate to use this word, conditioning, but certainly environment, just as you say a while back, you spoke of Sarnoff's experience and people, despite opposition in hearing something that is good, at the opposite of Gresham's Law, you speak of the horror here of Gresham's law that the bad, appealing to the low common denominator, putting the good out of existence, that the reverse may be the case, too--
Newton Minow Very often true. I agree with that. The, this goes back, of course, to reconciling the requirement to earn a profit in the business and at the same time to be serving all needs of the public. I come back to this station: this station, I think when it began some 13 years ago, would have been given about a million to one odds of being successful. Here was a station that was devoting itself to serving only a part of the audience that was interested in fine arts and most broadcasters would have said, "What a crazy bunch of nuts to try this. They're going to lose their shirts." Well, the opposite has proved true because of a consistent dedication to excellence and we find that it is not only an artistic but a commercial success. Now that just seems to prove what I'm talking
Studs Terkel This, I must point out, this is a wholly unsolicited commercial.
Newton Minow Well, that's [laughter] We don't count that as
Studs Terkel But you just said something that's rather significant, I think, Mr. Minow, that it can be, if only one way the telecasters or the AM broadcasters can, you see, that it can, that there is a hunger. There is obviously a hunger. It may be a minority but it is far, far larger than they think
Newton Minow and It's growing all the time. That's right. And it, not only is it growing numerically but in each one of us, each individual, there is some of this and, and the point is that each one of us should have an opportunity to have that development.
Studs Terkel Yeah. I must tell you this. This is, take just little time, during the days of, my soap opera days as a gangster in soap operas who is getting killed, worked for an agency, and one day said, suppose, suppose and see what you think of this Mr. Minow, Suppose somebody tried instead of "Ma Perkins", "John's Other Wife", "Betty and Bob", "A Road of Life", "Guiding Light", name them, "Backstage Wife", somebody put on a romantic book, but something good, say "Wuthering Heights" or Jane Austen or something of Willa Cather. People--I'm talking about womanly appeal now--
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel If it were done I know the rating of that show would drop, that would be lower than the others the first year. But suppose ALL of them did that and in ten years time something indeed might happen to the taste of that inner feeling and hunger of the, of the housewives?
Newton Minow Unquestionably. And I think that, I think the ratings would not drop as dramatically as you think if they were well done. Unfortunately many intellectuals, and this is true even today almost 20 years after the invention of the medium, many intellectuals still turn their nose up at television, just arbitrarily say it's no good. And as a result many artistic efforts don't even get tried in television. Television, to me, more than radio, can provide an elevating experience in taste because people respond to it. Take the Hallmark program which is a good, a good example. That gets a sizable audience. It is not the same kind of audience that watches, let's say the "Beverly Hillbillies", but it is still--
Studs Terkel Millions
Newton Minow More people watching it than ever watched that sort of thing before.
Studs Terkel Well, this leads to a question--
Newton Minow [a
Studs Terkel It's a delicate and a sad one--not delicate, it's sad at the moment: the state of educational television. Now we come to that, I know that you've been a fighter, here again there are several sequences in the book, "Equal Time", fighting for its status, also for its financial standing. The idea of subsidy, governmental subsidy. Yet, at the moment it's a little rough, ET the, I understand and, not only in Chicago but all over there has been a cutting down [and it's?] great difficulty.
Newton Minow Well, it's getting better, Studs. I'm on the board of the National Educational Television Network and thanks to the generosity of the Ford Foundation we now have more funds than ever before. It's still not nearly enough to do a quality job. I have the feeling that educational television too often, even though I'm a great proponent of it, too often is pedantic and dull and lacks flair and lacks excitement.
Studs Terkel Entertainment.
Newton Minow Yes, that's right. And that's because many teachers are not at home in the medium. But I think you're finding a marriage, slowly, of the entertainment arts, the broadcasting arts, with the educational people and I would say over the next five, 10 years, you're going to see considerable improvement.
