April 1, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 4, 1998

As most of you know by now, I'm not in the habit of looking at TV Guides of the 1990s. (And no, this isn't an April Fools' joke.) I can't remember if I'd cancelled my subscription yet - no, now that I think about it a bit more, I was still getting it, though I was probably getting less use out of it than before. But thanks to my friend Steve Harris from In Other Words (and his donation of the 40th anniversary issue, which we looked at here), we have a chance to look at a historic issue celebrating the 45th anniversary of TV Guide! The cover reminds us of some of the great issues (and stars) of the past, and even throws back to the original logo, which is a nice touch. Now, having heaped praise on the exterior, let's see what we can say about the interior...

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Not surprisingly, the theme of this issue is the number 45, as in the 45 who made the biggest difference. Rather than ranking them from 1-45, the authors have chosen to group the trailblazers by genre, thus we get comedy, creative forces, visionaries, talk show hosts, and so on. Some of them might seem a bit suspect: I'll bet they'd like to have a do-over on that choice of Bill Cosby, for example, even though he was unquestionably part of television history. I think the choice of Robert Halmi, Sr. - for creating Lonesome Dove, Gulliver's Travels, Merlin, and The Odyssey - is a bit premature; though these miniseries might have been blockbusters at the time, I really don't know their staying power, with the exception of Lonesome Dove. And is Roseanne as influential today as they thought she was back then?

Some choices are a given: Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Ernie Kovacs, Rod Serling (am I being heretical in suggesting they could have chosen Paddy Chayefsky instead?). I am a bit surprised that Arthur Godfrey made the list, and Jackie Gleason didn't. Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were obvious picks in the talk category, and Merv Griffin a perceptive one, but Phil Donahue and David Letterman instead of Jack Paar? While Allen may have been the first Tonight host, it was Paar, after all, who really perfected the format as we know it today.*

*And what about Jerry Lester and Dagmar of Broadway Open House?

I might have included Lee Mendelson for bringing the Peanuts gang to life, one of the most notable achievements television has seen, and if not him than perhaps Rankin-Bass, without whom there'd be no Rudolph. I am, quite frankly, quite surprised that Edward R. Murrow made the list but Walter Cronkite didn't; after all, wasn't Uncle Walter the most trusted man in America at one time? David L. Wolper and Aaron Spelling are very good picks, I think, as is Rupert Murdoch, if you keep in mind that "most influential" doesn't necessarily mean "most distinguished." (But then, Time named Hitler and Khomeini "Men of the Year"; I rest my case.) I won't argue with Agnes Nixon for creating the modern soap opera, nor Roone Arledge for revolutionizing television's coverage of sports, but I have a hard time justifying Barbara Walters, especially if you're not going to include Cronkite.

And Ted Turner's selection appears more prescient than ever - where would we be without CNN, WTBS, and their offspring? In fact, I suppose you can make the case that his was the most influential name of them all.

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There's also a nice look back at the 45 greatest covers; although these aren't ranked either, I'd suspect that issue #1, with Lucy's baby, would be the choice of most. Some of the more notable covers commemorate stars such as Carson, Steve McQueen (Wanted - Dead or Alive), Andy Griffith, Alan Young (Mr. Ed), and Fred Flintstone, while others focus on events - the first moon landing, the premiere of Roots, the phenomenon of Charlie's Angels. I think I only have six or seven of the issues profiled here, including this one with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on the cover, which probably says more about the state of my bank account than anything else.

There's an article on what viewers would have seen the day the first issue of TV Guide hit the newsstands - April 3, 1953. That's kind of fun; the big news on Today concerns the Korean War and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's latest accusation, and when that's done you can catch Ernie Kovacs' morning show on NBC. There are sitcom reruns in the morning and soaps in the early afternoon, and there's more religion as well - a sermon on The Guiding Light - and not just because April 3 happened to be Good Friday; as author Ed Weiner notes, religion is "more an aspect of everyday life" in 1953 than in 1998. After the soaps it's game shows, like Break the Bank, hosted by Bert Parks, and then it's shows for the kids, Howdy Doody being the biggest but not the only one. That's followed by the network news, which is only 15 minutes long, and then it's primetime, and the evening is awash with sitcoms and drama anthologies, with some boxing thrown in. And when the broadcast day ends - and it does end - the test pattern with the Indian head logo comes on, and viewers head for bed, to await the wonders that the new medium will bring next.

