Interview Date: Thursday September 09, 1999
Interview Location: Philadelphia, PA
Interviewer: Gerry Yutkin
Collection: Hauser Collection
YUTKIN: Hello, I’m Gerry Yutkin and I’m here with Newton Minow and we’re going to be talking about some of his recollections and past experiences involved in broadcasting cable, his opinion on cable television. This oral and video history is made possible by The Hauser Foundation Oral and Video History Project of The National Cable Television Center Oral and Video History Project. Mr. Minow, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.
MINOW: Gerry, thanks for inviting me. I’m glad to be able to do this.
YUTKIN: Well, I think if there’s anybody whose opinion we value over the years, because I think you’ve probably been one of the most influential and important individuals in communication, I think you have been in that role ever since you were – were you the youngest chairman of the FCC when you were appointed in 1961?
MINOW: At the time I think I was. I was appointed by President Elect Kennedy, before he was inaugurated. The appointment was announced in December of ’60 and I was 34 years old.
YUTKIN: You were awfully young. How did you come to that? I know you had worked with Robert Kennedy on some campaigns and hearings?
MINOW: I knew the Kennedys. I had worked for Adlai Stevenson when he ran for president in ’52 and ’56. I had been one strongly urging him in ’56 to choose Jack Kennedy as his running mate for vice-president. I got to know the Kennedys largely through Eunice and Sarge Shriver, who lived here in Chicago and knew Bob and then when Jack Kennedy was elected in 1960, Sarge called me the next day and asked me if I wanted to go into the administration. I said, “No, I can’t afford it.” He asked if I would help him with recruiting others, which I did, and then there was only one job that I was at all interested in and that was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission because of my deep interest in television. I would not have been interested in any other job. The Kennedys knew that and finally they decided to offer that to me even though I was young and untested.
YUTKIN: Well, they were all pretty young to at that time.
MINOW: Yes, we all were.
YUTKIN: In 1961, you gave your famous “vast wasteland” speech. I think that’s still part of our culture right now. How do you feel the vast wasteland was then and is it still a vast wasteland, especially in the context of the history of cable television?
MINOW: After I gave that speech, a woman called me up one day and she said, “Mr. MINOW:, could you tell me, what time does the vast wasteland go on?”
YUTKIN: It’s a show.
MINOW: Actually, I’ve often thought that that speech was misinterpreted.
YUTKIN: How so?
MINOW: There were two words I was trying to get across in that speech and those two words were not vast wasteland. The two words were public interest and instead the press was intrigued by those two words and they became part of the language.
YUTKIN: Do you think it’s still a conflict? I mean, do you think public interest is the same now? What you said here was, “I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air. Stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.” Now you said this to broadcasters. You went into the lion’s den. The issue of public concern and responsibility, do you think that the broadcasters at that time were not concerned enough or what were the thoughts at that point?
MINOW: I think, at that time, and I think now, broadcasters have forgotten that they have been given an extraordinary privilege. They have been give the use, without charge, for free, of an immensely valuable public resource and in exchange, the Congress has said, that they were to act as trustees and to serve the public interest, not only the private interest. Now, in 1999 as we go into the new millennium, we have a completely different set of circumstances and technologies than existed in 1961. There’s a great broadening of choice for the viewer through cable, through satellite television, through UHF television, through public television, there’s an enormous change. We also have the new technology of the internet, which is going to probably explode even more as the new century arrives. So, it’s a very different, much more competitive environment than existed in 1961 and I think our public policies actually have worked. The main objective I had in the government, which I think was a correct objective, was to broaden choice for the viewer. To allow the consumer to have a greater range of choice and that has happened. If today you are a sports fan and all you want to see is sports, you’ve got many opportunities to tune to a channel which is only sports. If you’re a news junkie, as I am, we have channels devoted totally to news. Children’s channels are developing, only for children, people who are of Hispanic interest can find a channel devoted to them. I think that what we’ve done is taken a mass medium, which was limited to a very few people with a chance to broadcast and we’ve enlarged that opportunity for many.
YUTKIN: So we certainly have more quantity now, but the question is does quality come through and how do you feel about that? Particularly in light of the fact that I think that cable television really was the first vehicle to expand and dilute the power of the broadcasters.
MINOW: Quality, I think, is spotty in my opinion but there are still some gems as there were in 1961. I look at a program like CBS Sunday morning as an example of what can be done on television. I look at the CNN coverage of a live news event, either in the U.S. or across the world, as a brilliant use of the technology. I look at what public television has done with a program like Sesame Street. So I say, if a viewer is serious about looking for a wide variety of good programming, a viewer can find it.
YUTKIN: And that was not true in the ’50’s and ’60’s?
MINOW: No, that was not true then. You only had 2 ½ networks, public television was really in its very infancy. I think the best thing I did in the government really was to advance public broadcasting as a non-commercial service. When I went to the FCC, I went there from Chicago. President Kennedy went to the White House from Boston. In Chicago and Boston we already had educational television stations. Believe me, it was a shock when I found no such station in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, New York, the biggest city in the country, Los Angeles, the next biggest city, Cleveland, Philadelphia, I could take you around the country and as a result we now have a bustling, even though under-financed, public broadcasting service, which I think is a very useful thing.
YUTKIN: Do you think that the attacks on public broadcasting, and you have been chairman of PBS, how do you think that it’s going to weather that storm?
