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TV Guide: History Of The Most Popular Magazine Of The '60s & '70s

Entertainment | April 3, 2021

TV Guide covers featuring Mary Tyler Moore, the Six Million Dollar Man, the Smothers Brothers, Lucille Ball, and Dinah Shore. Source: Flickr

TV Guide was the most popular magazine in America at the height of the Groovy Era. In today's world where everything is on-demand and available at your fingertips the concept of requiring a magazine to tell you what time a television program is going to air is bizarre. That wasn't the case in the '60s and '70s. In mid-century America, TV Guide was considered an essential part of the household. It helped families plan their evenings and people something to look at when boredom took hold.

By the early '70s, TV Guide was the biggest magazine in the country with a peak circulation of 19 million. In its heyday the Guide did its best to keep up with television trends, changing styles, and the spread of cable television. There's never going to be another phenomenon quite TV Guide.

The first version of TV Guide was regional

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Lee Wagner was a publisher with his eye on television. He wasn't watching it so much as he was paying attention to its regularly scheduled programming. Already the circulation director at distributor Cowles Media Company where he worked on celebrity magazines, he decided to see if there was interest in a magazine filled solely with television listings.

The first version of TV Guide was published on June 14, 1948, featuring Gloria Swanson on the cover. This edition of the "TeleVision Guide" was only sold on news stands in the New York City area, making it more of a hyper local TV 'zine than anything else. The NYC version of the guide was popular enough that Wagner was able to branch out into more regional versions. He first published guides for New England before adding the Baltimore-Washington area to his circulation.

The guides were so successful that Wagner sold the magazine to Walter Annenberg and Triangle Publications. It's not clear if Wagner didn't have the manpower to go national or if he was just done with the magazine, but either way Triangle saw big business with his concept.

TV Guide goes national

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On April 3, 1953, Triangle went national with TV Guide, and the publication was distributed to ten cities across the U.S. by that summer. Distribution of the first issue was close to a million and a half copies, but that soon dropped to around 200,000 copies by August. However, things began to change with the magazine's first "Fall Preview" issue in September 1953.

While sales remained in flux so did the design of the magazine. Early versions of the magazine started and ended the viewing week on a Friday. by 1954, endings began on Saturday and ended on Friday. TV Guide stuck with this method until the 2000s.

One thing that hasn't changed is the way that the magazine was sold. It was available at newsstands and in grocery stores for fifteen cents a pop, or constant readers could pick up a subscription for a discount. It's this kind of steadfast nature that maintained a steady pool of readers even as the medium of television changed over the decades.

The ever changing logo

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It makes sense that a company obsessed with television wouldn't just focus on what was on the TV, but the shape of it as well. The TV Guide logo has gone through a significant amount of chances since its introduction in 1953. Each change in the logo represents a change in the physical shape of a television as well as the fluid nature of the media landscape.

The earliest version of the logo has the rounded square with a kind of bubble on the front that all TVs had in the '50s. Usually the logo would be black with white lettering but sometimes the colors were swapped around for various purposes. By the 1960s, the company's red logo became the standard. From 1962 to 1988 the logo widened into one of those behemoth televisions of that era before taking on a flat screen look in the modern era.

TV Guide was beloved for their covers

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The best part about TV Guide has always been its covers. The first national issue featured Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Jr. in what you might call an unflattering photo, but it was only out for a week so that's okay. An eye-grabbing headline billed the newborn as "Lucy's $50,000,000 Baby" -- the article inside speculated that the child of the most famous TV couple, whose gestation had been a plotline written into the series, presented a marketing and merchandising bonanza from the moment of birth. By literally releasing a new issue every week TV Guide created a kind of must-see viewing at the grocery store. And even if you knew when your favorite show was airing you had to buy an issue if it had someone you loved on the cover.

A super cool aspect of the magazine was the way that they played with their visuals. Sometimes the covers featured a promo shot from the show, but other times they had far out looking art (some by famed illustrator Bob Peak) and some truly wild illustrations. We've spread some of our favorites throughout this article.

The TV Guide format took some time to figure out

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The most important part of the TV Guide is also the trickiest. Laying out the guide is all about space. It would cost way too much to print a Bible-thick magazine every week. This constant push and pull of the changing format has created some interesting issues with the magazine.

Initially, every program except for local and national news received a synopsis. As more stations were added those synopses began to shrink before they were eradicated save for special programs, usually something airing in primetime. This varied from region to region because in the '60s television programming was still the wild west in some aspects. For instance, Star Trek could air at 7pm in one market and 8pm in another.

Advertisements created an entirely different headache. Throughout the '60s and '70s, local ads were printed in black and white and were often restricted to one page. Major networks took out full page, and sometimes two page ads in color to advertise an entire night of programming or a special event.

Rather than just send out a book with a bunch of ads and a bracket of TV listings, the magazine also ran reviews of different programs in the "Close-Up" section as well as "Cheers and Jeers" as well as "Hits and Misses," which were used as a way to create some genuinely interesting critiques of broadcast television. What's so cool about this is that the people behind the magazine were able to slip in genuinely interesting articles into what was essentially a phonebook for TV shows.

Cable changed TV Guide forever

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In the late '70s and early '80s cable offered viewers more than their standard three or four channels. They were suddenly able to flip through anywhere between 30 to 50 channels depending on their service provider, and the number of new channels added to a cable system (and later satellite) only grew with the decades. TV Guide began a slow roll out of cable guides in 1980 and by the next year cable channels were listed in every addition but even then things got tricky.

Some regional editions of the magazine featured sections for "STV Programming," which was a local subscription based service, while major players in cable like HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, CNN, and Nickelodeon were phased into the magazine as the channels became more readily available. To accommodate so many new channels the magazine adopted a one page grid-style listing that featured listings for everything in broadcast stations, basic cable channels, and premium channels airing during primetime. That single page spread to two and branched out of primetime and into the hours surrounding it.

With cable came the end of TV Guide's reign as America's favorite magazine. It's still out there kicking around, but with streaming and on demand viewing the way of the day (not to mention YouTube and other niche content distributors) TV Guide feels like something from the past. 

Tags: Lucille Ball | Magazines | Remember This?... | Television | TV Guide

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.