There's another article on changing fashions, everything from Davy Crockett's coonskin cap to Valerie Harper's head scarves to Jennifer Aniston's hairdo. Some of the regular features retain the retro theme; Phil Muchnick, TV Guide's successor to Melvin Durslag, takes a fond look back at Red Smith, the legendary sportswriter and TV Guide's first sports expert, who early and often voiced his concern about television's influence on sports (umpires mugging it up for the cameras, directors cutting away from the action to show fans), most of which evolved into something far worse than what Smith foresaw.

Oh, and then there's an article about people who actually collect TV Guides, who are in fact obsessed with them. Move along, nothing to see here.

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As an addendum, here are the shows in the top 25 the year that first issue appeared:


You'll notice ABC is nowhere to be found; it would be many years before they became a player, but when they did it was with a vengeance.

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There's something of a retro feel to this week's big premiere: Tom Hanks' out-of-this-world miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, which debuts Sunday on HBO. It's something of a passion project for Hanks, whose love of the space program was rekindled during his time on the set of Apollo 13. "I was much more enthralled by what was going on with Apollo 10 than with the Starship Enterprise," he recalls. "It was a combination of Shakespeare, Sophocles and T.S. Eliot."

One of the things that stands out for Hanks - as well as some of the others working on the series with him - is how easy it's been to forget all about it. The first moon landing was, after all, nearly 30 years ago, and a sizable part of the population has never known a time when man on the moon was not a reality. While it was happening, though, ultimate success was far from certain - as was demonstrated by the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Says Hanks, "We also want the audience to say, 'My God, look at what people accomplished.' "

That's an understatement, to be sure. I grew up during the manned space program - Alan Shepard's flight came three days before my first birthday - and the excitement it generated compares to nothing else I've seen. My grandparents had lived their entire lives thinking that man on the moon was nothing more than a dream; I hadn't had that much experience, but I didn't need it to know there was something truly awesome (in the real sense of the word) about seeing a television transmission with the caption "Live From the Moon."

Being the space buff that I am, I probably would have been more enthralled by a multi-hour documentary on the space program (provided it was done well, and not one of those dry NASA educational films), but even so, I thought From the Earth to the Moon was pretty good. Ah, yes - wasn't that a time.

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Before we go, let’s take a look at some of the actual listings in this issue, shall we? (All right, if you insist.)

For one thing, we now have Fox* joining the fray, which means we also have shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The X Files, Melrose Place, Ally McBeal, Beverly Hills 90210, COPS, and America’s Most Wanted. Sure, Fox produced its share of clunkers as well, but there’s no question that these series entered the American consciousness, particularly in the way many of them spoke to a particular demographic. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for better or ill, Fox substantially changes the television landscape, perhaps more so than any network since ABC in the late ‘70s. When you think of it, the fact that The Simpsons is still going, even if its best days are behind it, is quite a statement.

*Yes, I know the network insists on spelling it FOX, but you're not going to see that here.

We have two additional networks as well, The WB and UPN, although neither of them is programming seven nights a week, and they’ll eventually merge into The CW. We can thank them for Star Trek: Voyager, Sister, Sister, and shows from Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx. The biggest breakout, however, has to be The WB’s new series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I think really defines the network, perhaps as much as any of the shows we’ve discussed. A close second could be either Seventh Heaven or Dawson’s Creek, and while none of these series mean much to me, there’s no doubt that they helped The WB stakeout its own style and demographic, one that has continued in the current CW incarnation.

That’s not to say the traditional networks have been quiet all this time. 60 Minutes, Everybody Loves Raymond and Touched by an Angel are still big hits for CBS, and NBC has its "Must See Thursday" lineup of Friends, Just Shoot Me, Seinfeld, Veronica’s Closet, and ER. (What they wouldn’t give for even one hit like that today.) ABC has Home Improvement, Drew Carey, Ellen, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and (of course) the ubiquitous Monday Night Football. And that doesn’t even begin to touch those other series that you’ll remember – Suddenly Susan, Murphy Brown, Cybill, Frazier, The Nanny, 3rd Rock, JAG – I know they’re all guaranteed to bring back memories for someone.

Even though I didn’t watch most of these shows - truth be told, I didn't watch any of them - it just doesn’t seem as if it’s been nearly 20 years since they were on. Is that because we see so many of them over and over and over in endless reruns on cable stations, or is it because time really does go more quickly as you get older?

What else, anything more specific? Well, the Masters golf tournament begins on Thursday – not on ESPN, as it is nowadays, but on USA. USA also shows – get this – more than one series each night! Instead of countless marathons of NCIS or Law & Order, they have Baywatch, Highlander, and Walker, Texas Ranger, plus a movie, boxing match, or wrestling. Different series each hour - what a concept…  As for the Masters, Tiger Woods is the defending champion, having won by a historically huge margin the year before. And now, it seems, the golf world has returned to what things were like pre-Tiger (hint: it’s not so bad).

Otherwise, ABC has the World Figure Skating Championships in prime time (Saturday at 7:00 p.m. PT) A&E begins a pointless remake of the 1964 Best Picture winner, Tom Jones, on Sunday at 5:00 p.m, PT (with numerous repeats throughout the evening), Murphy Brown celebrates her 50th birthday with Sally Field and other guest stars (Monday, 9:30 p.m., CBS), someone gets written out of Babylon 5 on TNT (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m.), ABC's Prime Time Live (Wednesday, 10:00 p.m.) profiles the McCaughey septuplets (born November 19 of the previous year), all of whom are still alive today, and Billy Graham warns that most of us are on the highway to Hell, but there is a way to take a different route (Friday, KCOP, 8:00 p.m.)

Some of these programs may be recalled when we look at TV 45 years from now, while many others will disappear into the mists of time, as was the case back in 1953. The only thing we can be sure of is that we're discussing them, right here, right now - and I wonder how many of them would have expected that?

9 comments:

  1. We can thank them for Star Trek: Voyager, Though it was the most memorable UPN show, it is generally considered the weakest of the TV Treks. Poor casting, middling to poor writing, and overshadowed in it's first few years by the superior Star Trek: Deep Space Nine it struggled gamely for a few years but really couldn't be the go-to series for the fledgling UPN. By the time it was replaced by the better [Star Trek:] Enterprise the handwriting was already on the wall for UPN.
    BTW, if what I've been hearing about the upcoming (CBS streaming) Star Trek: Discovery is true, Voyager will no longer be considered the worst Trek.

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    1. Well, you'll understand that when I say I'm "thanking" UPN for "Voyager", I'm speaking loosely...

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  2. Sorry, I think it's definitely a step too far to argue for Chayefsky instead of Rod Serling. Serling was more than a television screenwriter and playwright of thoughtfulness and complexity whose writing was on a par with Chayefsky's; he was also a show creator and producer whose influence on other producers and directors (from John Newland to Leslie Stevens to John Frankenheimer) is undeniable. If you've ever seen his early teleplay "Patterns", you'll be convinced of Serling's prescience about the corrupted gatekeeping of network brass and sponsors. One cannot speak of television history without acknowledging Serling's influence.

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    1. I'd agree with "Patterns," which is both brilliant and painful to watch, and I think "Requiem for a Heavyweight" is dynamic as well. The problem I have with Serling (other than that his choice was so predictable, which is hardly his fault), is that bad Serling is so bad - "Carol for Another Christmas," for example. Now, I want to make the distinction between "inferior" and "bad" - inferior Serling, of which I think there's a great deal, is still better than "very good" from most other writers. Aside from the preachiness that, especially seems to come later in his career, a lot of his storytelling is still compelling. But when he gets both preachy and lazy, well, sometimes it's just unwatchable.

      With Chayefsky, I think you have to consider him as someone who "graduated" from television, even though that has as much to do with the change in what TV wanted as anything else. No doubt his work on "Marty", "The Hospital" and "Network" stand far above what Serling accomplished for the big screen, but we are talking about television, after all. You'd have to look at the TV version of "Marty", along with "What Makes Sammy Run?" (granted, an adaptation, but still powerful), to see Chayefsky at his best. Granted, he didn't helm a regular series, which means his TV output is far less than Serling's, so I suppose you have to ask yourself whether you want to consider the career as a whole, or just the television part of it.

      Probably the best way to put it, and the way I probably should have if I had devoted as much time to it in the article as I am here, is to say that Serling may well have been more influential in television, and Chayefsky probably had the more substantial overall career. But I'm certainly willing to consider alternatives.

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  3. So Alan Shepard's flight was three days before your first birthday? It was three days before the day that I was born!

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    1. I've always said May babies are the best! :)

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  4. Looking at the top 25 of the first year of TV Guide, there were no ABC shows on it. The top 25 of this year would have CBS,ABC,NBC, and Fox shows on it. The top CW show would be way down the list. I looked at last year's ratings, and The Flash was the top rated show of the CW at 112th (69th in the 18-49 demo).

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    1. You could write an entire book (and someone probably has) on the development of ABC over the years, which makes their eventual rise to #1 that much more impressive (though some may say that the shows that got them there were less impressive). I think it really is an achievement that Fox actually made it as the fourth network, but again one can ask if that would have happened without the NFL.

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    2. Mitchell, You're right about Fox and the NFL, but one could make a pretty good case that the NFL and Monday Night Football paved the way for ABC's success in the 70's.

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