Studs Terkel You, yourself, made quite a suggestion here. I think, I believe it was to David Brinkley during one of the interviews, a suggestion you had for a history program that's quite astonishing [and exciting?]. Would you mind telling us, for ETV [unintelligible].
Newton Minow Well, I, I had an idea. I spoke to President Kennedy about it once. I had an idea that, of course subsequent events have changed it all, but at that time we had four living American presidents which is a rare thing in American history. At that time President Hoover, President Eisenhower, President Truman, President Kennedy were all living. And I had suggested that the four of them might get together for educational television in one program and discuss the presidency, the meaning of American history, to launch a new series in American history. By coincidence of the four presidents there were two of each party and they spanned 40 years in the American presidential office. And I thought that these four would be an historic event and that this would be the first program in a series. That the series would then be a great course in American history.
Studs Terkel With historians like Henry Steele Commager
Newton Minow Right. And using film and using still pictures and using actors [unintelligible] to portray a great series of events and to do this in cooperation with some distinguished groups such as the American Association of Historians to give it an imprimatur of academic respectability and to run it on the educational stations not just once but to run the same program every night so that if you were going to the PTA one night or listening to WFMT or going bowling you hadn't missed the civil war, you'd have five cracks at it. And for those people who were serious and wanted academic credit they could be obtained through taking an examination through a local university. For those who weren't that motivated they could get a certificate at the end saying they watched all 26 half hours of American history. Well I thought that this was one great project that could be undertaken. I still think it should be. Actually, if you've seen on television this year the new program, "Profiles in Courage", this is the sort of thing I'm talking about except on a, there it's done on a more limited basis. I still think this should be done. I think it could be timeless. It could be run over and over and over again year after year, it could be shown around the world to give people around the world a conception of what our, our heritage is.
Studs Terkel This, of course, is untapped, obviously, the possibilities for--I hate to use the word 'education'--that's a word that's been, you know, associated with the pedantic, enlightenment and, really, the wild adventure of knowledge is, it's untapped as far as TV is concerned.
Newton Minow It is. It's getting better. I mean, it's such a great thrill. When I was at the FCC of course it was a terribly exciting time because of the ferment in technology. I was there when the first Telstar satellite was launched and the other month when I saw the Olympics opening live from Japan and saw the opening of the ecumenical conference in Rome live on television I thought what a time this is for all of us to be--
Studs Terkel Yes.
Newton Minow Learning and about each other and drawing closer together and I think the medium can do that--
Studs Terkel Yes.
Newton Minow In no other w--as no other way can
Studs Terkel With just a little less emphasis on the cute little girl who may or may not be had by that very cute boy if they smoke a certain brand of cigarettes.
Newton Minow [laughter]
Studs Terkel And here this [waits for us?]
Newton Minow Oh,
Studs Terkel There's something that, children's programs, again another suggestion of yours that I guess we could call revolutionary, of course, it hasn't been done. You spoke of a very exciting children's program in which all networks cooperated so that none of these 'aw geez, I might lose my rating.' Now would you mind explaining that a bit?
Newton Minow Well, I suggested, I had talked to Bob Kennedy about it, who was then the attorney general, because the networks fear that if they did combine in a joint effort that they might be violating the antitrust law and he promised that he would give them a clearance on some sensible plan if the three networks would join together and rotate, let's say two days a week, and each on those two days would do a really distinguished children's program. I had suggested they do it around the hour prior to the dinner hour when so many mothers are busy anyway and this would be a great thing at the close of school for youngsters. This is done in many countries. This is done in England where they have a fine program for children. Well, the networks were not interested in doing it together. However, some of them did go ahead on their own and then proceeded, two of them, to run their programs simultaneously [laughter] at the same time on Saturday--
Studs Terkel A program called "Discovery" came out
Newton Minow "Discovery" came out of it and "Exploring" which I'm proud to say the Encyclopedia Britannica later sponsored.
Studs Terkel By the way you are, I should point out to identify, Newton Minow, for three years Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, now vice president with the Encyclopedia
Newton Minow The Encyclopedia Britannica. Right, Studs.
Studs Terkel And there's another challenge I think you've undertaken, am I right?