MINOW: Oh, it will weather the storm. I remember when the Republican Congress, under Newt Gingrich, wanted to shut off public broadcasting they heard from so many of their constituents who were Republicans who said, “Don’t do this. This is something that’s very valuable to my children, to my family.” So it will survive, but I think what we’ve got to find is some permanent way of financing it.
YUTKIN: Do you think that the government should play a role in that?
MINOW: The government should play a role, but the role ought to be somehow divorced, as it is in England with the BBC, divorced from government censorship or government control of the content.
YUTKIN: So, it should be a financial commitment?
MINOW: Some kind of a trust fund. They’re talking about it in Congress. Cable people have been very, very smart because they created C-SPAN – a great public service, a marvelous public service. I’m a C-SPAN junkie as well and that runs without commercials, it runs without any political bias and I think that C-SPAN and the man who runs it have done a spectacular job.
YUTKIN: Brian Lamb, who has also consented, and is part of this Hauser Oral Video history project. Let me ask you about some people who have been leaders and pioneers in the history of cable television and you’ve probably known everybody.
MINOW: Most of them.
YUTKIN: Most of them, most of them. Let me begin by asking about Leonard Reinsch.
MINOW: I knew Leonard Reinsch, who was head of Cox Broadcasting, and then later Cox Communications, I knew Leonard from politics. Leonard had been the advisor to Adlai Stevenson as candidate for president in ’52 and ’56, advising on broadcasting for the Democratic National Committee. Leonard called me after my appointment was announced, but before I had taken office, and asked me if there was any help or any information he as a veteran broadcaster could offer and I said I would love to have a visit with Leonard and he said he’d like to bring a man, I think, is the best broadcaster in the country and the most thoughtful, Frank Stanton. I said fine. We made a date for breakfast in Washington, D.C. the day of the inauguration in Washington. This was before I had been confirmed or sworn in and I wasn’t smart enough to understand what Leonard and Frank told me because they told me that sooner or later, one day, the United States would have a wired television system, not an over-the-air television system. I didn’t fully grasp the significance of what they were saying. At that time, CBS was the largest cable operator in North America.
YUTKIN: Now this is in 1961 they were the largest. That was before the satellite went up.
MINOW: Well, they were not allowed to be in the cable business in the U.S. but they were in the cable business in Canada, so they were the largest cable operator in North America. Leonard, who was a very successful broadcaster for Cox, saw the implications of cable and Leonard was the first over-the-air broadcaster to make a major commitment to cable when he organized Cox Cable later.
YUTKIN: Now he was also an advisor to Governor Cox, I think.
MINOW: Governor Cox had started that business but I think he was dead. I think the Cox family had inherited it and is still there.
YUTKIN: In terms of a wired country, was it a frightening thing, was it 1984?
MINOW: No, I wasn’t smart enough to fully grasp really the full implications of it. What they really were saying is that you would get more channels, you would get clearer pictures, you’d free the spectrum for use by others and they were ahead of their time.
YUTKIN: Did they at all talk about the use of the satellite? Because cable television had been around since the days of television and there’s a debate as to whether the first cable system was in Pennsylvania or Oregon, in which it was really CATV Community Antenna Television.
MINOW: Let’s talk about that for a minute then I want to come back and talk to you about satellites. Let’s take the perspective of 1960, ’61. At that time, cable and broadcasters loved each other. They had an extremely happy relationship because broadcast signals would reach places that the signals could not reach over the air. Cable was providing a service that broadcasters loved. It was not a competitor; it was an affiliate; it was an extender of broadcast signals. Cable did not sell advertising; it was not a competitor on that side. It did not do programming. All it was doing was taking a broadcast signal into areas that people wanted to receive broadcasting and couldn’t. So it was a love affair
YUTKIN: Appearance and reception.
MINOW: Right. The only issues really, at that time, at the FCC involving cable and in Congress, involved the extent to which cable could use translators, which is a technical term, or extend a signal into another place where a broadcaster already was and that was the kind of thing. But there was not this great fight between cable and broadcasting that existed later. I welcomed cable as a way to bring broadcast service to places which were unable to receive it. I met with what later became a very powerful association, the National Cable Television Association. I met with them very early in my administration. I think they could have fit it into a room about this size. There were not many people. Most of them were small “mom and pop” guys. Many of them had started out as television repair businesses in the selling television sets and it was not a very formidable group at that time and we did everything we could to encourage them.
YUTKIN: And yet you met with them.
MINOW: I met with them and as I say, with a hand of friendship to encourage them, never dreaming of what was later going to happen. Now we’ll talk about satellites. After I left the FCC, I returned to Chicago to the law practice and I hired a young man for one summer whose name was Jim Hoak. He was going to Stanford Law School. He worked for me one summer. We were very happy with him. We offered him a full-time job when he graduated from law school. He called me one day and he said, “You’re going to kill me, but I have a chance to go to work as a legal assistant to a commissioner at the FCC and I’d like to do that.” I said, “You should do that. That’s a good experience. But after that’s over, then come back.” Well after a year, he called me one day and said, “You’re going to kill me twice now because I’m leaving the FCC, but I’ve decided to go home to Des Moines and go into the cable television business.” He organized a company called Heritage Cable. I was an early investor because I liked Jim and I believed in cable. The business was one week away from bankruptcy – one week away from bankruptcy – when the first satellite hook-up that HBO had devised…
MINOW: …brought HBO to Des Moines, to Heritage. The red figures turned to black within a matter of a week or two. So the marriage of cable and the satellite – that marriage – is what enabled Jim to build a great business; enabled others like Jim to be entrepreneurial and to develop cable. So it was that marriage. Now, I was deeply involved with getting the satellite program going. In fact, I think on my tombstone, historians may say, that was probably the most important thing. The first day I went to the FCC, senior commissioner, Tam Craven, came to see me and he said, “Do you know what a satellite is?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He groaned and said, “I was afraid of that.”
MINOW: He said, “I was afraid of that.” He said, “I can’t get anybody here to listen to me. I was hoping when we had a new chairman that I could get you interested in this. It’s very important.” Well I listened to him and I got interested. We got the communications satellite program going through Telstar. It was the first satellite and we were thinking at that time it would provide telephone service over the Atlantic and the Pacific. We never, never thought of it in terms of enabling cable to become as successful as it did. I went with President Kennedy on a tour of the space operations and the President noticed me – I was on the Vice-President’s plane – but he noticed me when we got to the McDonald-Douglas plant in St. Louis and he beckoned to me to come over. He said, “What are you doing here from the FCC?” I said, “Mr. President, the communications satellite is more important than sending a man into space.” He looked at me with those steely blue eyes and he said, “Why to you say that?” At this point I was 35 years old and I said, “Communications satellites will send ideas into space. Ideas last longer than men.” As I think back about it, I don’t think I could have come up with that today, but it was true and these communications satellites changed everything.
YUTKIN: That’s true. That’s a beautiful statement. That’s very incredibly incisive.
MINOW: It’s on the wall, I think, at the Gannett Newseum in Washington, D.C.
YUTKIN: Oh really?
YUTKIN: That’s terrific. With the launch of the satellite in terms of putting up programming that could be available through cable television, this was several years after the communications satellites were launched.
MINOW: Yes, it was more than a decade.
YUTKIN: And during that time, was there a climate in which there were people who were pushing to expand that?
MINOW: I don’t think very many people realized at the beginning. Certainly the people in the business, the people in the government, didn’t fully recognize what the communications satellite would mean in terms of cable. Certainly that was not true. We were thinking of it in terms of sending broadcast signals. We were thinking of it in terms of telephone signals. The cable thing came later and I salute the HBO people who came up with that idea. It was a brilliant idea.
YUTKIN: That was Gerry Levin, who’s now chairman of Time Warner. He gets credit for that and rightfully so. Let me go back to some of the other names and particularly back to the CBS days. We’re recording this at the beginning of September, 1999 – 9/9/99 – and at the time we are now reacting to the CBS-Viacom merger.
MINOW: A colossal irony because at one time Viacom was part of CBS and our government forced CBS to spin Viacom off to the shareholders and actually there’s a funny story there. Many years after I left the FCC, almost 30 years later, I went on the board of CBS at the request of Bill Paley and Frank Stanton. One day at a board meeting, I sat next to Bill Paley and I was doing a little bit of doodling and I said, “You know, Bill, when the government forced you to spin off Viacom, they made two people – you and Frank Stanton – sell your Viacom stock.” He said, “I know, I remember.” I said, “Have you ever figured out what your Viacom stock would be worth today?” He said, “No, I never have.” I said, “Well, I’ve just done a little figuring here on this doodling. I think your Viacom stock would be worth more than your CBS stock.” He said, “You’re crazy.” I said, “Do me a favor. Ask your accountant to figure it out. See if I’m right or I’m wrong.” One month later, we had the next board meeting. Bill came up to me very sheepishly. He said, “You were right and when I found it out, I cried myself to sleep.”
YUTKIN: He was one of those bigger than life characters with a great deal of power and much criticized, a lot has been written about him. In some ways an idealist, in some ways a good solid businessman.
MINOW: Well, he was both and he said himself, probably the day he rued in some ways was the day he took CBS public because it became subject to the market, the investment market. He made a big mistake in not making Frank Stanton his successor and CBS suffered greatly as a result. Frank, I think, was a true statesman in the industry.
YUTKIN: How do you think the Paleys and the Sarnoffs and the leaders of the communications industry, certainly entertainment television in those days – in the ’40’s, ’50’s and ’60’s, how do they compare to the conglomerates and the leaders of the conglomerates that are in charge right now that are leading the industry?
MINOW: I think the people in the ’30’s, ’40’s and ’50’s had a much greater sense of the public interest than the current group. I watched the press conference just the day before yesterday, the announcement of the CBS-Viacom merger. I never heard one word that this will enable us to make better programs, this will enable us to serve the public better, this will enable us to do better service for children, this will enable us to do better service in the news – I never heard one word about that. All I heard was I’m going to get more money out of this than Bill Gates. That would never, never have been said by General Sarnoff or Leonard Goldenson or Bill Paley or Frank Stanton.
YUTKIN: Is that because they wouldn’t have said it, or it’s just…
MINOW: That would not have been their first goal. They saw, true it was a business, but it was a business affected with the public interest, it was not an ordinary business.
YUTKIN: So someone like Paley could separate his commitment to CBS News with his commitment to the Beverly Hillbillies?
MINOW: No question. Absolutely.
YUTKIN: Do you think that that’s lacking now?
MINOW: Just as the people in the cable business had enough sense to say, we’ve got to create something like C-SPAN as well as… Bill Paley tried, this was before I went on the CBS board, to have a CBS cable channel that was to be geared at a higher level of program service. It was losing money; the board closed it down, but Bill Paley wanted to do that.
