The Middlebrow

TV Guide

Literature for couch potatoes.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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When the call came forth last month to reinvent TV Guide, the challenge wasn’t so much what to take out as it was what to leave in. TV Guide is a petrified magazine; like its doddering cousin, Reader’s Digest, little remains in working order other than the title. “This isn’t just a face-lift. It’s a revolution,” Editor Ian Birch promised USA Today, and for his magazine’s sake he had better hope so. Fifty-two years after its creation, TV Guide’s signature listings have been appropriated by onscreen guides and the Internet; its reporting has been filched by Entertainment Weekly; its readers, those gentle souls who would peel through dozens of black-and-white pages in search of the latest on Matlock, have dwindled from 20 million in 1977, when one in every five magazines sold was a TV Guide, to just 9 million today. More than one commentator has suggested that TV Guide simply cease and desist, and the more you consider the magazine’s defects—its quaintly analog approach to the digital age—the more you wonder what there was to recommend it in the first place.

Well, for starters, excellent timing. TV Guide’s riseowes nearly everything to its birth date—April 3, 1953, the year historian Robert Thompson says TV lurched into the modern era. Dwight Eisenhower had just beaten Adlai Stevenson in the first presidential campaign waged with TV commercials. The night before Ike’s inauguration, 44 million viewers watched the primetime “birth” of Little Ricky, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s wunderkind, making it television’s first mega-event. That fall, television sets would penetrate more than 50 percent of American households, and for Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Daily Racing Form, it seemed like a ripe moment to cash in by giving the new medium a voice. “It is our business to write about television,” TV Guide’s editors wrote, “and, by and large, we speak well of it.” Fronting the maiden issue was Lucy and Desi’s non-TV child, Desi Jr., looking just as toothless as the journalism between the magazine’s covers.

Unlike the current cupcake, however, the early incarnation of TV Guide was not completely benign. Just as Wired served as the wry watchdog of the Internet Age, TV Guide’s early editorsgave their new medium a thorough working over in a weekly editorial called “As We See It.” They came down in favor of inter-network bloodbaths and against canned laugh tracks. They mocked the religious quacks who called TV the “cancer of the soul.” They jeered the British attempts at commercial-free TV and dinged the masses panting after newfangled color sets (“don’t hold your breath”). If the writings had a common theme, it was a touching faith in the wisdom of the viewer. As Glenn Altschuler and David Grossvogel argue in their book Changing Channels, the editors believed that TV would be the great democratizing art form and, with the help of a weekly schedule, that viewers would be able to separate the gold (Toast of the Town)from the trash (TheStork Club).

TV Guide also had a feisty politics. Not a coherent politics, since after a few thousand feet of microfiche I’m still trying to sort it all out. The marching orders seem to have leaked from the mouth of Walter Annenberg, a Nixon appointee and minor-league tyrant. Annenberg’s moral compass seems to have reliably pointed in the direction of his political benefactors. Thus, like a good Nixonian, TV Guide maintained a healthy suspicion of Europe (“How De Gaulle Slants French TV Against the U.S.”) and probed network news for liberal bias. Re-reading its “investigations” today, I’m struck by two things. One is how unabashedly personal the muckraking is: TV Guide’s great scoop, a 1982 article exposing CBS’sharsh treatmentofGen. William Westmoreland in a documentary, seems to have materialized directly out of Annenberg’s rolodex. And, second, TV Guide presented the oddest juxtaposition of politics and B-list celebrity since last year’s political conventions. For example, the June 12, 1982, cover story, “Why American TV Is So Vulnerable to Foreign Disinformation,” was preceded one week earlier by the grinning stars of The Love Boat. TV Guide, which Annenbergsold to Rupert Murdoch in 1988, may go down as the only media institution the Aussie magnate has depoliticized.

As TV Guide bloated into a journalistic behemoth, it used its ever-expanding cachet to attract big names. With high freelance rates and a giant audience, the magazine became a favorite pit stop for the slumming intellectual. Would you believe that Margaret Mead and James Michenerpenned articles for TV Guide? Yes? Then how about John Updike and S.J. Perelman? Lewis Mumford and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.? Alfred Kazin and William Saroyan? And, not least, there’s Salvador Dalí, who painted the magazine’s cover on June 8, 1968, and offered his unpasteurized thoughts on the future of the cool medium (“Laser beams … DNA … holograms!”).

Apart from the surrealism that still creeps into the “Letters to the Editor” page, today’s Guide bears faint resemblance to the magazine of old. Murdoch’s stewardship sent it spiraling toward editorial and financial decay, and it will take more than a “revolution” to reverse the tide. What, then, remains of TV Guide’s legacy? For one thing, its volumes represent an unrivaled vault of TV history—an attempt to make the disposable medium slightly less disposable. As historians ponder the meaning of Marcus Welby MD, they will no doubt turn to TV Guide’s yellowing back issues to find out what shows aired and why. If “the Guide” never reaches the encyclopedic status afforded it by the 1993 Seinfeld episode in which Frank Costanza curated his old volumes with Playboy-like reverence, it represents a noble effort all the same.

A more profound legacy arises, perversely, from TV Guide’s mandate to “speak well” of its medium. Perhaps more than any other magazine, TV Guide advanced the idea of television as a serious art form. Early on, some newspapers had refused to cover TV, fearing the competition; on the other end of the spectrum, television was subjected to regular pounding by (in TV Guide’ssnide formulation) “intellectual-type critics … who write for high-flown, low-circulation magazines.” It was in TV Guide’s self-interest, of course, to inflate the artistic accomplishments of the networks. But the judgment of TV Guide’seditors was often right. And, moreover, they slyly elevated television by importing eminences from other media—Updike, Mead, Michener—in an effort to level the cultural playing field, to lend a literary gloss to their unlettered medium.

Case in point: In 1985, Joyce Carol Oatescontributed a gushing tribute to NBC’s series Hill Street Blues. Her contention was not just that Blues was great TV. Her contention was that Blues was great art—”Dickensian in its superb character studies,” and as “intellectually and emotionally provocative as a good book.” It is the kind of praise that is now regularly ladled onto The Sopranos, Deadwood, and other shows. It’s ironic, then, that TV Guide should collapse at just the moment when TV is being taken seriously as art. You could argue that TV Guide had won the argument. Or you could argue that, in its recent years, when it was more interested in turning out Star Trek covers and daffy journalism, we lost interest because TV Guide no longer had anything to say.