Newton Minow [laughter]
Studs Terkel With the Curtis Publishing Company which
Newton Minow Well, I'm trying to help them at the moment. We have many friends at Curtis, at the Britannica, and I've been asked to assist in trying to find some solutions for Curtis' problems. So I'm leading kind of a busy life
Studs Terkel That seems like a challenge almost as tangled as TV.
Newton Minow Well, it is in a way but Curtis has many opportunities as well as problems and I think, I think they'll be resolved.
Studs Terkel The name of the book is "Equal Time," and of course naturally the, the immediate association in the minds of listeners, "Equal Time" would involve campaigns, elections, candidates, and here again the candidates have been paying for time. We've heard all sorts of controversy about this, you know
Newton Minow The other day I saw a rerun on television of one of the Kennedy-Nixon debates and at the very end, then Senator Kennedy and then Vice President Nixon, each thanked the networks profusely for providing this gift of time. And I thought to myself what a topsy, turvy thing this is. Here are candidates for president of the United States thanking the networks for giving them back something that the public owns.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Here we go again.
Newton Minow This is a real twist because the time it seemed--now this is one of my basic views in this book: we're shortly going to arrive, if we haven't already, at a situation where candidates for political office will either have to be one of two things: either very wealthy themselves or in hock to certain interests, special interests of business or labor or something or other, to finance the costs of campaigning which is largely due to the high cost of television time. And I think what we should do is have a minimal amount of time made available free to the major candidates for a period of, let's say, a month before the election.
Studs Terkel You say to the major candidates and I'd raise another question now: What about minority candidates?
Newton Minow Well, this is where the whole argument about section 315, the so-called equal time provision, really gets tangled. I don't think we can or should exclude the rights of minority candidates. After all when you remember that Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were both third-party candidates when they were elected to the presidency you become very aware of the fact that you cannot limit this country to only the two parties having access to the air. In England they are able to do this, Canada they are able to do this by allocating to the minority parties some lesser amount of time in ratio roughly to the amount of votes they got before or to the number of people signing petitions for them and I think this is sort
Studs Terkel A matter of pro-rating then could work but free time is the point you're emphasizing
Newton Minow I think it must be that way. And I think it, it--we're going to have to face up to this before too much longer.
Studs Terkel You know, Mr. Minow, I'm looking at the clock there, I know that you have several involvements but there's a few more questions to
Newton Minow Sure, Studs, go ahead.
Studs Terkel The matter of public participation. We sit by. A man says 'well there's nothing I can do about it' and yet throughout you mention the fact that when it comes to license renewals there's something that the viewer, the listener can
Newton Minow No question. We put in a system at the FCC where now stations announce on the air to their audiences, to their listeners and their viewers when their license is up for renewal and specifically request that if there is a listener or viewer who thinks that the station has or hasn't been doing a good job and he wants to register his view, it tells him how. When I was at the FCC the thing that baffled me the most is that I fought very hard to have renewal hearings when they were held, held in the home community of the station because that's the where you find the people who know whether the station's been doing a good job, not in Washington. I found broadcasters wanted to have those hearings held in the small, hard-to-find back rooms in the office of the Federal Communications Commission as if they were hiding from their audience and yet they would then complain that the federal government was reaching in its long nose from Washington, when we wanted to go to the local community where the people involved had a direct access. But this is just a difference in point of view. I think that the audience has an enormous influence if it will only express itself. If it will realize that it can, by letters, by phone calls, and letters to sponsors are perhaps even the most effective thing of all. If a hundred letters to a sponsor--thoughtful letters, reflective letters--can very often make an impact on the minds of those who decide what we see in the air.
Studs Terkel Thoughtful letters to sponsors. Of course this again raises so many questions. Why this needs be done. Often a letter comes and I don't want to sound too derogatory, a letter from someone semi-literate or someone of a particular group in which, and we know in the horrible past not too long actors were bounced off the
Newton Minow Sure.
Studs Terkel The blacklist period. One, two letters. Postcards did the trick.
