I remember seeing TV for the first time, a Boston Red Sox game, black and white and grainy. This was about 1956 or 1957. In memory it seems like a daguerreotype.
We did not own a television then, but if one did, reception was poor and the stations were only on the air part of the time. Imagine that. At night, the stations broadcast an image of a flag waving in the breeze on the screen and a military band played the national anthem. After that, there was only a test pattern. It was sort of like a bull’s-eye, and the TV made a buzzing noise. After that: silence.
Silence only happens now when the power goes out.
Americans love an anniversary. We are a sentimental people. So this spring let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears and remember that May 9 is the 50th anniversary of what is known as “the wasteland speech.” On this date the magnificently named Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, swam against the tide when he called television programming “a vast wasteland.”
What was on the boob tube then?
“Perry Mason” and “Leave It To Beaver.” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Father Knows Best.” “My Three Sons.” “Rawhide.” “Wagon Train.” “Cheyenne.” “The Rifleman.” “Dennis the Menace” and “Lassie.” “The Lawrence Welk Show” and “The Red Skelton Show.” “The Flintstones” and “Bonanza.”
Minow’s intentions may have been for the best, and those shows may not be the stuff of Shakespeare or Dickens or Jane Austen, but we were still a fair pull from a wasteland. In 1961 it was as if William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker were writing for the small screen. There was no reality TV back then because every American had his or her own reality.
We now have the real vast wasteland Minow worried about: Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “Jersey Shore” and “Biggest Loser” and “I Used To Be Fat” and “Kourtney and Kim Take New York.” Imagine how sick and twisted TV would be if they remade the shows of 1961 to today’s standards? Imagine what might happen to Lassie. Do you think Lassie was ever fat? Dennis the Menace? Dennis would be a real menace. Meanwhile, back at the Ponderosa, the Cartwrights’ spread on “Bonanza,” imagine some sort of survivalist thing going. Maybe a little “Big Love” meets “Survivor”? Perhaps bestiality? Whoa.
I don’t have a wildly expensive cable package and I cannot tell you, even after trying to figure it out, exactly how many channels I get. Hundreds? And yet most of the time there is nothing to watch and it seems the vast wasteland just gets vaster every year. I saw “The Third Man” on TV the other night. It featured Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard and a zither! And it was quite good— but it was written by the great British novelist Graham Greene 62 years ago. They don’t make them like that any more? I’ll say. It was in black and white. There was no sex and little violence.
Of course I could have watched “Dog The Bounty Hunter” or “Whacked Out Sports,” featuring midgets fighting bulls. Or “World’s Oldest Conjoined Twins Move Home” or “Say Yes To The Dress” or “Ice Road Truckers.” Well, that’s show biz.
As for news, there is actually very little to be found. CNN is pure prattle. The other stations that purport to offer news peddle instead rancid and crazed commentary by people who have no sense of shame. On the Weather Channel, instead of weather reports, you’re treated to videos of mentally disturbed hillbillies in pickup trucks who decide to “chase” a tornado. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Most of what is on television now is indefensible. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Maury Povich. This is a program that consists of a sad assortment of poor people, black and white, although most are black. The specialty of the house is domestic depravity or who’s the daddy? Maury’s merry men use DNA and lie detector tests to find out who is the real father of Shawanda or Brianna’s baby. Sometimes stupendously fat folks or their children are on the show, but infidelity is the plat du jour. You can actually buy pink and blue onesies that say, “I Met My Daddy on Maury.”
An audience of mutants like something out of the “Thunderdome” howls during the entire show. I do not use the word depraved lightly. This is as exploitive and terrible and cruel as TV can get. It makes “Cops” and “Operation Repo” and “Swamp Loggers” and “Cash Cab” seem like reruns of “Northanger Abbey” or “Bleak House.”
Brother Minow would’ve had to have been on peyote to have imagined such things.