Published on .

Newton N. Minow burst onto the scene in 1961, Foote, Cone & Belding Communications; Sara Lee Corp.; and Tribune Co., as well as the Annenberg Professor of Communications Law & Policy at Northwestern University.

Advertising Age: With your unique experience on the FCC and in broadcasting, how do you view this phenomenon of the information superhighway?

Mr. Minow: I think the genius of our modern communications system has been that there was room for entrepreneurship, for ingenuity, for creating and adapting technology; and I think we are now undergoing a revolution.

People call it the convergence of four industries: the telephone industry, the computer industry, the television industry and the cable industry. One quote I saw the other day was "Before long you'll be talking to your television set. You'll see the person on the other end of the telephone, and you will hear what your computer has to say."

I believe that's true. I believe this is as important a time as the Gutenberg invention of the [movable-type] printing press. I think it's particularly important because it's a generational change. Children are now teaching their teachers how to use a computer. College students are teaching their professors how to use a computer. And as the generations change, we'll find much more eagerness to use the new technologies. I see that in my children and my grandchildren. And I think most people do.

AA: How important

Mr. Minow: If we had only bookstores and no public libraries, the country would be a poorer place. If we had only country clubs and no public parks, the country would be a poorer place. If we had only hospitals for people who could afford to pay and didn't have hospitals for people who can't pay, the country would be a poorer place. I think the same analogy applies here.

AA: Do you see the information superhighway as a boon to public broadcasting as well as to commercial TV?

Mr. Minow: Unquestionably. The information superhighway will be good for everyone, in my opinion, because it will enlarge choice. It will enable the viewer to decide what the viewer wants to see when the viewer wants to see it.

It will also eventually make television an interactive medium, and I believe that all forms of television-[broadcast] commercial, non-commercial and cable-will benefit because the viewer will benefit.

AA: Isn't there a danger that it may give viewers too much choice among too many boring programs?

Mr. Minow: Yes. Bruce Springsteen sings a song called "57 Channels & Nothing On." And if you "channel surf" as I do- changing the channel every 2 seconds-you have to get discouraged by the lack of diversity. As Fred Allen said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

AA: There are a lot of competing companies, including cable and broadcast network, moving into what used to be considered public TV channels' territory-tempting

Mr. Minow: I don't think that public broadcasting can or should claim exclusive territories. If it turns out ABC creates a "Nightline," which in many ways was prompted by the MacNeil/Lehrer program, I think our feeling has to be "Hurray! The public will benefit." If people produce better children's programs, which unfortunately is not often the case, I think we'd have to say "Hurray" again, so I don't think we have a right in public broadcasting to say, "Keep out of our territory."

It's our role to do things that the market will not necessarily create, and, if it turns out that they're going to be as successful, and financed through the marketplace, then we'll go on to other things.

I don't see commercial television doing things like "The Civil War" or "Sesame Street." But if they did, we'd welcome that.

AA: If they took those underwriters away, would that be OK?

Mr. Minow: Let's talk about underwriting. There's nothing written in the Constitution that says public broadcasting should not be allowed advertising. There's nothing in the law that says public television should not have advertising.

AA: So why doesn't it?

Mr. Minow: Commercial broadcasters obviously do not want public broadcasting to have advertising, and raise hell every time that is tried.

AA: Has anyone done it successfully?

Mr. Minow: There are a lot of models that indicate you do not have to be absolutist in methods of finance. At Chicago's WTTW, [President-General Manager] Bill McCarter successfully experimented with advertising and still runs some commercials today.

There was a test some years ago when a number of stations under an FCC experiment ran regular commercials on the conditions that they did not interrupt programs and that there were not more than a certain number of commercials. Studies of that experiment indicated viewers were perfectly content, outside of a handful of objectors.

In England, Channel 4 is run with commercials where the commercials are sold by the commercial television sales offices and revenue is divided between them.

In Italy years ago, by law, commercials could only appear in one 15-minute segment of the evening. That segment turned out to be the most widely watched and most popular thing on television in Italy. Many of the commercials were better than the programs.

AA: What's your personal feeling about the current underwriting rules?

Mr. Minow: I think they are much too strict.

When I was chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service, it was at the height of the energy crisis. I remember testifying once in Congress where one of the congressmen said to me, "You're not the Public Broadcasting Service, you're the Petroleum Broadcasting Service. Every time I turn on public television, you've got some oil company underwriting your program."

I answered, "Congressman, I only wish that Congress would give us the same amount of freedom with our programming that we get from the oil companies. We have never once had any pressure from one of our underwriters about a program, but we sure have heard plenty from Congress." They didn't like this. They didn't like that. It was constant.

AA: Does that mean you don't see underwriting as a problem and think it should even be liberalized,

Mr. Minow: I don't see what's wrong with that. I think the more diverse sources of finance public broadcasting has, the more independent it will be. Its biggest risk is getting all of its funding from one source.

AA: Because that might allow pressure from that source?

Mr. Minow: That's right. You want to have a diversity of funding-some from viewers, some from government, some from foundations, some from underwriters and maybe some from advertisers.

The point is to be independent.

AA: companies,

Mr. Minow: One problem with cable is people think public broadcasters get some of the money the public pays every month to the cable company. For that reason, if you approach them for a contribution, they say, "I gave at the office. I paid my cable bill this month." Then you have to explain to them that cable companies pay nothing for a public broadcasting signal.

AA: So what kind of rules can we set up to keep advertisers from breaking into a great show every few moments, as we saw them doing in the recent Olympics?

Mr. Minow: There could be guidelines, and there were in that test I mentioned. Not more than a couple minutes in an hour, no commercials except during natural breaks. That's what's being done, for example, in England.

