Mises Daily – March 11, 2011

March 11, 2011

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The Road to Cultural Serfdom: America's First Television Czar
by Paul A. Cantor on March 11, 2011

[This article is excerpted from Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism (2011). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Steven Ng, is available for download.]

Have you ever wondered why the “tiny ship” famously tossed in the opening credits of Gilligan’s Island was named the SS Minnow? The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, has revealed that he intended the name as a swipe at Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appointed by President John F. Kennedy at the beginning of his administration. 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. Schwartz regarded the results of Minow’s speech as “disastrous.” As he explains,

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.[1]

If Schwartz is correct, then Minow’s campaign to improve television programming is a typical story of ill-advised government intervention in the marketplace. His charge to the television industry was clear: “You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives.”[2] Yet Schwartz claims that Minow’s speech resulted in centralizing power in the television industry and thus actually reducing the range of choices in programs. In the terms of Friedrich Hayek’s analysis of government intervention, Minow’s crusade was a classic case of government regulation having unintended consequences, and it illustrates perfectly the folly of top-down models of social order.

In a pattern that has become all too familiar in subsequent decades, Minow adopted the role of a “culture czar.”[3] He assumed that he was in a position to oversee the whole realm of television and dictate the new directions it should take. He claimed to know exactly what was best for the American public (curiously, it coincided with his own taste in television). Moreover, he was confident that, under his wise leadership, all that network executives had to do was to order up more creative programming and it would automatically be forthcoming, as if a higher level of culture could be produced on command.

Minow was typical of the cockiness of the Kennedy administration; his speech is full of the rhetoric of the New Frontier. In true Camelot fashion, he thought of himself as a knight in shining armor, riding to the rescue of a television industry in distress, ready to lead the network executives out of the darkness of commerce into the light of the public interest. And yet, according to Schwartz — a producer with years of experience in the media — Minow succeeded only in making American television worse. If this turns out to be the case, then the story of Minow’s intervention in the television industry provides a cautionary tale, a warning against the federal government’s persistent efforts to control not just the modern media but culture itself.

As Hayek knew, the arrogance of government power extends even to the cultural realm. In an era when government “czars” and other bureaucrats intrude in practically all aspects of our lives, we would do well to examine the federal government’s early interventions in mass media. We must understand that it is not only in economics that central planning is a mistake. As Hayek warned throughout his writings, there are always dangers associated with such top-down attempts to remake society.

Newt’s Nuclear Option

Schwartz undoubtedly overstated Minow’s role when he claimed that the FCC chairman “gave networks authority and placed the power of programming in the hands of three network heads.” Minow did not have the statutory authority to intervene this directly in the television industry. But the historical record shows that Minow’s speech and his follow-up actions indirectly had just the effects Schwartz describes. Throughout his speech Minow walked a thin line. He insisted that he had faith in the free-enterprise system in general and the broadcasting industry in particular, and denied that he had any intention of imposing his will on it. But his words contained clear threats that if the television industry did not voluntarily do what he wanted, the FCC would make sure that it did.

His impudence surfaced early in the speech when he addressed “an editorialist in the trade press” who “wrote ‘that the FCC of the New Frontier is going to be one of the toughest FCC’s in the history of broadcast regulation'”:

If he meant that we intend to enforce the law in the public interest, let me make it perfectly clear that he is right: We do. If he meant that we intend to muzzle or censor broadcasting, he is dead wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you expected me to come here today and say to you in effect, “Clean up your own house or the government will do it for you.” Well, in a limited sense, you would be right because I’ve just said it.

Here we see how Minow tried to have it both ways: he manages to make his threat in the very act of denying that he is making it.

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. In common parlance, this would be known as the nuclear option. It did not take Minow long to make it explicit that under his leadership the FCC might choose to exercise this option: “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.” Minow could not dictate directly to the networks how to run their business, but he could put them out of business if they failed to respond to his demands.