Newton Minow I think that's behind us now. What I--I think a crank letter or a letter without thought is recognized for what it
Studs Terkel It is. This is a question to ask--[crosstalk] I know much has
Newton Minow It certainly is recognized at the FCC. We don't pay any attention to 'em. But when you get a letter from someone who, and you can tell who's genuinely sat down and thought about it, that is the one that makes an impact.
Studs Terkel So thoughtful letters to sponsors you say.
Newton Minow And sponsors and stations and the FCC, too.
Studs Terkel We haven't discussed the nature of the FCC itself. For years, it was an organization, one of the arms of the government, the FCC, yet little known. Yet you came along and suddenly made us aware, the opening chapter [of your book?] called "The Barrel Without a Bottom". The work that is done, the--for that matter, you, gave us that dollar rate
Newton Minow Well, actually I was more pleased with, with that than anything else, Studs. The FCC regulates interstate telephone rates which is a massive responsibility. And while I was there we were able to put into effect a reduction in interstate telephone rates so that you can now call for one dollar at a maximum anywhere in the United States after 9 o'clock. Now the FCC the other day you may have noticed has just extended that on. So it will now be 8 o'clock, 8:00p.m. and also all day Sunday where
Studs Terkel Oh, really? You mean it--only a dollar?
Studs Terkel To call anywhere in the country after 8:00 o'clock?
Newton Minow That's right. Now a dollar is, is going from, let's say Florida to the state of Washington or from California to the state of Maine, that's the most it can cost. And this will be in effect all day Sunday. It will be in effect at 8:00p.m. every night. And I think that's a tremendous step forward. What we tried to do there, with the great dispersion of families in this country, there are very few families who today don't have a relative or a loved one living halfway across the country someplace. This is a great boon, I think, to them. So
Studs Terkel So this is the recognition of a reality. The fact that there's been this spreading out.
Newton Minow Right.
Newton Minow And from the telephone companies' point of view, I think it has produced new business for them because these lines very often were relatively unused and idle at those hours.
Studs Terkel I know this is outside the jurisdiction of FCC, and Mr. Minow, anything can be done about digit dialing?
Newton Minow [laughter]
Studs Terkel I know there are a number of anti-digit dialing societies being formed in the country. I'd like to join one. [unintelligible]
Newton Minow Fortunately this is one outside of the [bailiwick?] of the FCC.
Studs Terkel One or two more questions, Mr. Minow. The phrase itself, FCC, public interest, convenience, and necessity came to play,
Newton Minow Well, this again was an accident, as so many things are in history. When the first law regulating broadcasting was being written and the guidelines were being searched for, senator Dill, who at that time was the chairman of the Senate committee dealing with this matter had a young man working for him and they were bewildered by the complexity of the new technology. And Senator Dill said to this young man, "Find me a standard that I can use." And this young man had come from the Interstate Commerce Commission which regulated transportation, railroads. And he came back and he said "Well," he said, "the words public interest convenience, and necessity are in the Interstate Commerce Act." And Senator Dill said, "Well, that sounds pretty good to me." And that's how history is made. The trouble with that is that those are the words of utility regulation where a utility's rates and service and everything else is set. And as a result we have mixed, really, two concepts which are in a sense contradictory by putting them into a business which is also competitive.
Studs Terkel Think of the word, though, "public interest", now perhaps if we just think of those words quietly and slowly now: "public interest."
Newton Minow That's the, that's the key.
Studs Terkel Convenience. Whose convenience?
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel Necessity. Necessity. Whose again? And the time-
Newton Minow Right.
Studs Terkel As we come to the key phrases. Oh, one--the press. I know what it was. Often, too, they say, "Well, you, it's like hampering the free press," and you point out the big difference between TV, radio, and the press.
