Burriss: Newton's minnow

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To hear some people tell it, television is just getting worse and worse all the time. And many people wish for the good ol' days when program-ming was morally uplifting, culturally aware and socially significant.

Well, I've got some news: television probably isn't getting worse, and the good ol' days probably never were.

This week (May 9) was the 58th anniversary of the famous Newton Minnow "Vast Wasteland" speech before the National Association of Broadcasters. And what is perhaps even more amazing about the speech is Minnow was criticizing an industry that was then only some 13 years old.

In his address, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission challenged broadcasters to spend some time looking at their product. He predicted they would see a "vast wasteland" of mindless entertainment, inane game shows and pointless newscasts. He then challenged the broadcasters to do something about it.

As might be expected, the broadcasters of America saw this as a threat to their livelihood, and some predicted the downfall of the entire American broadcast industry as the iron-shod boot of government trampled their right to make money.

Of course, none of those things has happened. But interestingly, as the industry claims its programming has become more relevant and more high-quality, many people in the audience claim the programming has become more irrelevant, more stultifying and more obnoxious.

Now it's also true Minnow saw some bright spots in the programming desert. There were high-quality dramas, witty comedies and informative news documentaries. But like today, those programs were overshadowed by mindless mediocrity.

And whose fault is this?

The fact is television has grown from three competing networks to a vast ocean of programming for every taste and whim. But the development of low-cost cable and satellite services has meant almost everyone can have almost any kind of programming in their home they want, no matter the quality.

So, to paraphrase another famous television person, Edward R. Murrow, who was quoting a famous scriptwriter, William Shakespeare, "The fault, dear viewer, is not in our stars, but in ourselves!"

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