TV Guide died this week. It had actually been brain-dead for some time, a mere shadow of its former self; and this week the editors finally euthansied it. Oh, there's still going to be a magazine out there called "TV Guide" with the same logo, and they'll claim to be the same publication (even though it's now the same size as other magazines). But it's nothing more than a sham, an imposter, someone who's borrowing the family name but doesn't have the DNA to back it up.
The new "TV Guide" intends to compete with the rest of the scandal sheets out there - US Weekly, In Touch, People, The Star, to name a few. "All the dirt that's fit to dish," as the Strib put it today. One might think it a good time to be getting into the celebrity-obsession business; as the Strib article suggested:
One of the most thought-provoking comes from Ken Baker, West Coast executive editor of US Weekly, which became much more dish-oriented about a year after the World Trade Center attacks. "Everyone thought that after 9/11, people were going to focus on what really matters, get their priorities straightened out," said Baker. "But I think more than anything people have sought escape at a higher level."
(If that's true, that might be the most alarming fact of all. Our obsession with celebrity is closely tied to our obsession with eternal youth, which really translates into a perpetual immaturity. One of the hallmarks of that immaturity is a refusal to accept responsibility, and so many seem unwilling, or unable, to face up to the fact that life is kind of hard right now. Perhaps if we found out that Bin Laden was the one responsible for the Brad-Jen breakup, we might care more.)
The editors said that change was necessary in order for the magazine to survive; that it was being held together mostly on the strength of giveaways to hotels, that it’s audience was shrinking (down from a high of 16.4 million in 1972 to just over 9 million today), that the audience was skewing older and older, that with the advent of TIVO and the existence of literally hundreds of stations it wasn’t that important anymore to have the hourly TV listings customized to each market of the country. All of that might be true, but survival is a loaded word; and even if everything they say is true, that doesn’t mean it’s right.
I’ve mentioned previously that I cancelled my subscription to TV Guide a few years ago, after having had it for over thirty years. The main reason I did was that the magazine was in the midst of a long slide into the cesspool of slime and snarkiness; I just couldn’t take another story (complete with pictures, of course) on how homosexuality (especially of the female persuasion) was becoming a more acceptable topic for TV. When you think about, a guide to what’s on TV shouldn’t be the kind of a periodical that you need to keep in a brown paper wrapper, even if most of the shows on TV fit that description. (Hey, they don’t call it the boob tube for nothing.)
I’ve also talked of my modest collection of TV Guides, mostly from the 50s and 60s. All you have to do is page through them to see what we've lost with the death of TV Guide. Real authors used to write for TV Guide: Edith Efron, Gore Vidal, Arnold Toynbee, John Gregory Dunne and Malcolm Muggeridge, to name a few. There were reports on the effects of TV on chidren, the influence of foreign lobbyists on the news, how the networks covered the Vietnam war, and the role of TV in terrorism.
Sure, it wasn’t an intellectual tomb; there was fluff and dirt dished along the way (writers in the 60s seemed particularly bent on presenting the negative side of celebrities, as a 1968 profile of James Garner - the grumpy nature of Garner "keeps him from making it big quite, the way he should." - demonstrated). But it wasn’t intended to be that kind of publication. It was designed to present TV in all its aspects: the incredible promise of the new medium, the new stars that emerged, the successes and failures along the way (and why they happened). And all along the way they issued a constant challenge to network executives and studios: to keep standards high, to introduce programming that was new and innovative, entertaining but still stimulating, shows that took advantage of everything that TV had to offer.
It’s not just that TV Guide has thrown away any pretense toward journalistic integrity. We’re also losing a sense of the individuality of America. The new TV Guide does away with the individual editions for each market, in favor of a national form that no longer has programming grids, but instead gives us “highlights.”
What you gain is additional room to present rumor, gossip, scandal - Jen and Ben and Brad and J-Lo and whoever else there is out there. And what you lose is the unique voice of America’s individual parts - their local programming, their advertising; all the things that give you an insight, a unique slice of what life was like at any given time and place. A 1964 Minneapolis-St. Paul edition with a promo for the new season of "Polka Jamboree"; a 1963 Kansas City edition that features an ad for a bank giving away snowmen salt-and-pepper shakers if you open a new account; a bank promising readers of a 1965 issue that they'll provide the loan for you to buy that new color TV set. You won’t get that from a national publication, one that only focuses on “highlights.” It’s something the Founding Fathers surely would have frowned upon, for even in their desire to create one country, few of them forgot that besides being “Americans” they were also “Virginians,” “North Carolinians,” or “Bostonians.” And as we lose our individual identity, we also lose the ability to tell succeeding generations what we were all about.
The sin in nostalgia is in assuming that whatever is old is automatically worthy of merit, that nothing which is new can be good, that the past cannot be improved upon. Reviewing the story of our culture in the pages of TV Guide, one can see that we never really lived in a Golden Age, that there was always mediocrity on television. But there was also glory and wonder that seemed to justify the promise that television held: regular symphonies and operas, 60- and 90-minute live plays. The Hallmark Hall of Fame, before it became a Lifetime Movie of the Week, used to specialize in Shakespearean plays and serious drama. Documentaries used to be a regular feature; although never highly rated, they were still available (and TV Guide used to complain about them being scheduled opposite each other, forcing viewers in the pre-VCR era to have to choose between two or more at the same time). You had actors like George C. Scott, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen becoming big stars on TV.
And there are good shows today, I’m sure, although probably not to my taste. Many laud the dramas on HBO and Showtime; gritty TV movies have dared to tackle issues that big-screen productions no longer have any interest in, movies that feature quality actors and excellent writing. Occasionally you have actors like Denzel Washington and Hilary Swank emerging from ensemble casts to become major movie stars. Coverage of news and sports has never been more accessible, even as the quality of each diminishes.
My point in all this is not to say that the “old days” were necessarily better, although in some respects they were. Rather, if you accept my opinion that TV Guide holds up a mirror to our culture, you can see the seismic changes we’ve gone through - and few would claim that these changes have all been for the best. And now, finally, TV Guide has looked in the mirror itself and become the very reflection that it saw. Like the Medusa, the image was deadly.