There were three TV channels when I was a kid. The signals of two of them were reliable. The third was iffy. If there was a storm, CBS probably wasn’t going to have a picture.
Nestled in the southwest corner of Arkansas, my hometown was not near any of the television towers. Radio stations were plentiful, but the closest television stations were in Shreveport. Little Rock and Dallas had stations, but the signals didn’t reach us.
So, we subsisted on ABC, CBS, and NBC. This limited access to programming would seem like a TV diet designed by Jenny Craig compared to today’s ability to access shows on cable, satellite, and the internet. But, 50 years ago, there were plenty of shows worth watching.
Television in the 1960s and 70s was the gathering place for Americans. Since there were far fewer programs then, virtually everyone met up – same time, same channel – to see what was happening next.
If television was the gathering place, then TV Guide was the road map to get there. TV Guide began as a regional publication in the northeast in the late 1940s. Not many people had a TV then, but by the mid-50s, a lot of people did.
In 1953, TV Guide debuted nationally for 15¢ a copy. Lucille Ball and her newborn son were on the cover. Lucy still holds the record for most cover appearances.
Moving shows around the schedule isn’t anything new. When I was young, networks were constantly shifting the day and time of our favorite programs. Since there was no internet, we had to have a way to to find out when Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, Lost In Space, Star Trek, The Beverly Hillbillies, Columbo, All In The Family, Sanford and Son, and other series were going to be on.
The arrival of TV Guide in the mailbox was an event. We not only wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss our shows, we also wanted to see who made the cover.
Much like the celebrity magazines of today, if someone made the cover of TV Guide, that was a sign that their star was either rising or that they had already arrived in the TV business.
Each issue, which was the size of a Reader’s Digest, began with Saturday’s show listings and ran through the following Friday. So, if the TV Guide wasn’t in the mail by Thursday, concern would set in. If it didn’t arrive by Friday, general panic would set in.
In addition to show listings, the weekly magazine also had editorial content and ads. If a program was featured in the Close Up section, that was an indication that the editorial staff felt that it had significance. They would write about why the show mattered and what we could expect if we watched it.
The Cheers and Jeers section was just what it sounds like. Cheers for things on TV they liked, and jeers for what they didn’t.
The TV networks would buy ads to promote shows that were doing marginally well or needed a boost. Programs such as 60 Minutes, The Jeffersons, Happy Days, and The Rockford Files didn’t need much advertising support. But, shows such as Manimal, The Big Bow Wow, and Cop Rock, did. As you can probably guess, the ads didn’t help the latter.
The Fall Preview Issue was the issue everyone always looked forward to. It included information on new and returning shows. To give you some idea of how much it meant, many families would keep this issue and not toss it like the others.
Our TV Guide resided on the small table next to my dad’s chair. You were welcome to pick it up and take it somewhere else and read it, but forgetting to put it back meant that you got to hear your first, middle, and last name called out fairly loudly.
Not only did my dad rely on the TV Guide to decide whether we were watching The Red Skelton Show or The Wonderful World of Disney, he relied on it to get a crossword puzzle fix. The puzzle appeared at the back of the magazine and included the names of television stars and their shows.
At one point in the early 70s, nearly 20 million people bought TV Guide. But, the advent of cable TV made it difficult to print a comprehensive list of channels for everyone. Even my small town eventually got a cable company. The networks could appear on one channel for us, but on a different channel for the folks in the next town over. The same problem arose when people could choose satellite over cable. The channels were different there than on cable, or on the channels people still received on an antenna.
Consequently, fewer and fewer people subscribed to TV Guide. It seemed to go the way of S&H Green Stamps.
Honestly, I don’t remember when my family stopped getting TV Guide, but on a recent trip to my parents, I ran across a few that they had saved, including some old fall previews and one from 1978 that featured interviewer David Frost and former president Richard Nixon on the cover. No one could come up with a good reason why the Nixon copy was kept.
I was surprised to learn that TV Guide is still around. Fewer than 2 million people buy it now, but it’s available not only in a printed version (which is now the size of a regular magazine), but can also be downloaded to your computer, phone, or tablet. It even has a YouTube channel.
If you kept some of your old TV Guide issues, you might want to dig them out. Some are quite valuable as collector’s items. A copy of the first issue with Lucy and her son on the cover would bring quite a bit. Likely, enough to buy a lot of really nice TVs.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@thecountrywriter.com.