April 4, 2018

TV Guide: The First 25 Years

This week we welcome back guest essayist Jodie Peeler, who looks back at the book that not only documented TV's most formative years as seen in TV's most influential magazine, but started her own lifelong love of television history. As you can imagine, it's a topic near and dear to me as well!

 with a look at the book that reviews the milestones of aIn 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?)

TV Guide: The First 25 Years divides the magazine’s history into five five-year sections, each with a selection of full-length articles, most of them illustrated. In the first, you chart the development of the young medium from its first hits (Dragnet, Howdy Doody), get a glimpse of program styles that would fall by the wayside (Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90), see fads rise and fizzle (roller derby; the quiz shows) and a national story that played out before the cameras (the Army-McCarthy hearings). There are glimpses at the great names: a nice profile of Edward R. Murrow, a heartbreaking interview with Red Skelton as he discusses his son’s battle with leukemia, a two-part examination of Arthur Godfrey’s checkered relationship with the press. There are also glimpses of what’s to come (a brief 1953 piece about the young producer of Ask the Camera, Barbara Walters). And even the young medium gets nostalgic; in 1957, as television observes its tenth year as a full-fledged medium, TV Guide takes a look back at those ten years in words and pictures, to a time “when some stars started to bloom (and others quickly wilted) under the TV sun.”

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. TV  

Jodie Peeler documents the life and career of legendary television pioneer and personality Dave Garroway at Garroway at Large. 


  1. Thanks to Jodie for writing (and Mitchell for sharing) this great review of a book for which I scraped together limited funds to buy the 1980 paperback version at (probably) Walden Books back then.

    This book was my first look at pre-1970s TV Guide magazines other than perhaps brief cover glances on HAPPY DAYS. This book was 1 of my first of my now large collection of tv-related books following buying books like TV BOOK (my first at around age 12), Brooks & Marsh's 1st edition COMPLETE DIRECTORY OF PRIME-TIME NETWORK TV PROGRAMMING, and Maxene Fabe's TV GAME SHOWS. I enjoyed the articles reprinted in the book, especially "Television's Long Vigil" from Jan. 25, 1964, which covered tv's extensive coverage of the JFK Assassination.

    For me (and I'm sure a good number of the book's buyers & readers) the best part was the color section in the middle which selected a number of covers over the magazine's 25-year history, though I thought it neglected some years (1963 had the fewest reproduced covers w/ 9 total) in favor of selecting the greatest # of issues from the last 2 years, 24 from 1976 & 16 from 1977, w/ the last issue from that year selected being Oct. 15. I was thrilled when I went to college a few years later to find a huge selection of bound TV GUIDE issues and microfilms of older issues going back to the 1950s. My college library also had in its reference section TV GUIDE 25 YEAR INDEX, covering all national issues until Dec. 31, 1977. It was a huge undertaking using Table of Contents titles to index all issues, making it possible to find all articles about a certain person or tv show, though its accuracy isn't 100%. I was eventually able to buy a copy of this book from EBay. I wish it could've been updated to include up to the 1st 50 years, or until Oct. 2005, when IMO the magazine change killed it as I knew it.

    In the last 10 years there was at least 1 more good (IMO) book about TV GUIDE, which is its OFFICIAL COLLECTOR'S GUIDE, which reprints the cover of EVERY national issue from Apr. 1953 to Oct. 2005, including all the many cover variations which started in the 1990s. MAD MAGAZINE had a funny takeoff on the cover variations once, pointing out that it was an obvious ploy to sell more issues of the same magazine and having such covers like Shatner's varying hairlines over the history of STAR TREK.

  2. I well remember that First 25 Years book; it wasn't the first time TV Guide celebrated itself in book form, and wouldn't be the last.

    As far back as 1960, there was TV Guide Roundup, collecting articles, profiles, editorials, and whatnot from the first seven years - and there was a bunch of it (I'm looking at the paperback right now as I write this).
    In 1970, an academic named Barry G. Cole put together a collection of "readings" , titled simply Television - almost 600 pages covering the whole territory.
    Ten years later (1981, to be exact), Mr. Cole followed up with Television Today, with 470+ pages, and no duplications from the previous book.
    In 1992, after the sale to Murdoch, there was Changing Channels, which more or less brought the Guide story up to that date - which is another story ...

    Growing up with TV Guide, what I mainly learned was how to appreciate good writing.
    Especially from about the early '60s, TVG actively sought out literary name for its pages - and gave them free rein.
    I'll give one example to serve for many:
    That William Saroyan piece wasn't really about Mannix.
    In fact, it wasn't really about Mike Connors, whom Saroyan had known since both of them grew up in Fresno, California's Armenian community.
    Saroyan's piece was mainly a tribute to Mike Connors's father, an attorney named Krekor Ohanian, Senior, and his defense of a muscat vineyardist named Muggerditch Muggerditchian, in front of a Fresno judge named Denver Peckinpah (and that's another story ...).
    At this stage of his life, Saroyan was given to whimsy; he did remember to mention young Krekor Jr./aka Mike (and his lifelong friend Rostom Bagdasarian), but the story was the main thing.
    And that's what distinguished the TV Guide of old from the present version: Writing was valued at all levels.
    Not only the literary names, but the regular staffers brought an "A" game to the Guide, and even younger readers like me noticed, and appreciated it.

    Sorry about the Old Man Talk; this is what happens when you get me started ...

  3. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my brother back in '78. Still have it, and still reread it on occasion.

  4. I bought this when it came out, and only replaced it a year or so ago when it finally disintegrated.


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