Newton Minow Well, it is anybody who has the money and the desire can go in the newspaper business. That's all he needs is those two things. But in the broadcasting business there's something else needed and that is access to a public facility which is limited in number. And that is really the whole point. But a lot of people don't want to accept that. You know, whenever there is a tough issue on free speech in broadcasting, and they come up periodically, and almost always it's because someone who has an unpopular point of view has said something on the air. Whenever that comes up it is the government that is in the business of defending the right of free speech. We had that on a radio station called the Pacifica Foundation while I was at the FCC where it was the government who said free speech is what controls on the air. I'll never forget the time there was a cause celeb while I was at the FCC when one day one of the networks did a documentary about Mr. Nixon and Jim Haggerty was running it at that time at ABC and Alger Hiss was put on to give his point of view and my office the next day the switchboard was like a Christmas tree with people complaining about how could Alger Hiss be allowed to speak on the air. Why didn't we take away their license? Well it was the government that said that as long as all points of view were expressed, as long as Mr. Nixon and, would be given a chance to answer, that all the government was concerned about was fairness. It was not concerned with censoring or stopping anyone from speaking. But it's the government there that defends the right of free speech.
Studs Terkel I think this can't be overemphasized too much, Mr. Minow, this point you say about pressures that, so often it seems the pressures that always come from a particular kind of group, you know, that would in truth censor the expression of all opinions and what we're asking for is people to merely say everyone has a right to speak, it's the thoughtful
Newton Minow To speak and the government's only concern, really is, is that all differing points of view get a chance to get on and that out of this conflict, out of this choice in the marketplace of ideas, that people will make up their own minds.
Studs Terkel And that which happens is exciting, of course, also there are too many things to point out now in your work here, the danger of the banality, the insipidity of some programs, that insipidness that some of the adolescents watch is it doesn't harm, it doesn't do, it doesn't do good or harm, yet it does harm, does it
Newton Minow Well, it wastes them, it--
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] That's the harm,
Newton Minow That's the waste. A lot of people think that some of the violence causes juvenile delinquency. I don't go along with that. I think that what it does, however, is to, is to deny them the chance to use the time constructively. You know, one of the most astonishing things about television, one that I think about a great deal, children under 12 in this country on an average spend more time with a television set than they do with a teacher. More time with a television set than they do with a teacher. And when you realize that and when you realize the responsibility that imposes upon this industry in shaping and nurturing those minds then I think you come to realize that this has got to be something different than just an ordinary business.
Studs Terkel Of course, I think you point out this is the fourth great influence, aside from church, home, and school, there's the fourth.
Newton Minow Bob Kennedy told me that when I came down to Washington, he said most people thought there were three great influences on a child: the home, the church, and the school, and he said "There is now fourth and it's television" and I think it's true.
Studs Terkel One last question, Newton Minow: three years and they were obviously very rewarding, rich, they were not dull years for you,
Newton Minow They were exciting, Studs.
Studs Terkel Impact. This is the last question: What do you feel the impact of your stewardship has been there on the men who have the power, if the public doesn't assert it, the broadcast telecasters, the sponsors, the impact?
Newton Minow Well, I was determined it was my purpose to disturb their sleep. I felt that in the flush of a very quick and very enormous financial success that a jarring note was needed to remind them, to jab them if it were, with the reminder that their obligation was to perfor--to provide public service as well as private profit, to remind them that this was a privilege and not a right. And remind them that the law here was a very wise one and was going to be enforced. And that's what I set out to do. I think, hopefully as you said at the beginning of the program, it has created a further discussion and a further thoughtful reappraisal of it. It'll never be finished, it'll never be done, but I think that it has been a useful thing to get people talking and thinking about it.
Studs Terkel I think that's probably it, Mr. Minow, Newton Minow. And though you have left the FCC, I think this particular, it's [as though? all?] a relay, you've handed the baton now to the public and public dialogue is involved and the listener himself does have more power than he thinks. And the book is "Equal Time" and the subtitle, "A Private Broadcaster, Public Interest". Newton Minow, the author, Atheneum, the publishing house, and it's a quite valuable and rewarding book to read and entertaining, too. Disturbing. At the same time it has a note of hope to it providing we, we take that cue. Newton Minow, thank you very much indeed.
Newton Minow Studs, thank you. I really enjoyed it immensely.