YUTKIN: Can I ask you about some of the people right now who are in the leadership positions who are involved in programming; who are involved in media distribution? Someone like Rupert Murdoch, who’s very powerful, very influential, very smart. How does someone like that compare with say, David Sarnoff?
MINOW: Well, there again, I think you’ve got both people of great talent, but I think Rupert Murdoch is not as interested as General Sarnoff was in elevating, using the medium to elevate. In 1939, when television was first demonstrated in the United States, General Sarnoff said, quote, “Now we add sight to sound.” I can’t see Rupert Murdoch or any of the current crew coming up with that visionary a view of the world.
YUTKIN: I’d like to ask you about another individual who’s pretty influential and done a lot for the cable television industry, particularly from a programming standpoint and that’s Ted Turner.
MINOW: I think he’s done a lot for the country. I think he’s done a lot for viewers. I think the concept of CNN and it’s very spin-offs and what he’s done since has been absolutely of great value to the country and I had a couple of personal experiences with him. I was on the board of CBS when Ted tried to take it over and I didn’t meet him at the time, but subsequently he came to Chicago to give a speech at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and I was to introduce him. So I love to tease, so I said, “I’m very glad to announce this morning, as I introduce Ted Turner to you, that CBS has made a tender offer this morning for Turner Broadcasting.”
MINOW: I said, “Kidding! I’m kidding.” But I take my hat off to him. I think he’s done a very valuable service and because he was a visionary and because he was not governed in his early years by the discipline of the financial analysts. He could invest his own money and his partners’ money without worrying about whether the stock was going to go down. He took a lot of chances and did very, very well.
YUTKIN: So you would compare him favorably to some of the pioneers in broadcasting?
MINOW: Absolutely. I think he deserves to be in that category. History will record that.
YUTKIN: One of the first things that he did was encourage his television station to go up and become, I believe, the first superstation.
MINOW: That was another use of the satellite. Another use of the satellite in a brilliant way.
YUTKIN: When I got in the business about 20 years ago, WGN was in the process of going up on the satellite and you’re a director, or past director, of…
MINOW: Past director of the Tribune Company.
YUTKIN: Past director of the Tribune Company, and it’s my recollection that WGN at that point was not very happy about going up on the bird and fought it.
MINOW: There were mixed views about it but it turned out, in the long run, it was of great value to WGN and to the Chicago Cubs.
YUTKIN: I think we’re going to have equal time. Tell us about – you mentioned that Paley would have probably had more money with his Viacom stock.
YUTKIN: Tell us about any experience you have had in terms of opportunities to get into the cable industry.
MINOW: I made a few investments in the cable business. I made an investment in a partnership that Chuck Dolan had in one of the early systems in Oyster Bay, New York. The reason I read about it and somebody approached me about investing in it, was that you could bring the Madison Square Garden games to the audience in Oyster Bay. I said, “God, if I lived in Oyster Bay and I could see Madison Square Garden without the hassle of driving to New York and all of the rest of it, I would buy that service in a minute.” Unfortunately, we sold out much too soon; we should have stayed with it. We made a little money but should have stayed with it. Dolan is another great visionary. I made little investments from time to time with my friend Jim Hoak and Heritage, but the biggest blooper, a monumental blooper that I made that I kick myself about, I had a client named Don Nathanson. His son, Marc, runs Falcon Communications, a big cable company. Don was an advertising guy. He’s had his own advertising agency in Chicago called North Advertising. Don loved the cable business and he came to me one day and he said, “Newt, I’ve got a deal to buy a cable system in Janesville, Wisconsin.” My recollection was that it was for $500,000 and he said, “I want you to represent me. I shook hands on a deal where I’ll give him a $50,000 deposit and give him the payment when we close.”
YUTKIN: When was this?
MINOW: This would have been in the late ’60’s. We represented Don. We got the contract done and I checked Janesville; it was a perfect spot for cable because at that time you couldn’t get the Chicago stations and you couldn’t get the Milwaukee stations so with cable you were going to be able to do that.
YUTKIN: From Madison.
MINOW: The night before we were to close, Don called me at home. He said, “Newt, I’ve got bad news. I’ve just lost my biggest client for the advertising agency. I’ve got a huge lease in New York I can’t get rid of. I’ve got to fire a lot of people. I can’t close the transaction tomorrow. Could you please figure out some way to get my deposit back?” Like a lawyer, all I’m thinking about is how am I going to get back Don’s $50,000 deposit. The thought never crossed my mind to say, “Don, would you mind terribly if I bought it or if I brought in some partners and we bought it instead of you?” Never crossed my mind. All I’m thinking about is how to get Don’s money back. We met in the morning with the people who were selling the system. They were an Irish group from Janesville, very attractive, very nice and I just decided I’d be totally straight with them and I said, “I have to tell you, we’ve got a problem.” I told them that Don had called me, and I said, “I wonder if you would consider letting us have the deposit back?” They said, “Here is the deposit back.” We shook hands and left. I called Don very happy. I said, “Don, I got your deposit back.” That night I said to myself, “What have I done?” That was a perfect investment; I should have bought. They kept it. They parlayed it in owning the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. It became a very successful business and I, like a dummy, concentrated as a lawyer. I did my duty as a lawyer but I certainly didn’t do my duty to my family.
