April 4, 2018
TV Guide: The First 25 Years
with a look at the book that reviews the milestones of a n 1978, to mark TV Guide's 25th year as a national publication, Simon & Schuster published TV Guide: The First 25 Years. Editor Jay S. Harris combed through a quarter-century's articles, features and listings to compile a cross-section of the big moments, rising stars, controversies, fads, cultural changes and big questions that represented television since 1953. It was a huge job, and Harris admits to it in his preface. “I wanted to cover everything but, naturally, that proved impossible,” he writes, so the book instead included what Harris hoped would be the best - “the most important, the most interesting, the most memorable and the most provocative” in order to provide “a twenty-five year portrait in words and pictures of the story of television as seen through the pages of TV Guide.” (Another hint of the size of the job is in Harris’s acknowledgments, where he thanks one associate for “a cheerful yet grueling week printing thousands of pages from the microfilm machine.”)
The book delivers on its promise. An introduction by TV Guide editorial director Merrill Panitt looks back at the magazine’s origins, starting with the night Walter Annenberg, annoyed that TV Digest had bought an ad (reproduced in the essay) in the Philadelphia Bulletin instead of his Philadelphia Inquirer, first discussed with Panitt the idea of starting a television magazine: “How would it be if we were to print a color section with national articles in our Philadelphia rotogravure plant, ship that section around the country, and in each city we’d print the local listings and bind them inside the national color section?” Panitt remembers how he paused before replying, “Sounds possible.” And from that was born the magazine that, for so many years, was a mirror of the medium, frequent critic of what television was and frequent champion of what it could become. Near the end of the essay Panitt talks of the close watch Annenberg still kept on the magazine after all those years, with Annenberg and his sisters the only individuals holding stock in Triangle Publications, counseled by a few trusted advisers. Panitt writes that though Annenberg would sometimes see things he didn’t like, he’d often comment, “But don’t worry about it. Babe Ruth struck out on occasion too.” (Can you imagine any of TV Guide’s future owners having the same philosophical view, especially these days?)
As the 1950s give way to the 1960s, you watch TV Guide’s offerings change into a longer-form examination of the medium and its effects on society. There are profile and program pieces aplenty, but mixed in with them is an emerging point of view. For instance, a 1961 open letter to FCC Chairman Newton Minow asks for reforms to address program quality, “a cumulative impression of violence for the sake of violence” in programs on television, the reluctance of local stations to carry informational programs, the misuse of production ownership practices to get programs on network television, the emphasis on ratings over quality in making programming decisions, and the “almost dictatorial control” some talent agencies had over network programming. Minow’s lengthy reply is also published; in it, he urges the further use of the UHF band and also urges concerned citizens to make their voices heard – and invites TV Guide, “as a distinguished and influential voice in broadcasting affairs,” to help the FCC reinforce the concept that television has a responsibility to the viewing public. In another piece, social critic Martin Mayer looks at the effect television had on other media, declaring that it has “battered its rivals out of shape.” Betty Friedan offers a two-part reflection on two weeks spent watching the portrayal of women on television (to put it mildly, she wasn’t impressed), and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. contributes an analysis of how television has changed American politics.
Along the way, profiles by Richard Gehman, Edith Efron and other familiar names seek to peel back familiar images to find what’s within. Gehman puts a troubled Sid Caesar on an analyst’s couch; Samuel Grafton takes apart Jack Paar to see what’s inside and where he’s headed next. Efron portrays a young Carol Burnett, having just signed her first million-dollar contract, as a walking collection of complexities and insecurities; later, in a profile of Barbara Walters titled “How To Manufacture A Celebrity,” Efron casts her rise as the result of a process that “sucks people in – it processes them uniformly – it ships them briskly along a mechanical assembly line – and it pops them out at the other end, stuffed tight into a shiny casing stamped ‘U.S. Celebrity.’”
The upheavals of the 1960s do not escape Harris’s view. The chronicle of those four days in November 1963, “America’s Long Vigil,” lets readers follow along with what viewers watched as the horrible weekend unfolded. There’s also “What The Negro Wants From TV,” and a post-mortem from NBC News executive Reuven Frank on how television covered the chaos at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But there’s also a moment of triumph, with Neil Hickey’s preview of the July 1969 lunar landing of Apollo 11 (“the most expensive TV special in history”). There’s an examination of what television is doing to children and what it can do to help them; another piece looks at public television, asking if it is reaching the viewers it needs to reach.
Other signs of changing times are in these pages. We bid farewell to What’s My Line? and visit Ed Sullivan as his program enters its nineteenth year, while the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In warm up for a new generation. A 1971 look at All In The Family and its producer Norman Lear examines a network program as it smashes taboos, and a look at Monday Night Football announcer Howard Cosell (“The Voice You Love To Hate”) signals the emergence of sports commentator as celebrity. An article on television’s relationship with the American Football League is another sign of the juggernaut televised sports was becoming. The “Close-Up” about the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King is also there, in its own way another sign that times are changing. Neil Hickey and Edith Efron debate the effect televised violence has on society (Hickey says it does have an effect; Efron, no). Pay television is just around the corner, as a 1975 piece discusses what could happen if big events like the World Series became exclusive to premium channels.
