Inside TV Guide 

10 August 2017

TV Guide was, for more than five decades, the unquestioned American television bible. Once a week, this digest-sized magazine arrived in millions of mailboxes across the country, chock full of news, features and gossip about all things TV – and, of course, program listings.

The passage of time and the technological revolution has not been kind to this American institution. Today, TV Guide is a shell of its former self, now a bi-weekly large-format magazine that is more a general entertainment news publication with very little emphasis on program listings, which can now be found online and on the TV screen itself.

In the 70s and 80s, TV Guide blossomed thanks to an aggressive television ad campaign. You would hear a spooky electronic tune, followed by “This week in TV Guide…” and a teaser of the upcoming issue’s feature story.

It was not uncommon in those years to also see at least one TV special a year with TV Guide branding.

From its inception in 1953 until 2005, your usual issue of TV Guide was a hybrid of glossy magazine and newsprint. The first dozen pages were the glossies – news, a feature story or two, plus highlights from the daytime soap operas, and in later years, tidbit-sized reviews and gossip.

Dividing the two sections was usually a piece of thicker-stock paper advertising collectible figurines, coins, or similar schlock.

Beyond that card was where the magazine really became special. The newsprint half of the guide was filled with details for everything airing on television in your local area, from sign-on to sign-off, for seven straight days.

As the magazine grew in popularity and more communities began broadcasting, TV Guide began printing more editions. At its height, TV Guide provided local broadcast information in 140 areas, including an “Ultimate Cable” edition and an edition for the burgeoning satellite services.

Channel list, southern Oregon market, 1981

The newsprint section of each issue began with a preface – rather than a table of contents, it was a table of channels. For editions covering multiple markets, this table listed each channel covered in each market. Each channel number was denoted with its own TV screen-shaped “bullet” – usually a black bullet for a major market and an outline for smaller markets. The outline shape would also be used for cable operators’ local channel designations and later for cable and satellite channels altogether.

After the preface came the “log” – the day-by-day rundown of each day’s schedules. Each page would index in chronological order what would air amongst all the channels. Many times you would find a long list of channel numbers followed by the title and synopsis of the program airing. This was particularly helpful in cases where the program title was an attempt by syndicators to sell viewers on watching reruns – such is the case with “Happy Days Again,” just reruns of previous seasons of “Happy Days,” a blatant case of “retitling the repeats,” to borrow a Monty Python term.

At least once on each day’s listing, you would see a “Close-up,” a spotlight on one particular program’s content, before you reached the primetime grid.

The primetime grid highlighted the broadcast networks’ schedules from 8pm to 11pm. As shown in this example here, where you watched played an important role in what you got to see.

For example, Channel 10 is KTVL in Medford, Oregon. Primarily an NBC affiliate, Channel 10 shared a CBS membership with Channel 5, KOBI. This is why on Channel 10 on Monday, you’d watch Little House on the Prairie, an NBC show, followed by a double-bill of CBS’ M*A*S*H and House Calls.

This case of one channel being home to two or more networks was not uncommon in the early days of television, but by the 80s this was mostly only seen in areas with fewer available channels.

But, as you can see in the grid, it can be even more complicated than that. You’ll note that Channel 10 runs a second episode of both M*A*S*H and House Calls at the 10pm slot, while Channels 3 and 6 are running a CBS News special. This was likely due to Channel 10 having an agreement to only run NBC News, but it could also have been simply due to technological limitations – some channels, in addition to being able to cherry-pick what network shows to run, could also schedule them on different days altogether. This was true in cases where an affiliate wasn’t set up with the satellite or telephony recording facility needed to enable same-day transmission.

The log-and-grid format was invaluable to viewers for decades: it was a way to sort out what aired when, in the days when network fare was split between channels, and as the 80s turned to the 90s, when cable television meant 24-hour schedules and dozens more choices.

To cope, TV Guide first tried accommodating as many channels as possible in the log, but reserved the primetime evening grid for the broadcast stations and the most-watched cable channels. Late in the 90s, some style changes in the log – including changing the practice of putting titles in all caps to a mixed-cast format – saved microscopic amounts of space to allow for 30 or more channel listings.

A format change shortly after 2000 led to there being grids for early-to-mid morning, daytime-to-early-evening, primetime, and late-night schedules.

By the 90s, TV Guide had diversified beyond the print magazine and into television itself. During its tenure under Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, the parent company purchased Prevue Networks, a system for local cable operators to electronically generate program guides of their own. The titular Prevue Channel was renamed The TV Guide Channel.

Also during this time, there was a line of VCRs with the ability to record programs based on a generated code number. Called VCRplus+, users could enter a code for a channel, then a code for the desired program. The VCR would decode the numbers and automatically begin recording at the scheduled time. Through a partnership with VCRplus+, the necessary codes for both channels and programs were included in all TV Guide editions.

However, with an ownership change and the advent of internet-based TV listing options, TV Guide’s reason-for-being was quickly, swiftly hobbled. To try and re-invent itself, the new bosses scrapped the digest format and relaunched in the fall of 2005 as a full-sized glossy magazine.

The very first thing to suffer was the guide itself. All 140 localized editions of the magazine were scrapped and reduced to three: an east coast, a west coast, and a cable/satellite-only edition. The log was cast aside, and only a grid for evening programming remained within the magazine’s pages.

TV Guide is now only published biweekly in its 64th year, has had a handful of ownership changes, and hovers around the 3 million subscriber mark.

The TV Guide Channel and all the magazine’s digital properties have since been sold off to CBS, meaning is not affiliated in any way with TV Guide except in name only. TV Guide Channel is now known as Pop, and no longer deals with electronic program listings at all. Instead, Pop airs reruns of several different series and a nightly live feed from the American Big Brother house when that program is in production.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Mark Jeffries 10 August 2017 at 6:06 pm

In most cases, TV Guide’s television adverts were “trade-outs”–stations got ad space in the magazine in exchange for running the magazine ads on-air. The voice-over for most of those years (including the ads in the clip) was Taylor Grant, a veteran radio newsreader in Philadelphia, of which TV Guide’s hometown of Radnor, Pa. was part of the metropolitan area. When Murdoch took over, the ads went to video tape and became more breathless and sensational in tone, just like Murdoch’s tabloids.

It should be pointed out that Pop has gotten involved with original programming in this “Peak TV” era in America, mostly sitcoms, notably the Canadian “Schitt’s Creek” (owned partially by ITV) and “Nightcap,” a sitcom set inside the production offices of a not-very-successful late night chat show.

David Heathcote 10 August 2017 at 9:29 pm

Fascinating history – how the TV Guide production team dealt with up to 140 different editions prior to the arrival of computers beggars belief!

Alan Keeling 19 August 2017 at 10:36 am

There’s a fair choice of monochrome re-runs, such as Perry Mason, Leave it to Beaver, The Twilight Zone, the early 50s Abbott & Costello Show, plus early seasons of Gilligans Island.

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