October 10, 2015

This week in TV Guide: October 9, 2005

TV Guide was already dead and buried long before this, the final "small size" issue, and the final one to feature local programming listings.  The death rattle probably started when the magazine was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1988 and began its transformation into a tawdry tabloid, but in truth the germ of the disease was contracted even earlier, as the medium itself changed.

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?

There is, however, a single redeeming section that dares to hearken back through the years, a section commemorating the history of TV Guide with a look through the decades, featuring historical recreations of famous covers with today's stars taking on the iconic roles of the past.  The recreations are often quite witty, as with the case of an I Dream of Jeannie cover from the late '60s, with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa taking the roles of Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden (Right).  There's also a "Then and Now" section presenting quotes and icons of years past (such as the 1968 quote from Dean Martin when, asked if he could describe his philosophy of life in ten words, said he could do it in less: "Everybody should have fun."). They've also thrown in a picture of Diana Rigg in her Avengers leather outfit, so there's that.

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
I've remarked often about the days when sports didn't dominate the weekend, but by now it does. There are no less than 14 college football games on Saturday alone, and thanks to cable there are now games on Thursday and Friday nights as well.  The World Series, the ending to which we looked at last week, hasn't even started yet; this week is the province of the League Division Series, followed by the League Championship Series; the World Series itself won't begin until October 22.  NASCAR, which once appeared a week or two later on Wide World of Sports, now gets live, flag-to-flag coverage on NBC, which shares NASCAR with Fox - a network that didn't even exist when the TV Guides we review were originally published.

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!
There are 10 local stations listed, and an additional 74 cable listings to choose from.  It's the ultimate in individualism, and when we look back over the years, we remember talk about the '80s being the decade of greed, and the '90s and early '00s being the time when the stock market took off and made everyone wealthy and prosperous until they weren't.  In the same way, we've seen television progress from a relative handful of local stations to increasing choices, first a number of cable networks and then an overwhelming number, a fourth broadcast network and then a fifth*, video cassettes and then DVDs and now streaming video enabling you to watch what you want when you want, even an entire season over a weekend, which means you're no longer subject to the programming decisions of others; and running through all this is a certain glorification of the individual.  And so we ask: has television promoted this, with its evolutionary choices driving the expectations people have about other aspects of their lives, or is it simply a mirror of how people feel regarding life in general, with television adjusting to that new reality?  Six of one, half a dozen of the other, in all likelihood, and yet - like the chicken and the egg, to belabor another cliche if we must - one of these schools of thought must have played a more dominant role, informed the other in some pivotal way.  Perhaps we need The Most Interesting Man in the World to tell us the truth.

*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?
For TV Guide was never really about the TV shows themselves, at least not about the titles. It was about the descriptions, the list of stars and writers, the way the shows interacted with each other and how one could plan an entire week's worth of viewing at a glance. It was reading about the stars and learning something about their private lives, even if that information was frequently laughably incomplete. It was about the editorials and articles urging improvement in programming, about prominent people from various fields making their suggestions, about stories that gave the historical background to documentaries or movies that were on that week. In those days one could read about the prospects of something called cable television, could speculate as to whether or not people would actually pay money to watch something in their own home, could imagine a large machine that would record programs for them so they could watch them later. There was even the hope that TV sets would become flatter, that you might even be able to hang them on the wall.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I know it may be too much to ask (and I suppose I could just google it) but do you know what the other cover recreations were?

    I'd given up on TV Guide long before the size change. I think when my subscription lapsed in the '90's I gave up on the magazine, much for the same reasons you described.

    The first big change I noticed was when they stopped hiring illustrators for the covers and only going with photos (okay, I'm a bit prejudiced here, as an artist I loved the variety and choices they made for the occasional illustrated cover). Though I guess I can't fault TV Guide here alone for those choices, the movie industry has gone the same route over the last several decades. Settling on uninteresting photos of the stars faces on movie posters rather than creative, eye catching illustrations and paintings Gone are the days of hiring artists like Drew Struzan and Richard Amsel.

    But what may have been the tipping point for me, to leave TV Guide behind, was when they would feature covers pimping a movie that was about to be released. Not movies that were appearing on TV, but in the theaters. TV Guide was no longer a publication about television, for television. It was a magazine, just like every other magazine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And today, [u][i]TV[/i][/u] [u][i]Guide[/i][/u] is (with a couple of exceptions each year) published only once every two weeks.

    It's probably going to be only a matter of months before the magazine is discontinued.

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