If you go to England and watch television, you never hear them say, "We have some very important news, and we'll give it to you after the next commercial." It's a much more civilized system, even though it has commercials.

AA: Can you envision the networks imitating

Mr. Minow: Yes, I can.

You're probably not even conscious there are commercials on public television in Chicago.

AA: Do you think ad agencies realize

Mr. Minow: I think some people do that. I read the other day that there are a lot of studies that make you wonder whether people don't use their remote controls to switch channels whenever a commercial starts and then come back afterward.

Years ago, there was a problem in Cleveland in the sewer system. There was an overflow of water, and it always occurred at the same time. They could clock it in certain minutes during the hour.

The people who ran the sewer system were getting very upset about it, but then they did a study and found it timed exactly with the commercials on television-people got up to go to the bathroom.

AA: Al Gore's recent speeches indicate

Mr. Minow: I would hope it's more than a little lane. I would hope it's a very major lane and it's not shoved to the off ramp.

AA: Is there something the government can do to make that happen?

Mr. Minow: There's a lot government can do, and there are four or five bills [dealing with public TV on the information superhighway] pending in Congress right now.

Recently, on C-Span, I happened to catch the administration's testimony on some of those coming bills, and both Congress and this administration appear to be committed to the principle that some channels, some space on the superhighway, must be reserved for non-commercial use. I don't think that's been as clearly specified as it should be, but a debate will occur this year in Congress about that.

AA: What can we do to make sure there isn't too much regulation?

Mr. Minow: I think the trick is to preserve freedom of choice. As they used to say in China, "Let thousands of flowers bloom." But at the same time, be sure that it's not all weeds and that there's room here for non-commercial as well as marketplace forces.

AA: Do you think we're going to have to put up a garden fence to keep the weeds from choking out those flowers?

Mr. Minow: It is a balancing act, and it's compounded by the fact that we treasure freedom of speech and the First Amendment. This is not like regulating a shoe factory, although I think there are some people who would say this should be part of the environmental movement. They feel we should not allow pollution of the airwaves that destroys the environment.

But because it's speech, with personal values, it creates a particularly difficult dilemma. When the Communications Act was written 60 years ago, Congress said broadcasters must serve "the public interest." But it never really defined what that meant.

AA: What area of broadcasting do you think needs the most protection "in the public interest"?

Mr. Minow: The place we're going to start is children's television because it's become clear the marketplace should not be the sole determinant of what children see.

AA: How about programming? You've said that the worst thing on TV today is the violence. Can something be done to stop it?

Mr. Minow: What upsets me most about this is reading what three or four producers and also people who appear on the air say when they are interviewed. They say, "I never let my children watch my programs." They want your kids to watch it but won't let their kids watch it.

I think they should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. In fact. if I was going to pass a law, I'd say every person who produces a program should be required to have his or her children watch it. I think programs would get cleaned up pretty fast.

AA: And how about political campaigns? Should we change some rules about political advertising as we approach the era of the electronic superhighway?

Mr. Minow: The political advertising system is very haphazard. I'm of the view that candidates for the presidency should be given a certain amount of free time to present their cases on radio and television.

I would not sell them time. I think one of the principal problems of our time is that candidates have to raise so much money to buy advertising time on radio and television that they get themselves in hock to one interest or another, and this glorious medium of information and education in a campaign is wasted.

AA: important to campaigns?

Mr. Minow: Yes. Some people say that if Lincoln were alive today, he probably couldn't get elected because he wouldn't be any good on television. I don't believe that.

I think one thing television does is let you get to know candidates. If you see them repeatedly-not just one time but over a period of a couple of months under a lot of different circumstances-you get to evaluate their character and personality, as well as what they say about the issues. So I think television can be a great blessing to the democratic process.

AA: How do you feel about the televised political debates?

Mr. Minow: I've been the co-chairman of the presidential debates twice, and I'm on the debate commission that's organizing the debates for 1996. So I've been very close to the problems and opportunities presented by debates.

I think one reason people turn to the debates as they do is it is a chance to see the candidates together, live, in the same circumstances-as opposed to hiring political experts to package them in what are often misleading ways. We've got a country of 250 million people spread from Maine to Hawaii and from Florida to Alaska, and there's only one way that we can all see and hear the same person at the same time-and that's through radio and television.

There isn't any other means to accomplish that, and if we are to preserve the democratic process we will have to figure out better ways to do that in the future. But today, with all their faults-and there are many-the debates are one useful example of what can be done.

AA: Do some people complain to you about the debates?

Mr. Minow: Constantly. Over the years-and I've been involved with them since the beginning-they complained that the format wasn't right, that the questions were bad, whatever. And I say you are really complaining about the debaters rather than the debates.

The fact is you had a chance-for 90 minutes, three or four times during the campaign-to have a front row seat to see how their minds and characters worked, and you wouldn't have had that opportunity through any other means. So you ought to be grateful for the debates.

We ought to have more and better debates. But the concept of the debates, I'm convinced, is still a very good one.

AA: Should we be thinking of the information superhighway in terms of entertainment or business?

Mr. Minow: We shouldn't be thinking of it as exclusively either. Instead, we should think of this revolution in terms of education, medicine, law enforcement and any other way in which it can help society in addition to entertainment and business.

AA: And how do you feel about television's "vast wasteland" today?

Mr. Minow: I think the opportunities are endless. Television is still a dim light in education. It has not fulfilled its potential for children. It has neglected the needs of public television, and in the electoral process, it has cast a dark shadow.

A new generation now has the chance to put the vision back into television, to travel from the wasteland to the promised land.

We can still fulfill the dream E.B. White had in 1938 when he wrote in Harper's magazine that television could become "a saving radiance in the sky."

Most Popular
In this article: