For more than half a century, TV Guide was the undisputed American TV bible. Every week, millions of Americans received this digest-sized magazine in the mail, which was jam-packed with TV-related news, features, and rumours – as well as, of course, showtimes.
As time and technology have progressed, this American institution has suffered greatly. Since its demise to be replaced by online and on-screen programme listings, TV Guide has been reduced to a half-decent biweekly large-format magazine devoted more to entertainment news than programme listings.
TV Guide flourished in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of an aggressive television advertising campaign. After hearing a creepy electronic tune, you’d hear “This week in TV Guide…,” followed by a teaser for a feature story in the next issue.
In those days, it was not uncommon to see at least one TV special per year with the TV Guide logo.
Every issue of TV Guide was a mix of glossy magazine and newsprint from the time it began in 1953 until 2005. There was news, a feature story or two, as well as highlights from the daytime soap operas, and in later years, tidbit-sized reviews and gossip in the first dozen pages. A thicker piece of paper advertising collectable figurines, coins, or other schlock was often used to separate the two sections.
The magazine’s true value, however, lay beyond that single card. The guide’s newsprint half was jam-packed with information on everything airing on local television stations for seven consecutive days, from sign-on to sign-off.
TV Guide began printing more issues as the publication gained in popularity and more communities began airing programmes. At its peak, TV Guide provided information on local broadcasts in 140 areas, including an “Ultimate Cable” edition and an edition for the emerging satellite services.
To begin each issue’s newsprint section, each issue had a preface with a table of channels rather than a table of contents. This table provided a breakdown of the channels available in each market for editions covering multiple geographies. For major markets, the “bullet” was black, while for smaller ones, the “outline” was used to indicate the channel number. Eventually, the outline shape would be applied to all cable and satellite channel designations, as well as to local channel designations for cable operators.
This was followed by the “log,” which was a day-by-day rundown of the events for each day. Each page would list in chronological order the shows that would air on each of the various channels. The title and synopsis of an upcoming show would frequently be followed by a long list of channel numbers. “Happy Days Again,” for example, is just a rerun of previous seasons of “Happy Days,” a clear case of “retitling the repeats,” to borrow a Monty Python term.
A “Close-up,” a spotlight on a specific program’s content, would appear at least once in each day’s listing before the primetime grid. From 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., the primetime grid displayed the broadcast networks’ schedules. Where you sat while watching had a significant impact on what you saw, as demonstrated in this example.
Medford, Oregon’s KTVL, for example, is Channel 10. KOBI, a CBS affiliate, shared membership with Channel 10, which was primarily an NBC affiliate. NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, followed by a double-bill of M*A*S*H and House Calls, would be on Channel 10 on Monday.
In the early days of television, it was not uncommon for one channel to host two or more networks, but by the 1980s, this was mostly only seen in areas with fewer available channels.
The grid shows that it can be even more complicated than that, as you can see. The second episode of M*A*S*H and House Calls airs on Channel 10 at 10 p.m., while CBS News is on Channels 3, 6, and 10. Channel 10 had an agreement with NBC to only air NBC News, but it could also have been due to technological constraints – 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 the case when an affiliate did not have the satellite or telephone recording facility required to enable same-day transmission. This was correct.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, viewers relied on the log-and-grid format to keep track of what was airing on which channel, as well as how many channels were available at any given time.
For this reason, TV Guide initially tried to include as many channels in the log but instead reserved the primetime evening grid for the broadcast stations and the most popular cable channels. The log was able to accommodate 30 or more channel listings thanks to changes made in the late 1990s, including a move away from all-caps titles in favour of a mixed-cast format. New grids were created for early morning, midday to evening, primetime and late-night schedules following a format change in 2000.
TV Guide had expanded into television programming by the 1990s, moving from a print magazine to a television network. As part of its acquisition of Prevue Networks by News Corporation, the parent company acquired a system that allows local cable operators to create their electronic programme guides. TV Guide Channel was renamed Prevue Channel in the wake of the channel’s demise.
VCRs with the ability to record programmes based on a generated code number were also available at this time. A programme known as VCRplus+ allowed users to enter the channel code and the programme code for a single programme at a time. Recording began at the predetermined time after the VCR decoded the numbers and began recording automatically All TV Guide editions now include the necessary codes for channels and programmes thanks to a collaboration with VCRplus+.
However, after a change in ownership and the emergence of internet-based TV listing options, the purpose of TV Guide was quickly, swiftly hampered. The new management decided to relaunch the magazine as a full-sized glossy magazine in the fall of 2005, scrapping the digest format in the process.
The guide itself was the first casualty. The magazine’s 140 regional editions were thrown out in favour of just three: an east coast edition, a west coast edition, and a cable/satellite edition. Only a grid for evening programming remained in the magazine’s pages after the log was thrown out. In its 64th year, TV Guide is only published twice a month, has undergone several ownership changes, and has a subscriber base of around 3 million.
Since the sale to CBS of the TV Guide Channel and all of the magazine’s digital properties, TVGuide.com is no longer associated with TV Guide except by name. Pop, formerly known as TV Guide Channel, no longer handles electronic programme listings at all. In place of the American Big Brother live feed, Pop airs reruns of several other shows and a nightly feed from the American Big Brother house.