YUTKIN: Well, everybody makes some mistakes sometime. That became Total TV, and was that the Fitzgerald family?
MINOW: The Fitzgerald family, that’s right. Lovely, wonderful people.
YUTKIN: The Jim Fitzgerald family, also pioneers in the cable television industry. You said you did a disservice, let me just go for an aside, you said you did a disservice to your family. I read in some of the background material that you have three children, three daughters.
MINOW: I have three daughters. They’re all, to my astonishment, lawyers. They’re all happily married. They’re all doing good work. One, the oldest one, is a shareholder activist and runs an investment fund. One is a professor at Harvard Law School and one is a professor at San Jose University and does work for the disabled community.
YUTKIN: And do they have the idealistic interest and the responsibilities of communication as their dad does?
MINOW: Absolutely. The oldest daughter has just written a book about how to pick the right video for your child. She does The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies. They’ve all three got their heart in the right place.
YUTKIN: And how many grandchildren?
MINOW: Three grandchildren.
YUTKIN: Three grandchildren; that’s wonderful. Congratulations on that.
MINOW: Thank you.
YUTKIN: Tell us about, you have so many honorary degrees and directorships and so on and so forth, we could probably spend ten minutes just reading them, but I know Notre Dame is close to your heart and tell us about Father Malloy.
MINOW: I was, for many years, a trustee of Notre Dame. I’m now a life trustee. I am the first Jewish trustee of Notre Dame and it’s been a very rich and rewarding part of my life. Notre Dame owned a UHF television station in South Bend and one day I was called by Notre Dame and they said, “We need your advice. You’re an expert in this cable television broadcast world. Somebody’s applying for a cable television license in South Bend. What should we do?” At that time it was Father Joyce who was in charge of all the financial affairs of the university and Father Hesburgh was the president, and Father Joyce’s first name was Ned. I said, “Ned, who owns the other two local UHF stations?” He told me. I said, “You ought to go to them and see if the three of you could strike a partnership and apply for the franchise yourself. You, being well known in the community, they’d probably give it to you. Chances are, if you get it and build a system, some day the government will force you to choose between owning the cable system or owning the television stations. It may well be, at that point, that the cable system may be worth more than the television stations, I don’t know. But for Notre Dame’s interests, it’s a great way to hedge your bet and see how it turns out.” Father Joyce did that and the franchise was awarded to the three local television stations. Sure enough, about four or five years went by and the government said, “You can’t own a cable system and a television station at the same time.” So Notre Dame had the option to choose which to do. Somebody came along and offered them a lot of money for the cable system and they sold it and pocketed the money and said, “We did very well with that investment.” Looking back at it now, it’d be interesting to examine whether that was the right decision or not, because the cable system is still there and is doing very, very well, but that was the history of the Notre Dame investment in cable television.
YUTKIN: Speaking of franchises and the franchising process, in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, the franchising of America became very important. Do you feel that that was proper at that time, in terms of local authorities being in a position to grant franchises and may have their own particular motivations for making the awards.
MINOW: My answer would be a very diplomatic yes and no.
YUTKIN: Well, you said that you could say anything you want to on this!
MINOW: Well, yes in the sense of giving the local community the authority and responsibility. No, in the sense that it led to a lot of corruption; it led to a lot of abuse; it led to a lot of unreasonable pressures put on a cable system. So it was yes and no. Given our form of government with a federal, state and local government system, we had the federal government, through the FCC, setting certain standards. The state getting involved to a certain extent, but that’s the nature of our democratic process. I was involved for a client at that time. I was a lawyer for a major advertising agency; I later became I director of it – Foot, Cone and Belding, now called True North. We decided to go in the cable business and we got five franchises. We got three of them in California, one was in Colorado – they were all in the west – one was in New York, the state of New York. We made money on them; we later sold them all to TCI. We made the mistake of selling the TCI stock, which I argued against. That was a very bad mistake. So I learned something about the franchising business; appearing before the various municipalities and local governments and making the argument about why we should get it and others should not. But I can see both sides of that and I don’t know what a better alternative would be.
YUTKIN: And so it’s turned out for the public interest.
MINOW: You’ve got arguments now about what happens on the internet and all that sort of thing. So these chapters are still being written.
YUTKIN: I’d like to turn to the transition from that franchising period when cable was just in its infancy as we know it now and ask what you think about the future, the convergence, the gathering together of a lot of assets within several companies, AT&T talking at this point about buying Media One after they’ve already purchased TCI. How do you see the future from a physical standpoint in terms of serving people and then, maybe, how do you feel about those things that are important to you in terms of quality and commitment in public service and do you feel that there will be more responsibility in the future?
MINOW: Well, the major issue in this area that you’re questioning and also in a larger context, is we’re living in a time of technological revolution and public policy always does not travel as fast as technological advance. Laws, rules, regulations, don’t keep pace with a technological change.
YUTKIN: They’re more reactive, then?
