“Newton Minow: An American Story”

Newton Minow may be mostly remembered for his gutsy assessment of the television industry, calling the medium a “vast wasteland” as the fresh-faced, 34-year-old chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961. But in the new documentary, Newton Minow: An American Story, veteran journalist Mike Leonard and local producer Mary Kay Wall examine how Minow’s life has had a far-reaching impact that still reverberates today, having had an indirect hand in the rise of computers, the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service, and introducing a young Barack Obama to a very important person.

Here are some fun facts about Minow ahead of the documentary’s airing on Thursday, May 7, 2015 at 8:00 pm on WTTW11, where Minow served as board chairman from 1967 to 1973.

The famous ship from Gilligan’s Island—the S.S. Minow—is named after Minow because of his critique of the television industry. 

“My family is very proud that the sinking ship on Gilligan’s Island was named after him,” Minow’s daughter, Nell, said at this year’s Ebertfest movie festival, according to the News-Gazette

Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” comment was made during his inaugural speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 as the new head of the FCC. President John F. Kennedy had tapped the 34-year-old Minow to lead the agency during a time when television was beset with a number of scandals, such as the infamous quiz show scandals in which winners were preselected. Advertisers also had a heavy hand in programing. For example, writers for I Love Lucy couldn’t use the word “lucky” because the show was sponsored by a rival cigarette company to Lucky Strike. 

Many critics viewed Minow as too young and inexperienced to run the FCC, but Minow swung back with his “vast wasteland” speech that challenged the TV industry to consider programs geared more toward the public interest. 

In the original version of the speech, Minow was supposed to say “vast wasteland of junk,” but he trimmed it down to his now famous remark, according to the documentary Newton Minow: An American Story.

Minow indirectly had a small hand in the rise of computer technology. During his tenure as FCC chairman, Minow championed the All-Channel Receiver Act in 1962 that mandated television sets to include UHF (ultra high frequency) tuners so the public could watch new UHF channels on their TV sets. This allowed TV viewers more choices when looking for something to watch. 

According to Newton Minow: An American Story, the technology company, Fairchild Semiconducter, created a low-cost UHF tuner that became successful in the consumer market. This success eventually led the company to develop the device that would become the microchip. 

This wasn’t the only time Minow had an influential impact on technology. At the FCC, Minow oversaw the launching of the first telecommunications satellite in space. 

The Minow family had a huge impact on Barack Obama’s life. Minow’s daughter, Martha, was a Harvard Law School professor (she’s now the dean) and asked her father to bring on a young Obama as an intern at his law firm, Sidley Austin LLP. 

“I said, ‘What’s his name?’” Minow said in the documentary. “She says, ‘Barack Obama.’ I said, ‘You got to spell that out for me.’”

As it turned out, the firm had already hired Obama and was under the supervision of Michelle Robinson, his future wife.

Minow, despite his close ties to the Democratic Party, endorsed Republican Bruce Rauner in last year’s gubernatorial election over incumbent Pat Quinn. In a commentary for the Chicago Tribune, Minow said that he disagreed with Quinn’s approach to the state’s dire financial condition.

“I believe Quinn is a decent, honorable man, but I also believe that if we continue on the same course he has taken, we will put the future of the state of Illinois at serious risk,” Minow wrote. “Illinois is drowning in debt, unemployment and dysfunction. We need to change course.”