The autocrat of the coffee table

A recent exhibit of TV Guide covers makes it clear that the magazine's great success has been its humble acceptance of the fact that it was never meant to be much more than a coffee table coaster and its refusal to change its kitschy, limited-use format.

Published August 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There is no year printed on the cover of a TV Guide magazine. Pick up a Harper's, a Runner's World, a Fast Company, they'll all tell you it's 1998. Even Swing and Yahoo! Internet Life -- magazines you can't be sure you'll be reading three minutes after you pick them up -- make a nod to history by marking the annus on their faces.

The current issue of TV Guide, in contrast, is Aug. 1-7. Which Aug. 1-7? TVG is good enough to print the full date on the spine for posterity. But the up-front omission, a brazen claim of disposability, is a bit of characteristic self-effacement from what may be America's most humble major magazine.

TV Guide, after all, is a magazine whose chief design consideration is to avoid taking up too much room on the coffee table -- a magazine that practically begs you to use it as a coaster. A magazine with articles sized perfectly for commercial breaks, when you don't have anything, you know, better to do. A magazine whose very core, 150-odd pages of TV listings, reminds you that it is rotting as you read it. To save a copy of TV Guide, its own date-less cover tells you, you'd have to be crazy -- Frank Costanza crazy.

The patrons of New York's Museum of Television and Radio seem to agree. On a busy Thursday, only a handful of loiterers waiting for the next Monty Python screening wander into the Steven Spielberg Gallery for the exhibition "A Television Diary: 45 Years of TV Guide Covers." They meet their dates, they scold their kids, they talk about what musicals to try to catch on TKTS, they move on.

The response is typical of our conflicted attitude toward the great American art form: Patrons regularly pack the MTR's library to screen old episodes of Ernie Kovacs and "Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home," but they meet exhibits that hint TV might be worth actual study with a sort of bemused self-consciousness: This is a joke, right? (If you want to look like a lunatic, try viewing a TV Guide exhibit with a notebook.)

"Television Diary" aims to be a social history in pictures, from 1953 to 1998; from UHF to cable; from "When Will Liberace Marry?" to "Ellen DeGeneres: Out and in Charge" (by way of "Why Miss Brooks Can't Get Her Man"). Unfortunately, the MTR's exhibit is not so much curated as simply collected -- dozens of covers are thrown on the wall under card-catalog headings ("News," "The Changing Family," the requisite Lucille Ball shrine) with minimal, bland commentary: "Lawyers from dour Perry Mason to the fun-loving wheeler-dealers of 'Ally McBeal' have gone to great lengths to make their case." One more generalization like that and I'll clear this courtroom!

The result is a boomerphilic version of the sort of "Remember this?" cultural studies you authored between bong hits at 2 a.m. in your dorm room ("Remember Schneider?" "Yeah -- pfff -- hey, remember Mel Sharples?" "Dude! Mel Sharples! Got any more Combos?"). But the underannotated exhibit speaks pretty well for itself, in often surprising ways. For one, the covers, unmarked by date and out of chronological order, make the viewer aware of how thoroughly, and frighteningly, turning points in our lives are wed to the TV schedule. We don't need TV Guide to put the year on its cover; without knowing it, we mark our days on a dynastic, Biblical internal calendar: Joe Friday begat Link, and Link begat Furillo, and Furillo begat Sipowicz.

Indeed, though we associate television with fast-paced cultural change, this exhibit shows how much TV is about stability and constancy: Seen through the time lapse of TV Guide's covers, American television is simply one long-running show, updated in weekly installments since the '50s. So too is its calendar-effacing magazine. TV Guide is America's answer to the Chinese watercolor or Japanese calligraphy -- an exercise in the creativity of repetition, of minute variations on a time-honored pattern.

The classic TV Guide cover, for example, has never really changed: a big, friendly head on a little, friendly page (though the exhibit plays up exceptions like Charles Addams' gridiron werewolf marking the first nighttime Super Bowl). If the subject is a noncomedian woman, she's radiant in a long gown; if it's a funny man, he's mugging animatedly in a classy suit. (But for the glasses, hair and maybe 100 pounds, Drew Carey in 1998 could be Dick Van Dyke in 1968.) TV Guide is not going to give you Damon Wayans in whiteface or Jenna Elfman in dominatrix leathers. A TV Guide cover on Teri Hatcher does not say, "This photo is about the changing sexual-work dynamic in a postfeminist-era nation reevaluating its conception of heroes." It says, "This magazine has a story about Teri Hatcher in it."

Or take the magazine's logo. Since the Ike era that little TV screen has assured viewers that TVG was just current enough to be interesting, not enough to be scary -- it deposits the reader safely about five minutes into the future. But the full collection reveals how the font incrementally evolved with the country's ideal of that near future: from the thick civil-defense-bunker sans serif of the '50s to the squarish "Space: 1999" futuristic font of the '60s and '70s to the current font, the picture of post-'80s understated elegance, rounded and hair-thin as a pair of designer eyeglass frames. And the curt, no-nonsense listings are an American poetic genre of restraint; each deceptively facile tag is a mini-miracle of in medias res storytelling. "There's a heat wave, and Hawkeye and B.J. have a tub." That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

The magazine tends to be pegged as a kitsch classic -- and, OK, the ads for "Chilly the Penguin" figurines don't exactly help -- but the issues on display at MTR are surprisingly provocative, sometimes even urbane, particularly the covers from the '50s. An early cover of George Reeves bears the caption "Man and Superman," a literary allusion most similar-circulation magazines wouldn't touch today (including, probably, TV Guide).

TV Guide's accomplishment was to expose the suburban den to new ideas gently, under cover of defending heartland values. Thus its other great recurring theme is the propensity of television to Finally Go Too Far This Time. "Must Sports Ban TV?" "Coming: Cur-mercials to Brainwash Your Dog." "'Real People': Entertainment or Exploitation?" (This above the predatory mug of the rapacious Sarah Purcell.) For decades TVG has been the carny barker of American pop culture, beseeching us to shield the eyes of sensitive women and children and oldsters with heart problems -- while holding the tent flap wide open for one and all. So the current cover asks, "'Lolita': Is It Too Shocking for TV?" by way of teasing an appreciative review that barely raises the question at all.

Still, TV Guide has never really escaped the American living room; no other mass publication is as context-limited as this one. (If you really want to look like a lunatic, read TV Guide on the subway.) Nor has it fought very hard to do so. True, when you're landing in 13 million mailboxes a week, there's not much incentive to change, but it's paid for its complacency with increasing speculation that it might end up a casualty of online listings.

Which brings up an aspect of TV Guide's covers that this exhibit hardly addresses. To boost sales, TVG has begun running off multiple collector's covers of single issues. The MTR exhibit charitably terms it an "experiment," but it's really a sad gimmick -- sad because the history of TV Guide, and the true story of this exhibit, is that of the general-interest magazine in America. By putting out, say, four alternate "Dawson's Creek" character covers, TVG concedes that self-interest has succeeded general interest, that we've changed from TV fans into Dawson and Pacey and Joey fans. Quit boring me with all that crap about other people! Where's my magazine?

TV Guide may yet revamp itself with the times -- there's been talk about dropping the listings, adopting a larger format, making it a general entertainment magazine. But maybe busting off the coffee table simply wouldn't be in its humble, just-the-listings-please character. TV Guide has never asked to be more than a prime-time Sherpa, a magazine John the Baptist preparing the way for the medium that would supplant print -- to serve and to protect against unsightly coffee rings. In an age when standard operating procedure for magazines is to find a way to turn themselves into movies and TV shows, that's its most endearing anachronism of all.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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