There’s the occasional look back - a 1972 piece about the birth of You Bet Your Life, written by an adman who worked on the DeSoto account, is an enjoyable reminiscence about working with the often grumpy, always funny Groucho Marx. To coincide with the 1975 dramatization of Fear On Trial, Louis Nizer writes about the blacklist in general and the trial of John Henry Faulk in particular. And longtime television critic John Crosby looks back on the brief history of the medium, remembering 1950s television by saying, “It was new and we were very innocent.” He laments that a writer like Rod Serling could not generate the excitement in 1973 that a figure like Mark Spitz does, and pronounces himself “dumbfounded” when he first watched Laugh-In making jokes about Spiro Agnew and about homosexuality. He draws a contrast between the live drama of the 1950s, which acknowledged that life was seldom neat, and an episode of Mission: Impossible, where the heroes overcome insurmountable odds and come to a tidy conclusion at the end of each episode. “Television was always best when you didn’t know the ending,” Crosby writes, expressing hope that the medium would return to presenting what it did best: presenting actuality.
And there are big names weighing in on unexpected subjects. Gilbert Seldes reviews The Beverly Hillbillies. William Saroyan writes about Mannix. And Isaac Asimov – yes, that Isaac Asimov - offers an analysis of the Miss America pageant, calling it “the drama of the universal marketplace of sexual success, with the contestants representing the most choice offerings one can find.”
The book concludes with a three-part examination by Merrill Panitt on the then-current state of television. Panitt finds that although “on the surface, television is doing beautifully” and is recording record ratings and profits, the medium is “a nervous, defensive, ambivalent medium” with executives “fearful of change,” its programming under criticism, and its relationship with government “schizophrenic.” Although Panitt warns that new options, such as pay television, will offer competition, he concludes that despite commercial television’s failings, people will not switch offer their sets: “We will continue to watch the medium that informs and entertains us just about as well as we deserve.”
In the middle of the book is a real treat: a full-color, 16-page section of 400 TV Guide covers from the magazine’s first 25 years. As with the articles, you can trace a culture’s fascinations: from the famous first cover with Desi Arnaz Jr., to Bishop Sheen and Caesar and Carney and Godfrey and Berle, to Edd Byrnes and Pat Boone and Jack Paar and Jacqueline Kennedy, to Walter Cronkite and Sally Field and Carol Burnett and Cookie Monster, occasional historic moments (the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; the Moon landing; Nixon’s visit to China), and the occasional side trip to the unexpected (Mason Reese, anyone?). It’s also a great look at the visual evolution of a magazine as it grew more sophisticated, artistic and occasionally beautiful, with Al Hirschfeld, Leroy Neiman, Richard Amsel, and even Andy Warhol contributing cover artwork. And closing out the book is a series of grids showing the networks’ prime-time schedules for each year of TV Guide’s history.
It’s interesting to look back on TV Guide as it celebrated itself in 1978 and think of the magazine it was then, especially as reflected in the articles Harris selected for his book. Nobody could know it at the time, but some of the very forces examined in articles contained in The First 25 Years would soon reshape the magazine. The growing reach of cable television and premium networks would prompt an expansion of the program listings. Changing tastes would bring about an “Insider” section, with short items on the big names in television, and the publication that once seemed so serious (and, on occasion, disenchanted with the medium it covered) seemed a little more like a fan magazine. There were still serious examinations of television in TV Guide, but they were becoming a harder sell in an era of People and Us. Even the criticism of the medium gave way to some snark, with the year’s worst moments chronicled in the annual “J. Fred Muggs Awards.”
Ten years after The First 25 Years was published, the transformation from watchdog to fan magazine accelerated when Triangle Publications was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which phased out harder features in favor of softer profiles, gimmick covers (remember the doctored Oprah Winfrey/Ann-Margret artwork?) and horoscopes. Even the program listings became redundant as cable companies incorporated channel guides into their systems, newspapers published their own listings, and the wide array of channels and programs outstripped a magazine’s ability to keep up. When the Internet came along, it became easier than ever to find current program information. TV Guide found itself a publication in search of a purpose, its brand more valuable than the magazine itself, passed from owner to owner and mission to mission.
It’s easy to mourn what became of TV Guide, though it was perhaps inevitable with the march of technology. But if you want a glimpse of what the magazine once was, and why it mattered, find a copy of The First 25 Years. Perhaps it will inspire you to seek out old issues of the magazine and perform your own interpretations of the sort Mitchell has given us for so long. (By the way, can you imagine what a treat it would be if the current owners of TV Guide did what Life and Sports Illustrated have done, and make the complete run available in an online archive? It would be so much better than having to find a library that may or may not have grainy, hard-to-read microfilm on hand. Besides, old TV Guide issues are so much fun to browse, and there are few better ways to get a feel for a particular moment in popular culture.)
On a personal note, it was a copy of The First 25 Years I received when I was a first-grader (yes, you read that right – and it was a book I asked for, no less, because I have always been a nerd) that helped send me down the path of being a television historian. If this book was potent enough to influence a six-year-old, imagine what it could do for you. Find yourself a copy. You’ll enjoy it, marvel at what we once had, mourn a little at what’s happened since, and you’ll never look at TV Guide the same way again.
Jodie Peeler documents the life and career of legendary television pioneer and personality Dave Garroway at Garroway at Large.