I love September. The beginning of fall conjures images of fall leaves, trips to the apple orchard, the sound of football games, and returning to a welcomed routine. One of my favorite autumn memories as a child and teenager was studying the Fall Preview of the TV Guide, so I could decide which shows were “do-not-miss” series.
TV Guide is still available, but there was something special in being able to peruse the upcoming episodes, read the articles, and do the crossword puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating going back to only three channels plus Public TV, but there was something comforting in knowing what would be on every day on every channel and knowing that all your friends were watching the same thing, and you could discuss it at school. That nostalgic feeling disappears when you are trying to look at 200 channels, not to mention Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon, and the many other options out there.
As much as I enjoyed TV Guide, I knew little about it, so I thought it would be fun to learn some of the history behind this almost-seventy-year-old publication.
In 1948, Lee Wagner printed the New York City area television listings in The TeleVision Guide which was sold on newsstands. Gloria Swanson who starred in The Gloria Swanson Hour appeared on the first cover. With the success of that magazine, Wagner went on to publish issues for both the New England and Baltimore-Washington, DC areas. In 1953, Walter Annenberg bought the series of publications and incorporated them into his Triangle Publications. Wagner would remain a consultant for that business until 1963.
The first magazine titled TV Guide was issued April 3, 1953. It was sold in ten cities and boasted a circulation of 1,560,000. The cover featured a photo of Lucille Ball’s newborn son Desi Arnaz Jr. with the headline, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.” It cost 15 cents. For the first 52 years of its existence, it was digest size. Triangle Publications, headquartered in Radnor, PA, continued to buy local magazine listings, creating a national publication. Their contemporary building featured a large logo at the entrance, a vast computer system to save data on every television show and movie, and housed editors, production personnel and subscription processors.
In September of 1953, the magazine released its first Fall Preview edition and circulation increased steadily from then on. The guide was available by subscription or at grocery stores. Eventually a color section was added featuring television-related stories, articles about stars, and weekly columns. One of the columns was “Close-Up” which looked at different types of programs. “Cheers and Jeers” was a critique page for specific programs, “Hits and Misses” rated shows from 0 to 10. In addition, certain years included horoscopes, recaps of soap operas, lists of sporting events and crossword puzzles. Next to each television show was a number corresponding to the local channel. A brief description of the program was given. Networks often ran ads for various shows.
Beginning in the late fifties, “color” was set in a rectangular box for those shows that were broadcast in color. By 1972, the majority of programs were full-color, so the abbreviation “BW” was used for shows not in color. Until cable television entered the entertainment business, listings began about 5 am and went until midnight. By August of 1982, the magazine began expanding its coverage of cable programming with “CablePay Section” and “Cable and Pay-TV Movie Guide.”
In August of 1988, Triangle Publications was sold to the News American Corporation for $3 billion. It was one of the largest and the most expensive acquisitions at the time.
In March of 1996, TV Guide launched iGuide, a web portal. In June of 1998, News Corporation sold TV Guide to United Video Satellite Group for $800 million and 60 million shares of stock worth $1.2 billion. “The Robins Report” a review column was added, “Family Page” showcased family-oriented programs, and “Don’t Miss” which was select programs to watch during the week.
In 1999, TV Guide hosted a new award show, TV Guide Awards, telecast on Fox. Winners were chosen by TV Guide subscribers.
In 2002, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the magazine, six special issues were created: “TV We’ll Always Remember: Our Favorite Stars Share Fifty Years of Memories, Moments, and Magic”; “50 Greatest Shows of All Time”; “Our 50 Greatest Covers of All Time”; “50 Worst Shows of All Time”; “50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time”; and “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.”
As more cable channels were added, space became a premium and the magazine had to decide which ones to include. In September of 2006, TV Guide launched an updated website with expanded editorial and user-generated content not included in the print edition.
With more channels, less detail was available about shows, and by 2007, circulation had decreased from its peak of twenty million in 1970 to less than three million. The weekly publication went through several other sales. In 2014, it underwent a major redesign. Fourteen pages of listings were eliminated, and programming information was only provided for top-rated broadcast and cable networks and included several new sections including the “Roush Review” where Matt Roush selected the top ten picks from the upcoming week. The size was then reduced to 7” x 10”.
In 2015, it was sold once again to NTVB Media.
Two spinoff magazines were produced by TV Guide: TV Guide Crosswords and TV Guide’s Parents’ Guide to Children’s Entertainment.
With over 3000 covers, almost every star and television show you can think of has been featured on the publication. The original 1953 cover of Desi remains the most expensive, valued at $3000. Another early cover of George Reeves as Superman runs a close second.
Lucille Ball has appeared on the most covers, with 39 total. Johnny Carson comes in second with 28 covers and Mary Tyler Moore and Michael Landon are tied for third place with 27 each.
In addition to photographers’ covers, TV Guide has featured a variety of artists over the years including 37 Al Hirschfield pieces, two Charles Addams, one each by Norman Rockwell, Peter Max, Andy Warhol, and Dali.
I guess I’ll have to pick up a TV Guide next time I’m at the grocery store just to see how it compares to my fond memories. I’m guessing I will have to shell out more than $.15. Considering all the changes that have taken place in the television industry since the late 1940s, the magazine has been impressive keeping up with all the transformations and still providing a guide for our viewing.