MINOW: They’re reactive and usually they’re dealing with yesterdays. It’s like saying the generals are fighting the last war and what’s happening now, as I foresee the next fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, this convergence, which we’ve talked about for a long time, is actually going to happen. The computer and the television set will be one. I noticed in this morning’s paper, Sony has just licensed this new replay technology, which means that you can record a program, not on tape, but on a disk and you can pick up the telephone and be on the telephone if you’re interrupted and still pick up the program that you missed. It’s going to change everything. It’s going to enable people to skip commercials a lot easier than they have done in the past. It’s going to change advertising. Also, the internet will be a fundamental change in the way people use the box that will be a television set and a computer. One of our daughters sent us Web TV, which I think is a forerunner of using your television set to send e-mail and go into the internet. So there’s going to be an enormous, enormous change. Given the fact that we have a capitalistic market place system, which is the best thing for advances in technology, the government really should stay our of it as much as possible and just not be foreclosing any technological advance that might be of service. What happens is that people in the existing businesses want to stop progress. I’ll give you my example. When I was at the FCC, the communications satellite was being invented. The issue was in Congress and in the White House, the Justice Department, should you let the people who are currently in the business go into the satellite business, or should you say, no, you can’t do that. This has only got to be for new people. I testified 13 times to the Senate and the Congress on this issue. The day before the vote in the Senate, very early in the morning, before 7 in the morning, my phone rang and it was the majority leader of the Senate at that time, Mike Mansfield. He said, “Newt, you know we’re taking up the communications satellite bill today. There’s a hot argument about it, and I want to know what you really think. I know you’ve testified all these times, what do you really think?” I said, “Senator Mansfield, if we’re talking today about airlines, let’s say we’re talking about the airline industry, and all the airlines are using prop propellers and now jets are invented, would we say to the airline industry, you’re not allowed to use jets?” He said, “Of course not.” I said, “Well, what is the difference between this and that.” Why shouldn’t the people who are in the communications business, the RCA’s, the AT&T’s, the GE’s, the GTE’s, everybody, why shouldn’t they have a chance to use a new technology? Why do we say that they shouldn’t be allowed to take a technological advance? That’s the issue as I see it. Therefore, I wouldn’t restrict, I wouldn’t have the government by law impede a technological advance.” Now I think the same thing is true here. I think you want to have as many entrepreneurial ideas, as many technological ideas compete in the marketplace and let the consumer decide which is best for the consumer. What they want to pay for, what they don’t want to pay for and let the government stay out of it as much as possible. That would be the philosophy I would bring to it.
YUTKIN: Let’s talk a little bit more about convergence. How do you see that in terms of consolidation of power in individual companies? For instance, in Chicago now, whereas five years ago you probably had a half a dozen cable operators, especially if the Media One acquisition goes through, then AT&T will be the only supplier of cable television here in the city. That certainly affords a lot of positives in terms of the kinds of things that they can offer and it’s not very fragmented, but what do you think about that?
MINOW: Well, again, if you’re going to draw a balance sheet, there are assets and liabilities to it. The big asset is, it may bring competition to telephone service. That’s a very major asset. If, in fact, you make local television service, just as long distance television service is competitive, it will affect prices, it will affect service, so that’s the positive thing. When you say there were five people here, they were each a monopoly in their own area. The best thing you could have would be a couple of people providing cable service in the same place and that’s going to happen in Chicago. I don’t know if you noticed, just the other day, the city council was about to bring up a franchise for another company to provide cable service. That will happen in the end and that will be a good thing, not a bad thing, in my opinion. Even though, the current people in the cable business won’t like it.
YUTKIN: During the ’80’s, in the franchising days, the cable operators used to argue that we really don’t have a monopoly and that there are other alternatives and people can turn off television. And the other side said, well if you’re the only show in town, if you’re the only wire in town, then you do have a monopoly. They both seem to be right in their own logic but do you think that that’s going to create more competition as things go on?
MINOW: Yes. I think satellite television will be a very major competitor for cable. It’s becoming so all the time. Having a dish which is small and which you can receive local signals as well as distant signals, and I think this is good. If you believe, as I do, in competition – when I was at the FCC, I used to always make one point to the industries that we regulated. I said, “You’re going to have one thing or the other. You’ll either have more competition or you’ll have more regulation. You’ll have more competition or you’ll have more regulation. If I were you I would want more competition because then the government won’t be on your back, but if you don’t have more competition, if you’re a monopoly, the government will be on your back and I’d guarantee you that.”
YUTKIN: The FCC’s changed a lot since you were chairman.
MINOW: It has, but of course the industry has changed a lot, too. One thing very few people know or seem to understand, I didn’t understand until I actually got there, the FCC works not for the President or the White House, the FCC works for Congress. When I was appointed chairman of the FCC, I made the rounds of going to see the Speaker of the House and the Leader of the Senate. At that time, the Speaker of the House was Mr. Sam Rayburn. He looked at me and he said, “Young man, you’ve got a barrel of snakes here.” I said, “Oh?” He said, “Worse than that young man, you’ve got a barrel with no bottom. But you’re going to get along very well if you remember one thing.” I said, “Yes, sir?” He said, “You work for me. You work for the Congress. If you remember that, we’re going to get along just fine.” When I was there, we had three major bills pending in Congress. All three passed. President Kennedy called me up at home one night. He said, “How in the hell did you do that? How did you get your bills passed?” He said, “I can’t get anything passed.” I said, “Well, number one, my bills are not partisan. There’s not a Republican way or Democratic way of dealing with these issues. I get more help actually from the Republicans than I do from the Democrats. Second, I work at it. I’m up there every single day working on it and third, the issues that we’re dealing, they’ve been decided correctly without partisanship.” I said, “You can’t do that because what you’re dealing with are issues that involve partisanship and so it’s a different ballgame.”
YUTKIN: When you say that the FCC works for Congress, you mean because they fund? But they’re appointed by the President?