As the legal scholar Robert Corn-Revere observes, Minow’s speech “was an exercise in public interest piracy — a naked effort to coerce broadcasters indirectly into doing what the government could not compel directly. It is the kind of speech that puts the bully in the bully pulpit.”[4]

After raising a possibility intimidating enough in itself — holding public hearings on the networks’ performance — Minow taunted his audience with the prospect of annihilation: “Now some of you may say, ‘Yes, but I still do not know where the line is between a grant of a renewal and the hearing you just spoke of.’ My answer is: Why should you want to know how close you can come to the edge of the cliff?” Minow deliberately left vague when and how he might intervene in the affairs of the networks, thus leaving the executives in his audience uncertain about their future, and then professed mock astonishment that they might be concerned about the very survival of their business.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the television networks took Minow’s demands very seriously.[5] And his demands were extensive, including more public-affairs and educational programming, shows more suitable for children, more local programming, less violence, fewer commercials, and, last but not least, higher-quality shows.

It is typical of a government bureaucrat’s mentality that Minow evidently believed that the network executives were in a position to effect all these changes — and to do so immediately. Government departments are arranged hierarchically; those at the top are used to issuing orders and expect them to be carried out by their subordinates right down the line. Minow assumed that a cultural institution like television has a similar hierarchical structure, as if television executives could requisition more creative programming the way a bureaucrat orders new pencils or department stationery.

In fact, Minow’s speech shows that he misunderstood the structure of the industry he was supposed to be regulating. That was almost inevitable, given the fact that he did not have the slightest experience with the television industry when Kennedy appointed him chairman of the FCC. Minow was a lawyer by profession, a partner in the law firm of two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. His chief “qualification” for the FCC job was the fact that he was a personal friend of the president’s brother Robert Kennedy.[6]

Minow epitomized the would-be managerial revolution of the Kennedy administration, the idea that “the best and the brightest” could be entrusted with remaking any American institution on the basis of their general expertise, rather than on any particular experience with the institution. In his NAB address, Minow clearly conceived of himself as one member of the managerial elite speaking to others, and he thought of television as just one more problem of administration that the Kennedy whiz kids were going to solve.

As Sherwood Schwartz explained, however, Minow overestimated the degree to which television executives in 1961 controlled the programming on their networks. To be sure, 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. A television producer might approach a potential sponsor with an idea for a show, or a sponsor might try to interest a TV or movie star in a new show format. The networks might get involved in such negotiations, but basically they were not responsible for the content of most of the programs they aired in prime time.

In his inaugural speech as FCC chairman, Minow announced that he was unilaterally changing the rules of the game. With the threat of denying license renewal to the networks, he forced CBS, NBC, and ABC to become more directly involved in developing their prime-time programming, and indeed to assume control over its content. This is what Schwartz really meant when he said that Minow “placed the power of programming in the hands of three network heads.” The networks suddenly took it upon themselves to initiate programming possibilities and to supervise all aspects of program development and production. In effect, Minow imposed upon the television industry the top-down structure that he, as a bureaucrat, had assumed was characteristic of it in the first place. Bureaucrats always prefer dealing with other bureaucrats.

Of course, Minow was not solely responsible for these developments. The television industry had already been trending toward a more hierarchical structure, as the broadcasting companies, with their concern for ratings and profits, were seeking greater command over programming. Even without Minow and the FCC, the three networks undoubtedly would have become more involved in producing programs in the 1960s. But there can be no question that Minow’s actions greatly accelerated this process, and profoundly influenced the precise form the networks’ intervention took.

“Wildly Galloping New Frontiersmen”

We can now see what Schwartz was complaining about in Minow’s actions as FCC chairman. 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. He might still be turned down by everybody, but at least he had many options to explore.

Under the new post-Minow regime in television, if a producer could not sell his idea for a program to one of the three networks, he was out of luck.[7] By drastically reducing the number and variety of people involved in deciding which shows made it onto the air, Minow substantially decreased the diversity of television programming — exactly the opposite of what he was calling for to improve the medium.

Mises Academy: Tom DiLorenzo teaches Competition, Monopoly, and Antitrust: The Austrian Perspective

But Minow’s effect on the television industry went deeper than merely concentrating programming power in the hands of CBS, NBC, and ABC. Once the networks assumed this power, they inevitably used it to try to placate Minow and thereby to fend off hostile FCC actions against them. Minow swore in his NAB address, “I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet bureaucratic taste.” In fact, he never intervened personally to censor any television program. Instead, he let frightened network executives do his dirty work for him. By the spring of 1962, a trade journal summed up what had happened in the industry in familiar Kennedy imagery: “With a posse of wildly galloping New Frontiersmen breathing down their necks, and the shadow of the hanging tree lengthening over the land, the television industry’s own sheriffs are intensifying their efforts to bring law and order to some of the wilder domains of the medium.”[8]

The result of all these efforts was precisely to impose “bureaucratic taste” on American television. Lacking 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. A number of prominent industry voices from the time testify to the chilling effect Minow had on television creativity. ABC producer Roy Huggins said,

Now for the first time in [television’s] brief history, a decline in quality and spirit is underway, and the abrupt reversal is largely the result of Newton Minow’s policies as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. … Imagination does not flourish in a climate of coercion.[9]

When Minow expressed support for having “questionable” shows prescreened by the NAB for its approval, CBS president Frank Stanton condemned the idea at the annual meeting of the network’s affiliated stations in the spring of 1962:

I am persuaded that this is a bad deal for the broadcasters because it is a bad deal for the public. With the programming veto power centralized, you can’t help but get a drastic watering down of programming content. You end up with nothing but a great big bowl of Junket. … Creative television would die a slow and agonizing death. The tendency to produce what would “get by” would be irresistible. … Experimentation, innovation, all chance-taking would cease as a group of timid, well-meaning men took over the responsibility of deciding what was to be shown on 50 million receivers.[10]

Media historian Mary Ann Watson writes, “Ultimately, the pre-screening provision was never enacted, but nonetheless, a distinct chill continued to run through the creative community.”[11]

A detailed analysis of the damage Minow did to American television was offered by Mark Goodson, of Goodson-Todman Productions, one of the most influential forces in shaping television in its early days. In a speech to the 1962 convention of the American Women in Radio and Television, Goodson explained:

When a presentation of a new show lands on my desk, I … let my eye move down the page to scan the contents. … My attention is flagged somewhere down the page by a name. That name is Minow. … I have even developed a pet name for this usage. With no disrespect intended, I call it the “Minow Paragraph.”

A crude translation might be “You may not like this show. The public may not like it — but he will.” … The program material of these shows is generally antiseptic, somewhat didactic, slightly dull, offensive to no one and above all else “justifiable.” The words “entertainment” or “pleasure” are seldom, if ever, mentioned. Like Latin and spinach, these shows are supposed to be good for you.[12]

Goodson offers a perfect description of “bureaucratic taste,” and explains how Minow succeeded in imposing it on the television industry. 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.

Instead, the executives fell back upon tried-and-true formulas that were proven not to offend anybody. As Watson recounts:

As the first Minow Season evolved during the spring and summer of 1962, the innovation in programming the industry had promised after the Wasteland speech failed to materialize. Old stars and old formats appeared on tentative prime-time schedules. Television critic Hal Humphrey believed fear of the unknown precluded breaking new ground. “It’s as if the program vice-presidents had decided to find safety by re-living their past,” the critic said. Big doses of crime and sex had to go. And, Humphrey pointed out, “nobody ever beefed about Jack Gleason or Lucy Ball, did they?”[13]

Watson and Humphrey are describing bureaucratic behavior at its most bureaucratic. Network executives became obsessed with protecting their jobs by doing as little as possible to rock the boat. As a result, the 1960s became arguably the blandest decade of American television. Situation comedies of the most formulaic and innocuous kind came to dominate the three networks’ prime-time schedules. As Watson writes, “When the 1962–63 season finally aired, comedy shows stole the limelight from westerns and action series. Seven of the top ten programs were comedies, with The Beverly Hillbillies, a surprise ratings blockbuster, as number one. Most critics were appalled.”[14] So much for Minow’s revolution in the quality of television programming.

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Culture

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. One cannot simply command better television programs, especially not original and innovative shows. Government bureaucrats and network executives are not themselves creative people. On their own, they cannot foresee what better programming will look like or how it can be produced. At best, they can recognize creative programming when real talent produces it.

That is why the television business is, to put it bluntly, a crapshoot. It works best by a process of trial and error, what one might call cultural selection on the analogy of Darwin’s natural selection. In the ideal situation, a large variety of television producers will be in competition, with the freedom to experiment, trying out all sorts of possibilities, to see what will click with both critics and the public.[15]

As in all circumstances, in cultural production a market economy is more likely than a command economy to achieve higher quality, simply because markets multiply the forces participating in the creative process and thus draw upon a greater range of knowledge, skill, experience, and talent. What looks like chaos to a government bureaucrat is in fact the lifeblood of culture. By concentrating the power of programming in fewer hands and thereby significantly reducing the range of experimentation, Minow’s project was doomed from the start. The government cannot force people to be creative.

From the beginning, Minow acted like the typical government bureaucrat. He identified what he regarded as a problem — a preponderance of low-quality shows on television, what he called the “vast wasteland.” He never considered that this situation might be inherent to the medium of television — that with so many thousands of television hours to program every year, there is just not enough talent to ensure that the average show is of high artistic quality.[16] Instead of recognizing this inescapable fact of television as a mass medium, Minow looked around for a villain and blamed the commercial nature of television for what he regarded as its failings. Here he betrayed his antimarket prejudices: greedy businessmen must be responsible for the low quality of television.[17] Having made the problem into one of private versus public interest, Minow naturally thought that the federal government could come to the rescue of television.

We are confronted here with two radically opposed models of how culture operates, a top-down versus a bottom-up view. For Minow, the way for culture to prosper is to have the government, from its superior vantage point, instruct television executives to plan better programming. That is to say, he was certain that central planning would significantly improve television. But given the unpredictability of artistic success, a culture flourishes when no one is in a position to try to impose order on it, but its energies are free to bubble up, as it were, from below. Having thoroughly misconceived the nature of the problem, Minow not surprisingly came up with a cure that turned out to be worse than the disease.

A good example of how Minow’s intervention affected television programming involves The Untouchables, the popular series Desilu Studios produced for ABC, in which the straight-arrow lawman Eliot Ness made war on Chicago gangsters. This show quickly became as notorious as the criminals whose stories it chronicled. Taking violence on television to new levels of frequency and brutality, it was often the focus of Minow’s complaints. As a result of all the attacks from Congress and the FCC, ABC felt compelled to do something about the series. The Desilu executive producer was forced to concede for the 1962–63 season, “The pressure is on us because it’s a marked series. … There will be less violence in the series. … We have stories in which no killings occur.”[18] The new, eviscerated version of the show failed to please the public, and its ratings plummeted, leading to its swift cancellation.[19] But Minow was happy, commenting with approval, “The blood on the living room floor isn’t as deep as it was a year ago.”[20]

The case of The Untouchables helps to reveal the nature of government intervention in television programming. Although I remember the show with some fondness, I would not claim that it was an artistic masterpiece. Nevertheless, in its own way, the show was well done, highly stylized, with attention to period details and, generally speaking, exciting plots that centered on the age-old conflict between good and evil. The casting was strong; in fact, the performances of Nehemiah Persoff as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik and Bruce Gordon as Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti were exceptional, arguably among the most effective portrayals of villains in the history of television. But that was the problem — critics of the show complained about gangsters being presented as such memorable characters. That means that the objections to the show were moral, not artistic. The Untouchables was condemned for being not aesthetically deficient but politically incorrect.

This impression is confirmed by one of the other major criticisms of the show — that it consistently presented Italian-Americans in an unfavorable light. (The fact that Al Capone’s mob did consist chiefly of Italian-Americans was not regarded as a legitimate defense.) Organizations representing Italian-Americans put pressure on Desilu and ABC to stop what they regarded as ethnic stereotyping, and in its final season The Untouchables was forced to become an equal-opportunity employer of gangsters. After all these years, I am a little hazy on the details, but I believe that in one of the final episodes the dramatic tension was somewhat reduced when Ness was confronted with a ring of WASP gangsters who were spiking the iced tea at church picnics and rigging the bingo games. He chastised them severely.

Politics Trumps Aesthetics

The Untouchables was one of the early victims of political correctness on television, and Minow’s obsession with the series shows that artistic considerations were never foremost in his mind as his emphasis on “higher quality” in programming implied. Not surprisingly, when the government regulates culture, political and not artistic criteria will in the end become primary.

“Imagination does not flourish in a climate of coercion.”

