Friday, July 29, 2016

The TV Activist, Pt. 1: The Day the TV Guide

No, I haven't suddenly gotten bored with the topic.  It's occasionally necessary to look at what happened to television over the same time period as what happened to movies over the last forty years, to put them both into context.  You just can't talk about one for very long without talking about the other.
TV and movies always seemed to be aware of their Shared Destinies, but back then we were more conscious of their being different animals.  We watched movies on TV, and they were more interesting than the shows, but the shows were on the rest of the time.  We knew which movies we wanted to go out to a theater and see, and which shows we wanted to stay home for every week; we were impressed by a show that looked like a movie, but we occasionally hated a movie for "looking like a TV show".  Each format served its own purpose in life.  
If we can look back at how we lost TV some time after the 80's or mid-90's, we might have a better enough parallel-example understanding of how we're losing movies now to be able to do something about it in time.

In the 70's and 80's, there was one magazine every house had to buy, and every social critic made us feel like moronic dirt because we had to read it.  It was the magazine with the largest circulation in the US.
It was not what might immediately look like interesting reading, and yet we would often pore over it at length, because it told us one of the most important things we needed to know every day:  What was on TV that week.  We had to, television stations managed their own programming, and we needed to be told ahead of time what shows and local movies were on when.
Every city had the magazine tailored for its own area--If you were in NY, you could buy an issue and take it back on the train to Boston, but it wouldn't do any good to read it there; the times, shows and channel numbers only meant something in the city and local stations where you bought it.

Because of TV Guide, it was in our heads to remember TV episodes as stories.  Not chapters of a serial arc, that never began and never finished until the season finale, and that never told you anything important but to string you out for the next one that would do the same (unless you maybe happened to be watching "Knots Landing"), but self-contained stories.  When we think of vintage reruns, we think of individual moments of the characters--We don't talk about "the series", we talk about, as Friends parodied, "The One Where" Lucy was on the chocolate line, or Radar announced the death of Col. Blake, or where Bob Hartley almost walked into an elevator shaft.  We knew one isolated hour or half-hour of TV programming, meant to fill out a series of 26 or 39, with the same familiarity that we knew a favorite book.
Debuting prime-time shows even had the guest casts listed, like a theater program.  Often we weren't just told what show would be on at 7:30, we were told which show:  Even the lowliest 9:30am local-station rerun of The Brady Bunch, we were told, was The One Where Marcia promised to bring Davey Jones to the prom.

The highest honor was to get a quarter-page Close Up, which called attention to a special event or episode that was must-viewing for that night, and would probably end up being TV history.

Sometimes, during Sweeps Week, so that the sponsors knew we were hyped enough to watch, the specific new episode would be enough of an event to merit a half-page network ad.

Wrapping the listings, on the slick pages, were the feature articles, usually one on the hit cover star interview or show of the week, but often going into what was then the big issue of the 70's:  TV's effect on our national culture, and its clashes with government, big business and news information.  The "important" articles were those pitched in the TV ads for the magazines on sale at newsstands now: 

As of current date, TV Guide is no longer the top circulating magazine in the US.  Leaving aside AARP's member magazines, Better Homes & Gardens is now the top circulating commercial magazine.  TV Guide, in its current format, is now 31st.
So, how did what was once the national calendar of our pop-culture, which united us as an entire nation of living rooms, become a splashy checkout-line sycophantic servant of entertainment publicists, to cultivate fandoms to keep hot-trending "binge" shows from cancellation? 
To draw some historical cutoff line, we must look back at a moment in time known as the J. Fred Muggs Awards.

