Who destroyed the first golden age of television?

In his comments on my recent blog post "lowbrow," Scott Lahti points us to this article from the Atlantic:

"Why Is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?"

I hadn’t realized there was such a consensus that we are now in a new golden age of television, but if the current age stretches back 10 or 15 years, I have to agree. TV writing is so much smarter, funnier, and more compelling now than it was when I was growing up, watching way too much of it.

If now is the new golden age, when was the previous one? The established wisdom, apparently, is that TV viewers were their most fortunate in the 1950s.

Paul Cantor talks about that original "Golden Age of Television" in his lecture series "Commerce and Culture" and Wikipedia confirms that the term refers to an era that "began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s."

Why these peaks, and why the trough in the years between?

If you accept the conclusion I draw in my article "Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track," it should seem puzzling that early television was so much better than what came later. After all, TV, unlike almost every other new medium (print, film, radio, the Internet), began its history firmly under government control and regulation. I argue that Hoover, as secretary of commerce, cartelized the thriving new medium of radio, that the "big broadcasters" who benefited from the heavy hand of the federal government later became the TV cartel, and that only the eventual growth in competition (from cable TV, FOX, and now the Internet) and the deregulation process started under the Carter administration (which I discuss in "Putting Hedy Lamarr on Hold") have allowed the market process to improve the quality and diversity of our viewing options.

But if television began as a highly regulated cartel and became freer and more competitive over time, then how can TV quality have deteriorated from its early golden age (when the "Big Three" networks really only counted as two and a half, with latecomer ABC the stunted offspring of NBC) to the silly pablum of the 1960s?

"With his New Frontier faith in the power of government to solve any problem, Minow failed to grasp how complex culture is and how elusive artistic creativity can be."

“With his New Frontier faith in the power of government to solve any problem, Minow failed to grasp how complex culture is and how elusive artistic creativity can be.”

Paul Cantor places the blame on one man: Newton Minow, JFK’s chairman of the FCC, whom the trade press of the Kennedy era called America’s "culture czar."


Minow created a sensation by attacking the whole television industry in a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Washington, DC, on May 9, 1961. Describing television as a "vast wasteland," Minow called upon the networks to clean up their houses and improve their programming.

Cantor quotes Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan’s Island, on the results of Minow’s speech:

Until his speech, the networks were conduits and they had no control of programming. Sponsors had more power, and the creative people who created the shows had more authority. Minow gave networks authority and placed the power of programming in the hands of three network heads, who, for a long time, controlled everything coming into your living room. They eventually became the de facto producers of all prime-time programs by having creative control over writing, casting, and directing. (quoted by Russell Johnson, aka the "Professor," Here on Gilligan’s Island)

Minow told the television industry, "You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives."

"Yet," says Cantor,

Schwartz claims that Minow’s speech resulted in centralizing power in the television industry and thus actually reducing the range of choices in programs.… [H]is words contained clear threats that if the television industry did not voluntarily do what he wanted, the FCC would make sure that it did.

How would the FCC impose Minow’s vision?

The trump card Minow knew he was holding was the FCC’s power to deny renewal of the networks’ broadcasting licenses, without which they could not operate on the airways.

Minow again: "I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma. I say to you now: renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license."

In the 1950s, the Big Three networks "were not responsible for the content of most of the programs they aired in prime time."

CBS, NBC, and ABC produced their news and public-affairs programs in-house, as well as their morning and late-night shows. But for their prime-time programming, the TV networks generally still followed a pattern they had inherited from radio, in which they sold airtime to sponsors, who developed shows largely independently, often in concert with their advertising agencies.…

When sponsors were largely responsible for developing prime-time shows, the television industry had a more free-wheeling, bottom-up structure. Just about any business was a potential sponsor, and anyone with an idea for a TV show could shop his proposal to a wide variety of prospects.

Minow had called for higher quality television, but "[l]acking any magic formula that would instantaneously conjure up quality programs, the networks could not be sure of pleasing Minow. Thus they settled for not offending him."

As Cantor explains, "To improve programming would have required the network executives to take risks with new formulas, but that was the last thing they wanted to do when facing the threat of losing their licenses — and their jobs."

So, as a result, "the 1960s became arguably the blandest decade of American television."

As Murray Rothbard emphasized, progress isn’t linear. Not only are there bumps along the way; there are long periods of retrogression. Rothbard seems to have considered most of the 20th century to have been such a period.

In the history of television, the medium began under heavy regulation, but American TV was still in private hands, unlike in the rest of the world, where state television was the norm. The US government’s interference reduced the competition among broadcasters, but because content was largely decided by the sponsors, there was still something like a market driving TV entertainment in the 1950s.

TheFrontI recall Woody Allen in the movie The Front, which implied the opposite: on a 1950s TV show about the Holocaust, the screenwriter is not allowed to mention the gas chambers, because the sponsor is an oil company, and they’re afraid the chambers will give the consuming public bad associations with "gas."

In a movie about blacklisted Communist writers, written by a blacklisted Communist writer, the joke is a typical Marxist attack on capitalism: art cannot be free within the cash nexus because selling oil (or soap, or TV scripts) is antithetical to truth and creativity.

I wonder what the film writer thought of the Minow era of 1960s television.

I wonder what he thinks of the FOX and HBO era, this new golden age.

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One Response to Who destroyed the first golden age of television?

  1. Pingback: The Golden Age at Twilight — The Libertarian Standard

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