Monday, August 15, 2005

MH - Literature for Couch Potatoes

Hadleyblogger Mike, who knows well my affinity for old TV Guides, forward this must read from Slate on the past and future of the venerable magazine.

The author, Bryan Curtis, makes some very good points as to how TV Guide has become somewhat irrelevant in a digital age, when programming guides are available online and celebrity profiles scream at us from everywhere. I also concur in tracing the decline of the publication to its purchase by Rupert Murdoch in 1988 - its circulation has dropped from 20 million in 1977 to just 9 million today.

Most interestingly, Curtis touches on the cultural significance of TV Guide:
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 editors gave 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 (The Stork Club).

This does more than just tell us about the opinions of the editors; it is a reflection of society itself. Today's magazine tells us all about celebrities; the back issues tell us about ourselves.

I've long contended that one of the best ways to learn about American culture is to read old issues of TV Guide. Some listings jump out as startlingly contradictory to today's opinions. (A lesbian activist appears on a local talk show discussing her "decision" to become a lesbian - note that she doesn't claim it was a preference she was born with.) Other issues point out how some of our dearest traditions are really quite new. (As late as the early 70s, It's a Wonderful Life might be telecast as the matinee movie in the middle of June.) Our attention spans weren't always as short as they are today - What's My Line? aired on the same day and at the same time (Sundays at 10:30 ET) for almost seventeen years. Nowadays you're lucky to find when your favorite show airs.

TV Guide also assumed you wanted to know something about the show you were watching, not just a description of the episode. Many listings in the 50s and 60s included the names of the director and writer of the program, and listed the complete guest cast as well. A description of the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1962 included a listing of the music the choir was to perform. (Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi Munera.) Today's magazine often gives you the name of the program and nothing more, in type so small you need a magnifying glass to read it.

There was also an immediacy to the listings that doesn't continue today. Since the magazine was published early in the week it appeared on newsstands, it had the ability to react quickly to recent events. The November 30, 1963 issue contains a black-bordered announcement in the front of the programming listings: "Due to the death of President Kennedy, all programming is subject to pre-emption." Live programs, such as GE College Bowl (that's right, the name of the sponsor was often a part of the program's title), would actually contain references to the previous week's show.

Reading old issues puts you in the role of a cultural archaeologist, to a time when doctors made house calls (and HMOs were figments of the imagination), when police weren't always assumed to be the bad guys (The Fugitive was actually considered controversial by some because of its suggestion that the courts might actually convict an innocent man), when commercials didn't dominate everything (the average running time of a televised football game was about two and a half hours). Curtis touches on this, but I wish he'd delved a little more deeply into it.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. I subscribed to TV Guide for over 30 years, but eventually cancelled my subscription in 2002, around the time they started doing features on how homosexual sex scenes were become more accepted in TV (with pictures, of course). When I started having to put the issues face down on the table, I knew it was time to quit. Looking back at the old issues, the change in tone is more pronounced, and more obvious. Sure, many of the stories were puff pieces, but again, there was a sense of an underlying decency to it all.

That sense is missing today from both the magazine and society as a whole; and perhaps in a way it proves that, despite declining circulation, TV Guide continues to reflect our culture better than we know - or want to admit.

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