Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

'The Sopranos' featured James Gandolfini as mob boss Tony Soprano.

He didn’t mince words. He called television a “vast wasteland” and then, warming to his theme, called it, “A procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials … and most of all, boredom.”

It was May 9, 1961, and that’s what Newton Minow said. He’d recently been installed as head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by the Kennedy administration. He was addressing a gathering of TV executives and he intended to scold them. The phrase “vast wasteland” entered the popular lexicon as a defining description of American TV.

The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021

Every anniversary of that speech brings forth rumination and punditry on what has changed and what hasn’t. On the 60th anniversary, it’s fair to say that everything has changed, but it is technology, not changes in taste, that elevated TV to the primary and most relevant storytelling medium of our time.

Story continues below advertisement

(At 95, by the way, Minow is alive and well, and recently wrote the preface to the book Saving the News, by his daughter, Martha Minow, a law professor at Harvard.)

Perhaps the penultimate Boomers TV show was Gunsmoke.

The Canadian Press

At the time he gave his speech in 1961, there were three networks and the top three shows in the U.S. were Wagon Train, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. In the ensuing two decades, Minow helped establish PBS, lobbied hard for Sesame Street and continued to lobby for more competition in the TV landscape. But not much actually changed. On May 4, 1970, the day the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students protesting against the Vietnam War, Gunsmoke was on the air that night.

In 1985 came the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. A scathing indictment of U.S. TV, it suggested that all television programming was advertising, that Americans are manipulated to become “addicted” to entertainment and even TV news coverage was presented as entertainment. Its title also entered the lexicon as a slam-dunk denunciation of TV. Postman’s book remains a standard text, much quoted in Britain especially, to dismiss U.S. television. Those who cite it tend to be people whose knowledge of TV stopped when Friends was on the air.

Well, everything has actually changed since then. Mind you, one misguided belief about the arrival of the Golden Age of television is that public taste changed and there was an audience just waiting for The Sopranos when it launched on HBO in 1999. Not so. It was technology, allied with commerce and new delivery systems, that changed everything. HBO was seeing a drop in subscribers every quarter and the 13-episode story arc, which became the premium-quality cable standard (and has been mimicked by Netflix and other streamers) overlapped with the quarterly billing period. If you dropped the service, you missed the end of the season.

Then premium cable, with all its now-iconic dramas, began to reach a much larger pool of customers when satellite technology became cheaper and made it unnecessary to literally put a cable into homes.

The success of Netflix was propelled by high-speed internet access and, since then, the shift from network and cable TV to streaming is in turn propelled by technology that allows you to connect the internet to a TV set that delivers a high-quality visual experience. First comes the technology, then the artistry. There is barely a single culture shift of the past few years that cannot be entirely linked to technology.

Based on Sally Rooney’s New York Times best-selling novel, Normal People tracks the tender but complicated relationship of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from the end of their school days in a small town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College.

Courtesy of CBC Gem

The whole world knows that the first period of the Golden Age focused primarily on complex, confounding male figures – The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men making up the main trilogy. Since then, there’s been a vast infusion of female-centric storytelling. What happened, you could argue, is that Netflix and other streamers saw a yawing gulf in content and aimed to fill it with women telling their stories. From Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll on Netflix to the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People on Hulu (CBC Gem in Canada), the idea that prestige TV is about male angst has been demolished, as streaming overtook cable TV.

Story continues below advertisement

Sixty years ago, Minow’s slamming of American TV was dead right. He wanted more art, culture, sophisticated storytelling and fewer commercials. He wanted the TV industry to handle that. It took half a century and it was technology that helped transcend the vast wasteland, not well-meaning TV execs or anyone’s artistic endeavour.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies