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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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?