Deconstructing Pop Culture

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The Minow and the Whale

September 25th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

A. Minow’s Speech

Like a latter-day Mr. Peabody, let us jump into our time machine, and traverse back to 1961, when Newton Minow, who just had been appointed as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) by John F. Kennedy, gave a speech before the National Ass’n of Broadcasters [reprinted at 55 Fed. Comm. Law J. 395 (2003)]. He lambasted the television industry, characterizing television programming as a “vast wasteland.” Because he began by citing what he perceived to be the television industry’s relative prosperity, it is clear Minow’s critique adopts an economic perspective. However, his main objective was to focus attention on “the public interest,” one of the FCC’s principal regulatory mandates, 47 U.S.C. §151. In fact, the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, sets forth the phrase “public interest” a total of 103 times.

By contrasting “vast wasteland” with “public interest,” Minow intended not only to define one of the primary regulatory concerns of his administration, but also to induce action on the part of the broadcast community, to migrate towards what he thought were more noble and altruistic concerns.

B. Parsing the “Vast Wasteland”

We previously examined John Ruskin’s argument for what might be called “objective aesthetic criteria” (see “Wrestling with Ruskin,” a previous post). As with Ruskin, we need to examine Minow’s argument thoroughly, as there is a great deal that is puzzling in what he says. [Cites hereafter are to 55 Fed. Comm. Law J. 395 (2003).

1. The purpose of the FCC is to “enforce the law in the public interest,” 396.

2. The FCC’s purpose is not “to muzzle or censor broadcasting,” 396, 401.

3. The public interest is not “merely what interests the public,” 396, 402.

4. The public interest is made up of many interests, all of which must be served, 400.

5. In order to serve the public interest, broadcasting “must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel * * *; the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people * * *,” 396.

6. In addition to being mandated by law, serving the public interest is important because of the pressures of current events; advances in technological knowledge; and broadcasting’s cultural impact, 397. It influences children, 399. Broadcasting should assume a “leadership” role, like newspapers and magazines, 397.

7. This being so, what criteria may be used to distinguish programming “not in the public interest,” from programming that “is in the public interest”?

8. Not in the public interest: It is “complacent,” “unbalanced.” It “debases” the people, 397. “[W]hen [it] is bad, nothing is worse,” 398. It is in “low” taste, 399. It comprises “endless hours of mediocrity” and “moments of public disgrace,” 405. It is sterile, imitative, conformist, mediocre, 405. It has “mass-market appeal required by mass-product advertisers,” 404. It “squander[s] the public’s airwaves,” 401. It is more concerned with “costs per thousand” rather than “understanding per millions,” 402.

Examples: action-adventure programs and situation comedies, 397; “game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western badmen, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials – many screaming, cajoling and offending,” 398; “action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz and movies,” 398; Westerns, 400; programs of “Western badmen and good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting,” 404; programs about private eyes, 400; programming that “communicate[s] relaxation,” 400; programming that “cater[s] to the nation’s whims,” 400; programming that results from “a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator,” 400; and, old movies, 403. With respect to childrens’ programming: “massive doses of cartoons, violence and more violence,” 399.

9. In the public interest: It is “intelligent,” 397; it “enriches” the people, 397; “[w]hen [it] is good, * * * nothing is better,” 398; behind it are “the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination,” 399; it exemplifies the people’s “good sense and good taste;” 399; it is imaginative; creative; experimental; excellent, 405; it “appeal[s] to more limited markets and to special tastes,” 404; it comprises program materials that “enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society,” 404; it addresses “the special needs of children, * * * community responsibility, * * * the advancement of education and culture,” 404; it comprises “educational, religious, instructive or other public service programming,” 402; and, it is “more concerned with understanding per millions” rather than with “costs per thousand,” 402. With respect to childrens’ programming, its role is “to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge [their] capacities * * *,” 399.

Examples: “The Fabulous Fifties,” the “Fred Astaire Show,” the “Bing Crosby Special,” Conrad’s “Victory” and “Twilight Zone,” “The Nation’s Future,” “CBS Reports,” “The Valiant Years,” 397; symphonies, 400; programming that “communicate[s] ideas,” 400; programming that “serve[s] the nation’s needs,” 400; “Victory at Sea,” the Army-McCarthy hearings, “Peter Pan,” the “Kraft Theater,” a program called “See It Now,” a program called “Project 20,” the World Series, broadcasts of political conventions, campaigns and debates, 405; public-service programming, 403; educational programming, 401; programs serving local needs “as to local elections, controversial issues, local news, local talent,” 402; and, informational programs, 403. With respect to children, “programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands * * * a children’s news show explaining something about the world to them at their level of understanding * * * reading the great literature of the past, teaching them the great traditions of freedom,” 399.

