We are living in what is widely acknowledged as the Golden Age of television. What began as a trickle of captivating, intelligent, and creatively challenging series such as NYPD Blue and Oz became a flood with The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Now we're drowning in an ocean of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards. Every month it seems a new jolt of inspiration appears from HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Amazon, and ever more unexpected corners of the media universe.

 How did we get here from the bad old days of the idiot box? Television became truly great when it ceased being television, thus escaping the rules, regulations, conventions, and tastes that for decades kept the boob tube boring, stupid, and safe.
To understand why television was so bad for so long, you have to go back to May 1961. That was when the newly installed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Newton Minow, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that ruined everything. The address lasted almost 40 minutes and was more than 5,000 words long, but in the days and decades that followed it was remembered almost exclusively for just two words: "vast wasteland."
That was Minow's sour description of the burgeoning world of television. The speech was delivered from his perch as the nation's top broadcast regulator, yet it was framed in more personal terms. "I am the chairman of the FCC," Minow said. "But I am also a television viewer," one who has seen "a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile." He had no complaint with those shows, the ones he liked to watch. His objection was to the rest of the TV lineup. It was pulpy, profane, populist, and crude, and he wanted it to change.
Minow wasn't acting as broadcast bureaucrat so much as he was playing amateur TV critic. His complaint was the same complaint made by so many grumbling channel surfers: There's nothing on.
But the difference between his critique and most armchair TV criticism was that Minow's was backed by the explicit threat of enforcement. To the broadcasting professionals assembled, he said, "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." Television was a public good, and broadcasters owed the public for the airwaves they controlled. "I intend to see that your debt is paid with service."
The warning was as subtle as a gun to the head, although Minow probably would have objected to that metaphor. The speech, which had a huge and immediate impact on broadcasters and the public, ranks as one of the highest profile exercises of censorious paternalism in modern history-and also, in its central argument, one of the most blatantly wrong.
What Minow didn't know was that in the decades to come, television would make its biggest cultural impact not in spite of the vulgar genre tropes he despised but because of them, and not thanks to government prodding but by the ability to flee to nontraditional venues where bureaucrats had less power.
By 1960, some 46 million American homes—almost 90 percent of the country—had at least one television. TV had made its mark on politics, launching Minow's mentor Adlai Stevenson to national fame and helping put Minow's boss, President John F. Kennedy, in the White House. In terms of influence, no other form of mass communications came close. In a separate 1961 speech, Minow said that the public "spends more time now with television than it does on anything else except working and sleeping."
Yes, there were pockets of quality. "When television is good," Minow acknowledged in his Vast Wasteland speech, "nothing is better." But "when television is bad," he continued, "nothing is worse."
The FCC chair was explicit about what he disliked, casting the programming of the day as little more than "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."
Kevin Spacey, starring as Frank Underwood, in Netflix's hit drama House of Cards.Netflix
This wasn't Washington's first salvo against televised vulgarity. The Democratic Party was in the midst of a multi-year effort to politicize the perceived decadence of TV programming. The 1960 Democratic platform decried a "national mood that accepts payola and quiz scandals" and "the exploitation of sadistic violence as popular entertainment."
The Vast Wasteland speech was an instant sensation. The Associated Press in 1961 named Minow its newsmaker of the year. And as University of Wisconsin-Madison communications professor James Baughman noted in a 2003 paper, the FCC received more than 4,000 letters, largely in support of his remarks. Among them: a journalist freshly back from a tour in the Navy decrying TV's "change for the worst," a California college student blasting Westerns and declaring himself "sick of the cow country," and a Virginia housewife complaining that daytime shows are all "made for halfwits." With a few exceptions, most of the nation's newspaper editorialists and TV critics sided with Minow as well. It was a busybody coalition of cultural elitists and puritan paternalists, led by a best-and-brightest bureaucrat.
Minow maintained that he did not intend to serve as a censor, promising that "there will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes." But broadcasters understood things very differently.
As Mike Dann, a CBS programming executive at the time, told NPR's On the Media in 2011, the networks perceived Minow's speech as "the Gettysburg Address for broadcasters." It gave them their marching orders, their reason for being.
In the speech's wake broadcasters changed their approach to crafting new shows. Eastern Michigan University communications professor Mary Ann Watson, in her 1994 book The Expanding Vista, highlighted a speech that television program packager Mark Goodson gave to the 1962 convention of American Women in Radio and Television. New-show pitches began arriving with a requisite "Minow Paragraph"-a section included solely for justifying the show's appeal to the FCC. The implication of the insertions, Goodson explained, was this: "You may not like this show. The public may not like it-but he will."
And what Minow inevitably liked was "generally antiseptic, somewhat didactic, slightly dull, offensive to no one, and above all else 'justifiable,'" Goodson said. "The words 'entertainment' or 'pleasure' are seldom if ever mentioned. Like Latin and spinach, these shows are supposed to be good for you."