ABC producer Roy Huggins

For one thing, Minow was in no position to make expert aesthetic judgments about anything. Born in Milwaukee, he was a perfect representative of Middle American, middlebrow cultural taste, as became evident in his NAB speech. Attempting to offer examples of television at its best, he knew that he should mention Playhouse 90 and Studio One, as well as a dramatization of Joseph Conrad’s novel Victory. But I suspect that Minow’s own taste emerged when he added The Bing Crosby Special to the mix, and later listed Peter Pan as one of the great moments in TV history.[21]

Minow was of course entitled to his personal taste in American television. The problem was that he was trying to impose it on the whole country. What business did he have mentioning specific shows he approved of in a speech in which he was threatening the networks with the loss of their licenses if they did not come up with what he regarded as better programming? Even his supporter Watson has her doubts about his speech:

The most controversial aspect of Minow’s address that afternoon … was his direct commentary, both favorable and critical, on television programming. Minow’s specific references to programs he felt were “eminently worthwhile,” such as The Twilight Zone, CBS Reports, and The Fred Astaire Show, would provide some ammunition for his critics who charged the Number One regulator was attempting to impose his idea of good taste on millions of American viewers.[22]

As we have seen, “What would Newt like?” quickly became the question on the minds of all the network executives.[23] No single person should have such power over any aspect of American culture, especially someone who had no claim whatsoever to being especially cultured himself.

Minow’s interference in television illustrates one of Hayek’s principal objections to government intervention in society. Like any central planner, Minow acted largely out of ignorance, unfamiliar with the domain he was governing, and above all he lacked the local knowledge and experience that was actually needed to improve television. He stepped in as a complete outsider and effectively remade the structure of the industry in ways that many experts in the field claim led to a new era of bland uniformity in programming.

Lacking any grasp of aesthetic criteria, Minow had to employ political criteria in his evaluation of television, and the industry responded accordingly. As Watson documents, the changes in television content in the 1960s chiefly followed a political agenda — greater representation of minorities on shows, especially African-Americans; more dramas devoted to controversial political issues, displaying a deepened social conscience; in particular a number of shows dealing with the issue of civil rights, which not coincidentally was being promoted at the same time by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.[24] Watson wholeheartedly approves of all this, but does not note the interesting fact that television in the 1960s increasingly fell in line with the program of the Democratic Party. This is exactly what one might have predicted under the leadership of an activist FCC chairman appointed by a Democratic president.

As is evident in the NAB speech, Minow’s interest in television was fundamentally political to begin with. One just has to look at his laundry list for improving television. He wanted television to increase Americans’ participation in the political process; to make better citizens; to project a more positive image of America abroad; and to contribute to the cause of world peace. In sum, he wanted television to become an arm of the Kennedy regime. The fact that he viewed all these goals as noncontroversial shows how truly partisan he was; he could not think outside of the New Frontier box. Inevitably, the NAB speech builds up to a ringing Kennedy climax: “I say to you ladies and gentleman: Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting. And ask what broadcasting can do for America.”

As with everything else on the New Frontier, Minow’s agenda for television was closely bound up with the Cold War. When he stressed the need for more educational programming, he did so in the context of competition with the Communist world, as Watson reports:

In October 1961, when Minow gave the keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, he reminded his audience that communist countries were developing educational television programming with alacrity. Soviet children, for instance, had been learning English through televised lessons since 1959. And with the aid of technicians and equipment from Russia, Red China, and East Germany, even the tiny country of Albania was airing three and one-half hours of educational television each day.[25]

As a rule, I tend to distrust people who speak well of Albania and especially those who speak well of Albanian television. Minow’s impulse to offer it as a model for America suggests that he thought of himself not as a culture czar but as a culture commissar. Indeed, this speech embodies all that was most questionable in the Cold War fixation of the Kennedy administration — above all, the tendency to remake the United States on the pattern of the very enemies it was fighting.

In sum, in the spirit of the Kennedy administration, Minow wanted to enlist television in a national crusade, to make America and the whole world a better place. Reading the NAB speech, one finds all the standard themes of Wilsonian progressivism. Minow wanted television to do no less than bring peace and understanding to the world, and to make it safe for democracy (or at least for the Democratic Party). Fortunately the fact that the television industry in the United States is largely in private hands limited the impact Minow could have on it and the damage he could do to it. Still, he did leave television worse than he found it, and his brief tenure as FCC chairman illustrates the basic principle of Hayek’s critique of government intervention.

Utopianism and the Road to Serfdom

Ultimately Minow’s hopes for television were utopian. The NAB speech is almost religious in tone at times (it certainly is preachy), with flashes of apocalyptic fears and millennial hopes:

In today’s world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep, relentless pressures on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with the technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world — in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.

Faced with all these global problems, one might well ask: why was a federal official worrying about Leave It to Beaver?

The answer is, when a government develops a grandiose vision of remaking the world (the New Frontier), no aspect of society is too trivial to escape its intervention. Minow refused to accept the fact that by the 1960s, television — like every other mass medium before it — had become woven into the fabric of ordinary life in America, developed and run by ordinary people to satisfy ordinary human desires and needs. He wanted television to be a world-transforming force, and when it failed to live up to that role, he could only regard it as a force for evil. His view of television can best be described as Manichean, an all-or-nothing attitude, according to which the medium could function as an agent of either salvation or damnation but nothing in between. Consider the lines in his NAB speech that lead up to the “vast wasteland” phrase: “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.”

In Minow’s utopian vision, everything becomes cast in absolute terms. Television must be either the best medium or the worst. It cannot be in the middle, where in fact all the mass media lie. Dedicated to serving average Americans, the mass media tend to gravitate toward an average level of accomplishment — that is a fact of democratic life.

“As in all circumstances, in cultural production a market economy is more likely than a command economy to achieve higher quality, simply because markets multiply the forces participating in the creative process …”

Minow’s quarrel with television was the petulant reaction of a disillusioned idealist. If television could not help in bringing about Minow’s vision of a perfect world (a world without poverty), then it must be complicit in all the evil forces that make the world imperfect. He could not abide the fact that the American people were simply enjoying television, when he thought that in this new medium, humanity had finally found the instrument to bring about the perfect society.

Throughout his writings Friedrich Hayek warned against the dangers of trying to remake society on the basis of an abstract image of social perfection. He argued that such social engineering would always backfire, producing a world inferior to the one we live in. As we have seen, Minow’s idealistic crusade to improve television largely resulted in making it worse. He hoped that under his leadership television would lead us to the island of utopia; instead what he ended up giving us was Gilligan’s Island. Sherwood Schwartz really did know what he was doing when he named the Skipper’s boat after Minow. And as we think about the career of America’s first programmer-in-chief, we should view with alarm the persistence and proliferation of would-be culture czars in our world today. Indeed, if we are wondering whether we are truly back on the road to serfdom in the United States, we need only look at all the czars now trying to run our lives.

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the coauthor, with Stephen Cox, of Literature and the Economics of Liberty. See his interview in the Austrian Economics Newsletter. Send him mail. See Paul A. Cantor’s article archives.

This article is excerpted from Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism (2011).

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[1] Quoted in Russell Johnson (with Steve Cox), Here on Gilligan’s Isle (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 91. For more on this subject, see Sherwood Schwartz, Inside Gilligan’s Island (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), xv–xvi, 5, 269.

[2] Minow’s speech is available here.

[3] According to Mary Ann Watson, The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 29, the entertainment trade press at the time did in fact refer to Minow as a “cultural czar.”

[4] Robert Corn-Revere, “Avast Ye Wasteland: Reflections on America’s Most Famous Exercise in ‘Public Interest’ Piracy,” Federal Communications Commission Law Journal 55 (2003), 481. Corn-Revere develops a devastating critique of Minow’s speech and his policies as FCC chairman that supplements my analysis on a number of important points, including issues of law and constitutionality, and questions of technology.

[5] According to Watson, Minow’s threats were real; in the year following his NAB speech, “fourteen broadcast stations were put on probation with short-term renewals and local hearings were scheduled in eight renewal cases” (Watson, 34).

[6] See Watson, 20, for Minow’s own admission: “I think Robert was the basic reason I was appointed to the FCC.” Watson quotes a reporter saying: “Minow comes to television armed with a background of no experience.”

[7] The possibility of syndication, selling first-run programs directly to local stations, did gradually develop, but it remained a minor corner of the overall television market.