10. Broadcasters’ responsibility to the public interest “cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television,” 404. “The people own the air. They own it as much in prime evening time as they do at 6 o’clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something,” 400.

11. Why is so much of television so bad? “[D]emands of your advertisers; competition for ever higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material,” 398.

12. Ratings indicate only that some people have their television sets turned on and what channels they’re watching. Ratings are a “dictatorship of numbers,” 403. They do not tell us what the public might watch if they were offered additional choices, 398. They do not measure “intensity of reaction,” 399. Under many circumstances, ratings should have little influence – for example, where children are concerned, 399.

13. Ratings also present a puzzle, in that if broadcasters only presented programming shown as demanded by ratings, it is not clear it would continue to be demanded. “[I]f some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience,” 400. By analogy, “the news is still on the front page of all newspapers, the editorials are not replaced by more comics, the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn,” even though these are their most “popular” features, 399.

14. Broadcast content (and the public interest) therefore should not be determined by ratings or the popularity of any given show vis-à-vis another, 400.

15. Rather, broadcasters “must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives,” 400.

16. Advertisers will come around to this new regimen. Tell your advertisers, “This is the high quality we are going to serve – take it or other people will. If you think you can find a better place to move automobiles, cigarettes and soap – go ahead and try,” 402.

17. “The people” have good sense and good taste, 399.

18. The peoples’ “taste” is not as “low” as broadcasters assume, 399. “The people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcasters – and politicians – think,” 400.

19. While it is true that people “would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed,” 400, present programming is not aimed accurately at the public taste, 398.

20. One reason why is the “concentration of power in the hands of the networks. As a result, too many local stations have foregone any efforts at local programming, with little use of live talent and local service,” 402.

21. As a corollary, “[M]ost of television’s problems stem from lack of competition,” 404. Thus, presumably, if there were more stations (particularly in the UHF spectrum), there would be “a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives” (from Step 15).

22. Television will thrive on this competition, 404.

C. A Problem for Minow

Where to start with all of this? To me, it really is astonishing that a public figure in this day and age, like Minow, was able to say these things, yet not confront serious challenge, if not from those in favor of the First Amendment, then at least from those members of the group with even a modest background in analytical philosophy. Minow states that his purpose is not to “muzzle” broadcasting, Step 3. Yet, all he offers for criteria to distinguish “in the public interest” from “not in the public interest,” Step 7, is a slippery slope of vague and poorly-defined words, Step 8 and Step 9. Surely this state of indeterminacy might be sufficient to deter even the most courageous broadcaster from airing a potentially controversial program, thus prospectively “muzzling” shows that, on margin, could go either way. Those criteria that exist are not susceptible to precise definition; and there always is the danger that additional criteria might pop up on an extemporaneous, improvisatory basis.

Furthermore, it is far from clear whether his illustrative references support his criteria; for example, shows such as “The Fabulous Fifties,” the “Fred Astaire Show” and the “Bing Crosby Special” conscionably could be described as “complacent,” “sterile,” “conformist,” “mediocre,” and in “low taste.”

Nor is it clear that either his criteria, or his examples, remain timely. Ironically, the very period Minow condemned as a “vast wasteland” now is referred to as part of the “golden age of television,” Spigel, L., “From Domestic Space to Outer Space: the 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Family Sit-Com” in Penley, C., Lyon, E., Spigel, L. and Bergstrom, J. (eds.), Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction (1991). Shows such as “Bewitched” and Mod Squad” are dissected as paradigms of 1960’s culture. An entire cable network – Nickelodeon, owned by Viacom – is devoted to showing re-runs of programming long thought to be obsolete.

More serious than these objections, however, is Minow’s appeal to the intrinsic worthwhile-ness of certain specific categories of aesthetic works, as epitomizing cultural values in the “public interest.” Minow avers the public interest is not merely what interests the public, Step 3. Without getting bogged down in semantics, what then is it? We know it cannot be determined by ratings, Step 14. If not by ratings, then by what, or more propitiously, by whom? The answer is clear – it is Minow’s taste for symphonies, “Peter Pan,” public-service programming, educational programming and informational programs, etc. that matters.