TV Guide, which was becoming the main critical journalistic source analyzing the influence of the FCC and national networks, from '80-'81 tried spinning off Panorama, a short-lived conventional-format "prestige" magazine of articles and commentary on the growing national media culture (including the unpredictable rise of cable, VCR and home computers) and TV industry.  For its first and only year-end wrap-up, the magazine featured the "first annual" J. Fred Muggs Awards--named after Dave Garroway's chimp co-host on the 50's NBC Today Show--"looking back at the people and moments in 1980 TV that made monkeys of themselves":   Panorama Jan1981.pdf 

tad similar to Esquire Magazine's annual "Dubious Achievements", the wrapup featured humor-bites of the most embarrassing TV trends, moments, fails and quotes of the year, with humorously snarky headers.
Though well-written, the magazine's editorial ambitions turned out to be a little too prestigious for its readers, Panorama folded, and the JFMA was moved to a favorite running year-end feature of the standard TV Guide, the magazine that America did read.

In 1998, the magazine's ownership passed from Annenberg/Triangle, the founding owners, to News Corp., and then to United Video Satellite which was absorbed into Gemstar, a cable/electronics company that wanted to use the magazine in connection with VCRPlus+, a six-digit auto-programming code already being built standard into most new VCR's.  Although new revisions had shortened and condensed the TV listings (doing away with most of the weekday daytime-programming for a week-long grid), for a while this made the magazine more indispensable, since the magazine now delivered the shows, as long as you got your programming codes next to the listing.  But what was lost in the process was the controversy--The featured articles criticizing the FCC, censorship, networks and big-money sports were now replaced by pop-culture baby-boom lists of TV nostalgia and current hits.

For their first year-end crowd-dive into popularity, the new management took the JFMA label and turned it into a straight-up Esquire Dubious Achievements knockoff joking about the easy news and political-headline jokes that year.
Fans were....OUTRAGED.  It was heresy.  Letters poured into the editor asking what business did TV Guide have to do with the same old headline jokes as every other magazine, when nobody was there to "Muggsy" the real TV jokes that year?  Were the writers even interested in TV anymore?  What the new editors weren't interested in was reader outrage--It's our magazine now, the editor responded, and we thought this was funnier and a hipper reader draw on newsstands!

Finally, on July 26, 2005, the axe fell:  TV Guide was "restructuring" itself away from the couch-friend book format to a slick-paper large size magazine, focusing on entertainment articles, fandom and celebrity news.  The magazine would still feature TV listings, but only as a few pages of national-grid network/cable programming, as most were already getting their local listings from the cable provider.  (Which made sense:  Now that no local stations were showing "My Friend Irma" or "That Tennessee Beat" at 11pm or reruns of The Avengers, there was less and less need to describe individual movies or isolate local programming for every geographical area.)  
At one point in TV ads proclaiming the new format, one cheery female reader mentions the national-grid reduction, and says  "Now I don't have to go through all those boring TV listings to find the entertainment news I'm looking for!"
Er, ahem...(fiddles ear with finger)...Not sure I heard that correctly, care to run that one by us again?  I suppose the Wall Street Journal would be easier financial reading without all those boring pages of pages of stock prices?

United's other interest in acquiring TV Guide had been as owner of the Prevue Channel, which provided the program-scroll TV-listings channels for cable services--And previously, in February '99, had rebranded Prevue's top-half-of-the-screen entertainment as the new TV Guide Channel, focusing mostly on...celebrity interviews, fandom, and baby-boomer rerun-nostalgia countdown lists.

In the end, the real tragedy here?:  We have people to blame, but we don't ultimately know whose fault it really IS.  It's not all ours, but to see the new covers, we're reminded it's not all theirs.
With reruns and movies disappearing off of TV in the early 00's, replaced more and more by corporate network, syndication and cable, was it really just marketers thinking we "weren't as interested" in the shows as in the marketable stars?  Was it just cable channels giving us long interactive scrolls of the program listings for free?  Or was it just that there weren't as many listings on TV to write about anymore?

The lesson here is for movie fans as well as TV fans:  
When we stopped being told that TV was important to our culture, it stopped being important to our culture.  When our coast-to-coast living-room nation stopped believing we "had" to watch every Tuesday night, we stopped watching.  When we reduced TV to gushing binge-trend cults of fangirl audiences and celebrities, that became all the industry sold us.  
Like the saying you hear around election time, in the end, we got the TV we DESERVED.

It's a lesson to keep in mind when we give up just a little bit of loyalty for just a little bit of technological convenience.

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