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It would be wrong to say our family subscribed to TV Guide. I subscribed. I bought the subscription with my own money, because I was the one who wanted to explore the wonders and gala glories that was the Triple Entente of Network TV. What generous souls they were, what tireless and devoted servants to the public weal! The endless array of entertainment. The movies - free! The cartoons, the funny shows with people already laughing so I knew what was funny, the variety shows where men in tuxes taught me how to smoke and make sniggering remarks that were the epitome of boozy swank and manly swagger. Why, all of life was in that book. The entire day, from sign-on to the dark chilly recesses of the sign-off. I loved TV. TV loved me. This book told you what the future would be like, and everything it said came true. That was good enough.
To get a copy that had Star Trek on the cover - it was a validation from the great broad world beyond Fargo, the exciting world of Burbank and Studio City and Desilu and this is a Filmways Presentation Dahling and all that stuff.
It seems I only saved one issue. This is it. And the cover’s gone.
Looking through the pages brings it all back, the little icons, the way some channel numbers were filled in and some where white. If you lived in a black-icon city, you regarded the whites as foreign and odd, underpowered, incomplete. The way the week began on Saturday morning with cartoons and ended Friday night with a movie. The half-page “Close-Up” features that gave you a small trill of anticipation: what ho, a special? There’s a special this week? How would I know that if I hadn’t read this helpful tract? See, my parents were content to read the listings in the paper; the end-of-the-week green section had the entire TV listings and a few wire stories, all in a helpful grid. But TV Guide was like a novel, one page after the other unfolding the extraordinary tale of the Three Channels, with occasional missives from Sir Public, the ascetic scholar who lived in the tower in the land of Nonprofit. You could chart the progress of the week by the day you’d dogeared last; you could write stars in the margins to make sure you turned the channel at the right time and were sitting right there when it happened, because it wasn’t going to happen again. Oh, it might be rerun, but they didn’t rerun everything.
Thus was my childhood.
Well, not entirely. But yes. Pathetic. I was a bookish kid; read constantly. Had friends. Loved to explore the world on my bike. Devoured comic books. Typical. But I loved TV and I loved TV Guide; the Fall Preview edition was received like a third tablet of commandments. I fell away from TV almost immediately after leaving home, and stopped watching blocks of shows, or even caring much what was new. I watched the hip stuff and old movies. When the VCR came along, the TV turned into a servant, not a master.
Why, I remember exactly where I was living when I got my first VCR, and how I could afford it: I had a day job downtown in a skyscraper, the very building where Mary Tyler Moore worked at WJM.
I was working for TV Guide.
To this day when I say I had a brief stint as an editor at TV Guide I feel compelled to explain, lest people think I was something else, like “an editor at TV Guide.” I was a regional editor. I wrote nothing except a few lines of descriptions for local programming, and the creative possibilities were nil. Oh, if I was writing copy for Noonday, and the North Dakota Bean Growers Association was on, I’d type that they were appearing to discuss their plans for world domination, then I’d print it off to make it look real, then DELETE DELETE DELETE. No, it was data entry. You had a book, which was your territory. The computer automatically entered the network copy. (This was about 1985.) You were responsible for entering local copy, and that meant calling up the stations and asking for the syndie numbers. Oh, you’re running Dukes of Hazzards 137-141? Thanks. You enter that in the computer, and the database spits out the summaries.
There were three problems: you might have too much information for the space, in which case you had to trim the copy. Or your stumble-fingered input might create a GAP, wherein the book would suggest a horrible yawning interval in which no TV was broadcast, through which the demons of some interdimensional plane would pour through and consume our souls. Or you had overlapping entries. Gaps and overlaps were mortal sins, and if your book went to press with any, shame and woe be unto you.
You had the entire week to get it right. Most people could. Some had been there a few years, and cheerfully squirreled their way through the job, because that’s what it was. A job. Not a bad one. No heavy lifting. You work downtown, which is exciting. The bosses are okay. The head office is far, far away. And they were: the main office was in Radnor PA, a city that was spoken about the way priests in Peru refer to Rome, or commissars in Siberia refer to Moscow. Distance was nothing. Authority was everything. God help you if you got a call from Radnor. God help you if the boss sat you down and said he’d been talking to Radnor.
The boss sat me down a few times. Nice guy. Hated to be the heavy. He was heavy, which probably didn’t help. Beard and curly hair. Ed. How Ed got into this line I don’t know, but it was a job. I got a lecture on my GAP reports, which were occasionally so riddled with errors people in my territory would be throwing the book at the TV set in fury. The GAP reports came on Thursday, if I recall, and we had a day to fix them before the book closed - which sometimes meant elbowing for computer time at the terminal and desperately bashing the keys before the hammer fell, something that came to be known as FRANT-O-TYPE. If you failed, you’d have to fix them at the plant. Yes: on Friday everyone went to the printing plant and personally pored over every damn page and every damned listing to make sure the book held together.
I wouldn’t just hear from my boss if I screwed the pooch; I’d hear from my aunts and uncles. Because my book was Fargo and North Dakota. I was editing the book I’d grown up reading.
At first, I liked it. I liked taking the bus to work, taking lunch on the Mall with my buddy Joe, watching the girls. After a while I started driving to work, paying ramp prices, if only for the thrill of blasting home at 5 when the radio played “Working For the Weekend,” which they always did on Friday. After a while I began to go mad. It’s said that the problems of humanity can be traced by the inability of man to sit alone in a room with his own thoughts; in my case it’s always been my inability to sit in an office for any protracted period of time, particularly if there’s a poster on the wall of a kitten depending from a branch: Hang In There ‘Til Friday. No! I will not! I reject your calendrical bromides intended to give the worker drones a cheap palliative and make them concentrate their life towards the moment when the obligation to produce ceases. I want to write! God, I want to LIVE!
Yeah, it was a great fit.
I started writing for City Pages, and for some reason this was a problem - I think because I may have said I worked for TV Guide in a bio. If I recall the final chat, Ed said that Radnor policy forbade outside work. If that’s the case, then: ‘ta. And so I quit.
In the fall, if I remember. Autumn. Falling leaves. Sadness. Goodbye friends. Goodbye routine. I woke up late the next day, looked at the typewriter, and thought: what have I done.
Well, it all worked out. I mention this just to explain why I have a particular attachment to a single battered copy of TV Guide I saved as a kid. Partly because it had Star Trek on the cover. Partly because I can understand what the person who put it together went through, and how his or her work is utterly unheralded. This was one person’s product. The definition of disposable - unless you file it away, because it has Star Trek on the cover.
I almost sent the issue to the antique store before I thought, well, might be a website in here. And so I give you: every page of the television listings for a week in August, 1968, in Fargo, North Dakota, with every listing linked to a YouTube clip that shows the opening theme, or other moments of the show. This will take some time to finish; as you can imagine it’s rather labor-intensive. But, as I say sometimes when I’m putting these sites together: what the hell.