From the outset, one of the primary goals of TV Guide was to win respect for television, to encourage people to view it as something other than a frivolous entertainment. Publisher Walter Annenberg and Editor Merrill Pannit strove to elevate the level of dialogue from that of the typical "fan magazine," commissioning articles by noteworthy politicians, historians and authors, and featuring pieces from such writers as John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Edith Efron and others. Once it became apparent that television needed TV Guide more than the other way around, the magazine and its writers took the gloves off, frequently casting a critical eye not only at the shows themselves, but the stars who appeared in them. And always, Pannit's editorials insisted that television could become better, with more of an emphasis on culture and the arts and improved programming for children, and that it should not dumb down its programming for the public.
At the same time, TV Guide was a staunch defender of television against its many critics. It was skeptical, though not totally dismissive, of the idea that programs could have adverse effects on viewers, especially young children. It constantly campaigned against government intervention, while reminding the industry that such intervention was inevitable if it refused to clean up its own act. There were serious, incisive interviews with producers, directors and writers about how programs could better deal with controversial issues and adult topics, and whether or not there was an implicit censorship emanating from network headquarters.
All of that was part of the old TV Guide, the issues that you ordinarily read about in this space. But now, looking at this final issue, we notice the differences, large and small, that have appeared over the years.
For one thing, the daily listings now begin on Sunday rather than Saturday. I suppose this makes sense given that the calendar week begins on Sunday, but I always thought the Saturday start made an implicit point about the importance of the weekend and how television was an instrumental part of the leisure time that Saturday and Sunday represented.* That's the first, and most obvious, change, along with the staggering number of channels covered in the issue. Not only has there been a multiplication of local stations, we now have cable as well. It's this, more than anything else, that probably made the change in focus inevitable; in 2005, it was almost impossible to keep track of the hundreds of channels out there, and to publish them in a concise magazine format. Today, ten years on, it's probably ten times more complex than that, considering the rise in original streaming series from Amazon, Netflix, and others. How does one put out a television guide when people can get their programs at any time they want, even all at once if they so choose. I wonder if a visionary such as Pat Weaver could have imagined it?
*For this issue, there are actually eight days covered, since subsequent issues will run from Monday to Sunday.
Sadly, there are other changes that are less understandable, ones that illustrate how the content has been cheapened. Where The Doan Report once informed readers about things going on behind the scenes at the networks, we now have a full-page horoscope. The "Shopper's Showcase," another innovation, is filled with advertisements for psychic and tarot readings and dating services. There are recaps of the world of soaps, replete with sensational headlines like "Oh no they didn't!", and picture layouts that look more like the pages of People Magazine than TV Guide. Then, of course, there are the full-page drug ads, replete with warnings on proper usage and possible side effects.* What once was presented as news is now juicy gossip, written in a breathless "dish the dirt" prose.
*Fortunately, this was in the pre-Viagra era of heavy-duty advertising.
Have I mentioned, by the way, that youngsters ought to get off my lawn?
This section functions much the same way as the retrospective film montages that frequent the Oscar broadcasts (another fun event of the past that seems to have lost its way in the last few years). They're fun on one hand, an affectionate parade of memories, of people you knew (and plenty you didn't), and on the other hand they provide a vivid reminder of how far away those times are, and that despite the brilliance that still manifests itself from time to time, those days - good and bad - are gone forever.
Since we're on a theme of change, there ought to be something to that effect regarding the programs on television this week.
|Back then, Sunday Night Football was on ESPN|
The Close-Up, which once covered nearly half a page, now is reduced to a quarter of a page, and with so many programs from so many networks crammed onto the page (in small type, no less), it's what you might depend on as to what's worth watching. This obviously applies to The Surreal Life, on VH-1 at 8:00pm (CT) on Sunday: "Feuding housemates Omarosa and Janice Dickinson battle to the (very) bitter end, leading one of them to leave the house in tears in the fifth-season finale." There's a spotlight on the new series Relentless, a "true-crime series about women who took the law in to their own hands," that premieres on Oxygen at 9:30 Sunday. That was apparently good for a couple of seasons. Better that you might want to stick with this week's episode of Lost (ABC, Wednesday at 8:00), where Hurley tries to deal with numbers that keep coming back from his past, or Ghost Whisperer (CBS, 7:00 Friday), a "tearjerker" about a ghost reluctant to leave his grieving fiancee.* Even here, there's no rundown on casts, no details as to episode title - you either know it or you don't.
*Gee, I wonder where they got that idea from?
Movies remain as big as they ever were on television, but there's been a shift. Instead of blockbuster theatrical premieres from the networks, and afternoon or late night movies from local stations, most movies today are broadcast on cable, and channels such as HBO and TCM give them to you unedited and without commercial interruption. Remember how people used to complain about that? And whereas even married couples used to sleep in separate beds, if you're lucky you can probably catch a glimpse or two of a bare breast now, at least if you have HBO or Cinemax. Anyway, there are so many movies on TV now, and each one of them runs so many times a week, there's an entire section devoted to listing them - it's called, appropriately enough, "The Big Movie Guide," and it runs for 31 pages. You can find it in the back of the issue, right after the ad for the tarot readings.
It's been a strange issue to review, because the difference between this issue and one from, say, the '80s is far greater than the difference between that '80s issue and one from the late '50s. In the later case there were major cosmetic changes, to be sure, and the programming habits of individual stations could be somewhat erratic, but at least it was recognizable as the same type of creature. Perhaps that's what makes this one so hard to follow, the fact that it's so different, so chock full of information that one doesn't even know where to begin to look.
|And this only covers some of the stations available!|
*For some reason, PBS has never been counted as one of the Big Three, now the Big Four with the addition of Fox, and I'm simply following that convention. Sorry, CW.
I'm not surprised that TV Guide changed its format, going to a bigger size and eliminating local programming. In a way, it's more surprising that it didn't happen sooner; I had been a loyal subscriber to TV Guide since 1972 and had read it going back years before that, but I'd stopped reading it three or so years before this; I'd actually gotten to where I'd ignored it for three or four months, never even opening the cover, before I got around to canceling the subscription altogether. It's true that it's more convenient to look programs up on the computer or through the channel guide from your cable or satellite provider, but it takes a bit of effort (I seldom get past the sports channels), and to be perfectly honest, it's nowhere near as much fun.
|You wouldn't expect me to ignore|
a Texas Ranger, would you?
In short, TV Guide was about the future as much as it was the present, and when it was in the present it was all there. The issue of October 9, 2005, the final issue of its kind, is about a future that's already changing so quickly that this issue would appear quaint to us today, in the same way as that inaugural issue from April 3, 1953, the one with Lucy and Ricky's baby on the cover.
There is no sense of the present anymore, just a rush to reach a future that's much less exciting, with an emphasis on individual choice in viewing rather than the collective group experience. As I said, it was inevitable. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.
And if you damn kids are still there, get off the lawn - this time, I mean it.