[8] Quoted in Watson, 51. I have relied heavily on Watson’s account of Minow’s tenure as FCC chairman, first because it is widely regarded as an authoritative source on the period, and second because she interviewed Minow for the project, and allows him to make his own case for his actions. Moreover, she is a great admirer of the Kennedy administration in general and Minow in particular; she calls him “one of the best and the brightest” (Watson, 19). The book jacket even features an endorsement from Minow. Here is a typical example of how partisan and pro-Kennedy Watson’s account is: “For American educational television, the Kennedy years were the most exhilarating of times. Exceptional achievements were made in children’s, documentary, and public affairs programming by decade’s end. The seeds of innovation and independence in public television — the very qualities that would so threaten Richard Nixon in the early 1970s — were planted with hope and determination during the New Frontier” (Watson, 202). I actually turned to Watson expecting to find an account of Minow’s FCC tenure that would contradict Schwartz’s. But in fact she assembles all the evidence needed to substantiate Schwartz’s account of Minow’s harmful effect on the television industry. Coming from an enthusiastic partisan of Minow, this evidence is all the more convincing and powerful.

[9] Quoted in Watson, 51.

[10] Quoted in ibid., 52–53.

[11] Ibid., 53.

[12] Quoted in ibid., 52.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 53.

[15] For a Hayekian analysis of how popular culture operates, which stresses the elements of contingency and unpredictability in television creativity, see my essay “Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tube,” in William Irwin and Jorge J.E. Gracia, eds., Philosophy and the Interpretation of Popular Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 161–86.

[16] Consider in this context remarks made by the famous show business impresario Ed Sullivan in testimony before the FCC at the time of Minow’s crusade: “There will always be, of necessity, a TV Wasteland. The three networks must produce 10,950 hours of entertainment per year, in contrast to only 600 hours demanded by the entire moving picture industry of our country and the 125 hours per year demanded by the Broadway theater” (quoted in Watson, 29).

[17] Minow’s distrust of commercial motives is persistent; when asked in a 2002 interview why television quality is low, he replied: “There are three reasons. The first is money. The second reason is money. And the third reason is money.” See Newton N. Minow and Fred H. Cate, “Revisiting the Vast Wasteland,” Federal Communications Law Journal 55 (2003), 415.

[18] Quoted in Watson, 51.

[19] In its third and final season (1962–63), The Untouchables went from the number-eight show on television to number forty-one. See Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946–Present, 6th ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 1088.

[20] Quoted in Watson, 53.

[21] Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of Minow was the way he combined rather conventional taste in television with a contempt for the American public’s viewing habits. Watson quotes Minow writing to Congressman Abner Mikva: “Now I know who is watching westerns and crime shows: I knew that the rating samples depended on relative cultural illiterates.” Even Watson admits that “Minow’s playful reply revealed a touch of the snobbism he was accused of by network defenders” (Watson, 42). One wonders what the American people, whose welfare Minow was supposedly concerned about, would have thought if they knew that he referred to them as “relative cultural illiterates.”

[22] Watson, 22.

[23] For evidence of Minow’s actual influence on television executives, see Watson, 53–54: “A survey conducted by the research firm of Trendex … concluded Minow ‘exerted a definite influence’ on the thinking of leading television producers in New York and Hollywood. Close to 50 percent of the forty-three producers surveyed said the Chairman’s public statements influenced their program ideas. … [The article] from Variety which detailed the Trendex study … began, ‘Television programming has been completely Minowized. … Minow’s pronouncements, especially criticism of undue violence, has had direct and sharp effect on TV programming. A majority of execs admit that they have consciously tailored shows to conform with FCC recommendations.” Minow proudly sent a copy of this article to Robert Kennedy. Having brought The Untouchables to justice, Minow may have thought of himself as a Junior G-Man. There is some irony in the fact that a television show about one disastrous intervention by the federal government in American life (Prohibition) became the target of another do-gooder out of Washington. In his NAB speech Minow had the impudence to “suggest that we change the name of the FCC to The Seven Untouchables.”

[24] See Watson, 57–70. Note particularly her statement: “It was as if, when President Kennedy firmly aligned himself with the righteousness of the cause [of civil rights], prime-time television did too” (Watson, 58). Like Minow, Watson clearly identifies quality in television programming with political correctness. She praises shows purely for their political message and not for any aesthetic characteristics.

[25] Watson, 189.