D. Minow’s Preferences

This logic is disturbingly familiar; in truth and fact, Minow is a latter-day Ruskin. Minow believes that programs have what we might call an “intrinsic characteristic,” which is that they either are in the public interest, or they aren’t. I would like to suggest, as with Ruskin, that this is another example of the naturalistic fallacy, in application.

Imagine that a program (“P”) has the following aesthetic attributes (“AA,”) among others:

1. {There are people riding horses}.

2. {The program’s locale is the western part of the U.S.}.

3. {Some of the people riding the horses are good (or at least the producers of the program invite the audience to perceive them as good}.

4. {Some of the people riding the horses are bad (or at least the producers of the program invite the audience to perceive them as bad}.

5. {There is blood and thunder, violence and murder}.

6. {On occasion, the bad men shoot at the good men, and vice versa}.

7. {On occasion, in-between the shooting, the bad men and the good men punch each other in the jaw}.

8. {At various interludes, there are commercials, some of which are screaming, cajoling and offending}.

n. {AA} ∈ P.

From P = {AA1, …, AA8, …, AAn}, Minow then concludes:

P ≠ {“public interest”}.

Yet, there is nothing in {AA1, …, AA8, …, AAn} that even weakly infers such a conclusion.

Furthermore, it seems clear that Minow wants to arrogate unto himself the power to determine what is in the public interest. We know several things about Minow’s taste. For example, if Minow is “M”, then we might say:

1. {action-adventure programs} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

2. {situation comedies} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

3. {variety, quiz and game shows} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

4. {audience participation shows} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

5. {formula comedies about totally unbelievable families ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}

6. {programs with blood, thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism or murder} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

7. {Westerns} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

8. {detective shows} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

9. {cartoons} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

10. {commercials} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

11. {old movies} ≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

n. {AA}≠ {AP | AP ∈ M}.

We also know:

12. {“The Fabulous Fifties”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

13. {The “Fred Astaire Show”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

14. {The “Bing Crosby Special”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

15. {Conrad’s “Victory” and “Twilight Zone”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

16. {“The Nation’s Future”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

17. {“CBS Reports”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

18. {“The Valiant Years”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

19. {symphonies} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

20. {“Victory at Sea”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

21. {the Army-McCarthy hearings} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

22. {“Peter Pan”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

23. {the “Kraft Theater”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

24. {“See It Now”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

25. {“Project 20”} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

26. {the World Series} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

27. {broadcasts of political conventions, campaigns and debates} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

28. {public-service programming} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

29. {educational programming} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

30. {local programs} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

31. {informational programs} = {AP | AP ∈ M}.

n. {AA}= {AP | AP ∈ M}.

But there is no basis for Minow then to infer that

M{AP1, …, AP31, …, APn} = SG{AP1, …, APn}

Or even

M{AP1, …, AP31, …, APn} ≅ SG{AP1, …, APn}.

So, when he says that “[t]he people have good sense and good taste” (Step 17) and “[t]he people’s taste is not as low as broadcasters assume” (Step 18), what Minow really is saying is that “the people,” broadly understood, are a lot like him, or, at least, that he is the iteration or embodiment of their aesthetic preferences. But this ignores what we might characterize as the “intransitivity of aesthetic preference,” and is exactly what Ruskin was trying to do. To confront Minow even more directly, how is his logic any different from appealing to the network’s “taste,” rather than Minow’s? At Step 20, Minow condemns the networks as concentrating too much power. Yet, he fails to perceive that all he really is proposing is substituting his power for theirs. At Step 13, Minow even goes so far as to conclude that if broadcasters only presented programming shown as demanded by ratings, it is not clear that it would continue to be demanded. This is like chastising those of us who would rather read about sports and do crossword puzzles, instead of reading the news on the front page. Literally, instead of “Father Knows Best,” it’s “Minow knows best.”

Minow also faces the problem of the “lowest common aesthetic denominator,” which we first identified for Mr. Ruskin. At our Step 4, Minow avers that the public interest is made up of many interests, all of which must be served. He also states, at our Step 15, that broadcasters must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, and more alternatives (though it is far from clear that less concentration in the media industry will promote programming diversity, and Minow says nothing to support this proposition). At our Step 12, he states that ratings indicate only that some people have their television sets turned on and what channels they’re watching. He characterizes ratings as a “dictatorship of numbers,” observing that they do not tell us what the public might watch if they were offered additional choices. Nor do they measure intensity of preference. But how do these desirable hypothetical “additional choices” fare, against the imperative of what everybody else wants to see?