MINOW: They’re appointed by the President, but all these agencies were created in the New Deal and they’re all regarded as “arms of Congress” doing Congressional work spelling out the details of laws that Congress passes. They are not part of the executive branch.
YUTKIN: Do you think that the FCC has become more responsive to the appointing President and his wishes in recent years more so than they were thirty, almost forty years ago since you’ve been in?
MINOW: I don’t think so. I think that the issues that the FCC deals with today, in many ways are simply modern versions of the same issues. The issues of what’s the role of government. You’ve also got the first amendment, which is a major issue, particularly where broadcasting is concerned. If I were on the FCC today, I would be doing everything I could, for example, to get Howard Stern off-the-air, but I would be limited by the fact that I can’t interfere or censor a particular program. That is against the law. So I would have to go over the broadcasters – I couldn’t do it by regulation; I would have to change public opinion so that public opinion would change the broadcasters.
YUTKIN: Let me pick up on the comment that you made about Howard Stern. You said that you wish that you could get him off the air.
MINOW: There was an article, in of all places, Broadcasting Magazine about a recent Howard Stern program where on television he shaved the pubic hair of a young woman, and I say to myself, “Have we confused pubic interest with the public interest? Is this what television has become?” Now, if I were running the station, Howard Stern would not be on the air. If I were CBS, Howard Stern would not be on the air. But if I were chairman of the FCC, there’s nothing I could do about it under our current law because the law forbids the government from censoring broadcast programs.
YUTKIN: One of the reasons that cable television has been successful during the franchising days, was because it was able to provide local origination programming. Many of the franchising authorities…
MINOW: Insisted on it.
YUTKIN: …insisted on it; insisted on educational channels for the local schools; insisted on public access; insisted on government access and so on and so forth. And yet, on a local channel in New York not long ago, there was a fella who was going around and taping dirty movies. The cable company was between a rock and a hard place. How do you resolve something like that? The FCC can’t step in.
MINOW: The cable company should have gone to Congress and said, “Let’s change the law here. Public access doesn’t mean that anybody who wants to put on some insightful program, inciting people to riot; some sex program, which is going to harm children; we’ve got to have some measure of editorial judgment because very often reformers have a concept – public access. But there are consequences to public access that defy common sense.
YUTKIN: But how do you define common sense?
MINOW: I think we’ve done it in the broadcasting business through the years. We’ve said to broadcasters, “You are a trustee for the public. You have to use your own good judgment and if you don’t want pornography on the air, you have a right to take it off.” The same thing should have been done with cable.
YUTKIN: But the definition of pornography is…
MINOW: Justice Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.”
YUTKIN: But I can’t give you a definition of it.
MINOW: Right. But I would trust the cable operators’ judgment rather than letting anything go. That’s the point.
YUTKIN: Okay. Let me ask you about, to continue on in terms of local origination and the duties and responsibility that the local cable operator has for their community. What do you think that responsibility is and how do you think it’s been handled and do you think it should be expanded?
MINOW: Well, I think as you have more and more channels, there are more and more opportunities for local service. For example, where I live, we get the local board of trustees meetings; we get the board of education meetings. If you’re interested and want to see it, it’s there for you on television.
YUTKIN: You mean in your building?
MINOW: No, no, in our community, in the village government. I think that’s very good. I think a high school football game or a local athletic thing, I think that’s all great and should be. But I draw the line when it comes to somebody who wants to put on pornography or wants to make a hate-filled thing inciting people to riot. As I say, you have to have some common sense involved, otherwise this democratic process is going to commit suicide. When I was a law clerk at the United States Supreme Court, Justice Robert Jackson once said, “The Constitution of the United States is not a suicide pact.” Think about that.
YUTKIN: What about politics and it’s place on the cable network?
MINOW: Well, I am a total advocate of the British system when television and politics are involved. Namely, a candidate for office cannot purchase time on television and a television cable operator cannot sell time to a candidate. A certain amount of time is given to the political parties to make their case. There’s no censorship; there’s no interference in what they say, but that’s it. That takes an enormous amount of the pressure to raise all this money that’s causing the renting out of the Lincoln bedroom, that’s causing the Republicans to have $250,000 clubs so people can pitch their special interest to a Senator. In today’s Washington, there’s only one bi-partisan agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats – show me the money. That’s the one place where both parties agree. This has got to stop and the first place to stop it is the enormous cost of going on television. If I were the cable industry, I would tomorrow offer political candidates public service time to make their cases, equal in time for the opponents and I’d say, “We will not sell time for attack ads. We will not sell time for political purposes. It is provided by us as a public service.” I’d make the broadcasters look bad by cable doing it first. There are some cable operators who did this in California last year.
YUTKIN: So you would not take even commercials? Even a 30-second spot endorsement?
MINOW: No, I wouldn’t allow it. Somehow England has a democracy without it.
YUTKIN: Yes, they do.
MINOW: There are exactly three countries in the world, three countries, that do not provide public service time to candidates. They are Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States of America. That is great company to be in.
YUTKIN: What are you going to do about getting that through?
MINOW: I’m working on it. I’m not getting very far.
YUTKIN: Do you think that that needs to be handled legislatively?
MINOW: Yes, and I also think it has to be handled by the Supreme Court which made a decision in the case called Buckley vs. Valejo which equated speech and money in knocking out some campaign finance reform legislation and I make this point. Suppose I want to argue a case in the United States Supreme Court and I’m allowed exactly 30 minutes and I’ve worked very hard on my argument; I know I need 45 minutes. So I go to the Clerk of the Court and I say, “Here’s a check, I’d like to buy 15 more minutes for my argument.” The Clerk would throw me out. Suppose I’m a member of Congress and I want to make an important speech on an issue I’ve studied very hard and I need 30 minutes. The Clerk says, “You’ve got 5 minutes. That’s all you’re allowed.” And I say, “Well, I’d like to buy 25 more minutes, here’s a check.” They’d throw you out. What I’m saying is I could argue to the Clerk of the Supreme Court and the Clerk of Congress that speech is money, money is speech. So said the United States Supreme Court, but the United States Supreme Court Clerk would say not in the Supreme Court it’s not. The Clerk of Congress would say not in Congress it’s not.
YUTKIN: Looking back since 1961, are we better off now in terms of communication, in terms of cable, in terms of broadcasting and then looking forward, where do you think we’re going to be forty years from now?
MINOW: We’re much better off, we’re much better off than we were before. We have a much wider range of choice. That’s the main thing. I can find what I want on television.
YUTKIN: But there are more bad choices now, too.
MINOW: Right, but I have the right to make the choice, which I couldn’t make the choice before. It wasn’t there. It puts a greater burden on the consumer and the parent, but that’s good. Now, the bad thing is that we’ve lost our sense of sharing as a big nation. We are a huge nation. 250-260 million people spread across a vast continent. It used to be when a terrible thing happened – a Presidential assassination – we shared every moment together. We had a common experience as a nation. There was usually one television set in the house; the whole family watched it together, shared the experience. The neighbors shared the experience. People you worked with shared the experience. That’s changed. Now we’ve got five television sets in the house. The kids are watching one thing, the parents are watching another thing, the husband’s watching one thing, the wife’s watching another thing. We’re not sharing a common simultaneous experience. That’s a bad side, particularly when you want to united the country to share a common experience.
YUTKIN: So then cable television, which has really choice has upsides and downsides and how do you think that’s going to move forward in the future? What do you think the FCC is going to be like forty years from now? Where is there to go; how much more choice could we have?
MINOW: Well, what I would do and I wrote a long letter to President Kennedy when I left, I would change the FCC quite radically. I would have a single person who is part of the executive branch and if you didn’t like what that person decided, that man or woman or whoever it is, you’d have a special court where you’d have an immediate review by independent people. But what you’ve got now, I think, is subject to such pressures, such interference by Congress on every issue, it’s very tough. When I was there, the world was a lot simpler than it is now. I was a lot luckier to have been there in the early ’60’s than in the late ’90’s.
YUTKIN: Doesn’t everyone say that as they get older?
MINOW: I once was interviewed by the New York Times by Johnny Apple because I said that the old way of picking Presidential candidates was better than the current primary system and he said, “Aren’t you guilty of nostalgia for the old days?” I said, “The present is not always better than the past.”
YUTKIN: Because we look at it through rose-colored glasses.
MINOW: Well, sometimes the past was a little better, too.
YUTKIN: There were certain things?
MINOW: Right, right.
YUTKIN: So forty years from now, we’ll look back and think that things were better?
MINOW: I’m sure that’s right, but I think the main thing driving it will be technology. I think that we’ll be using our television set and our computer in ways that none of us have ever dreamed about before. The main thing we have to do as a country is be sure that everybody has a shot at it. That it doesn’t only go to people who have money; that it doesn’t only go to people who are white; that it doesn’t go only to men. We’ve got to be sure that everybody in this country has an equal shot at all this technological marvel.
YUTKIN: Just this last week, there was a study that reported the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is going more to the wealthy and less to the poor.
YUTKIN: The top 1% has as much disposable income as a hundred million people. When everybody says the future is convergence and technology and the internet and so on and so forth, do you think that that’s going to be, if things go the way they are that it will be more for the elite, the people who can afford it?
MINOW: No, I think what’s going to happen, and I congratulate what the FCC is doing in providing internet service to all the schools, public libraries; I think what Bill Gates is doing is very sensible. I was chairman of the Carnegie Foundation. We have put a lot of effort into making equal opportunity to new technologies in the schools and libraries, so I think what will really happen is it will be a blessing, not a bad thing. It will be good. The kids will learn, or already know, I learned from my grandchildren how to use the computer.
YUTKIN: Yes, we learn more from our kids. Thank you very much.
MINOW: Gerry, this is a pleasure. I’m a great advocate of what the cable people have done. I’m glad to see you’re doing this project and I’m pleased and honored to be part of it.
YUTKIN: We appreciate you taking the time. I think you’ve certainly been one of the most influential minds in the communication industry in the last forty years. Not only from the beginning, but since then.
MINOW: What about the next forty?
YUTKIN: Well, we hope we’ll have the benefit of your opinions for the next forty years. So are you saying the maybe forty years from now we won’t call it the cable television industry?
MINOW: I think that’s right. I think cable, broadcast, computer, I think it will all somehow be submerged into something we call the communications industry.
YUTKIN: Thank you very much. We’ve been talking to Newton Minow, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This oral and video history is made possible by The Hauser Foundation Oral and Video History Program of The Cable Television Center and Museum in Denver, Colorado.
MINOW: Please tell Gus and Rita [Hauser] hello for me.
YUTKIN: Thank you very much. Thank you again.