Showing My References

On Reading Too Much About TV & Watching Too Much TV

by Michael Barrett

5 December 2011

(artist unknown) 

What's Needed Between the Pages

I salute Terrace’s obsessions and his pioneering achievement, but his eccentricities and randomness meant that his early books were surpassed in the marketplace by Brooks & Marsh and McNeil. McNeil simply lives up to his title, Total Television, by trying to include everything that aired regularly in English in the US—network and syndication, cable and PBS, daytime and prime time. (I’ve never seen a reference on the Spanish networks.) He presents everything in paragraph form that works surprisingly well, starting with the exact broadcast dates, including stops and restarts (by network, but with no days/times), then terse descriptions and cast lists with dates, sometimes naming notable guests by episode and airdate, and often creative personnel and production companies. Too bad his book hasn’t been updated in 15 years.

Brooks & Marsh identify their territory narrowly but importantly: all series that aired roughly in “primetime” (the evening hours) on a national network, with many (but not all) syndicated series for good measure. Crucially, they provide the dates that an actor or character appeared on a series when it wasn’t the entire run, and they explain a show’s premise and characters more or less thoroughly, though often they could do better in terms of production background.

I swear that if you look up a series that would be listed in Brooks & Marsh, McNeil, and one of the older Terraces, you’ll find different information in all three. I’m not saying they’ll contradict each other (though that, too) so much as have different emphases on what kind of information they’re best at. Each will often list “regulars” the others don’t, and the more I watch of old TV shows that get exhumed on DVD (e.g. Mr. Peepers, The Goldbergs, Peter Gunn, The Phil Silvers Show), the more I realize how elusive so many basic facts have been.

Brooks & Marsh has earned its rep as the most solid of these references, within its admittedly limited yet crucial purview. Alas, their standard benchmark has its own eccentricities that are getting more and more eccentric. Most glaringly, Brooks & Marsh pride themselves on getting their dates right, but they also leave half of them out. They adopted a format of providing a first and last broadcast date for each series, plus a broadcast history that lists the days and times of its broadcast (Wednesdays at 8pm, for example). The latter avoids specific dates, so the only exact dates you have are for the premiere and the final airing.

That’s fine for short-lived shows that never shifted their schedule, but the most popular and long-running shows have complex histories that not only changed days and times but even shifted from one network to another, then left the air and came back for a year of reruns or even had a revival under the same name. Since Brooks & Marsh insist on collapsing the entire history into one entry, you end up not even knowing the exact dates when a popular series ended its first run, when it finished on one network and started another, or when the revival premiered. Ironically, their first edition contains facts not in later editions, because the revival of shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason has thrown off basic information about them. The only solution is for Brooks & Marsh to go back and provide all the exact dates in the broadcast history that they thought they could avoid. It’s quite a task, but they’ve brought it upon themselves.

Another flaw made perfect sense at the time. They’ve never covered PBS, instead hoping for a definitive PBS reference to appear in the future. After all, PBS not only had a different structure from the national commercial networks (local stations can juggle their own schedule), but it somehow seemed a world apart conceptually and morally, what with having no commercials and such. But that was another age, and now the book has expanded to cover not only cable channels without commercials, but even channels that show literally the same programs—A&E, Biography, BBC America. The continued shunning of this one particular national network, especially in the absence of that long-awaited reference, has become indefensible.

The final eccentricity lies in some increasingly desperate omissions to a ballooning book. In their introduction, Brooks & Marsh have made a point for years in re-explaining why they omit an ambitious obscurity called Six O’Clock Follies, a Vietnam war sitcom starring Larry Fishburne. NBC shuffled it all over the schedule so that it never had a consecutive four-week run in one time slot. The trouble is, Brooks & Marsh have a loophole to include series such as Turn On, notoriously cancelled after one broadcast, that were “intended” to have a regular run.

In other words, if only NBC had abruptly cancelled Follies after one episode, it would have been included! Instead five episodes were aired at random, so it’s left out—except that NBC hardly could have originally “intended” to play shuffleboard with a commissioned series. Had it been a hoped-for sm*a*s*h in any slot, they’d have kept it right there, so their thwarted intent can be assumed. The solution is to know when to stop explaining and just include it (as McNeil does).

Brooks & Marsh have recently used this “regular four-week slot” requirement to shunt a lot of popular cable shows that a fan would want to look up (like Dexter and Weeds) into measly lists of titles under the network’s general entry. (They increasingly dispose of many cable docu-series this way.) Actually, these shows do have regular broadcast times, but I can understand what’s happening. They’re desperate at the sheer amount of TV to cover nowadays and are trying to be as concise as possible with their burgeoning phonebook of a tome. I’m sure they dread the prospect, which must loom inevitably, of dividing into two volumes.

My memo to Brooks & Marsh: they should embrace it, as Maltin reluctantly embraced splitting his annual TV Movies with an infrequent “Classics” volume. In fact, that was a blessing and I’m sure he’d never go back. He found he now had the luxury of including titles that had long been excluded. It’s kind of like that old joke about the guy who complains his house is too small for the family, so the rabbi tells him to bring inside the dogs, sheep, chickens, and cows. Then when he puts them all outside again, he marvels at all the space. Except in this case, you can bring all the dogs and cows back in to their own house.

The solution is not to divide your reference alphabetically into one volume for A to L, etc., which means you’d have to continually update multiple volumes, but rather to create a “Classic TV” guide for those shows up to 1990, for example—or maybe 1980, the dawn of cable TV. This volume would hardly ever need revising(maybe once a decade), and think what it would mean. You could finally include PBS. You could finally revise all the exact dates. Indeed, you could expand all entries for lengthy discussions of what aired on classic anthologies, what guests appeared on variety shows, what favorite episodes and guest characters defined various series, what forgotten pop stars made cameos as themselves on what forgotten sitcoms, who were the producers and creators, the major writers and directors, and what the critics said.

Maybe the fabled Gianakos could pitch in, if he still walks among us—why reinvent the wheel? I know my revered Gerani and Zicree are still around; they provide DVD commentaries on their favorite shows. When a show has its expert, go to the source. I imagine a definitive, almost platonic primetime reference, a lovingly masoned cathedral to the cathode ray. Any why not pictures? Perhaps the ideal I imagine is realizable online, with links to Youtube videos and without the kinks of IMDb, but I’d still like something to hold in my hand. I’m funny that way.

Is it possible that Terrace has done this? I see that he now has a fabulously expensive, multivolume Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010, unseen by me. It’s priced for libraries. I’m glad he’s still going strong, and I hope he’s ironed out his aversions to “non-entertainment” and his tendency toward typos. I must reserve judgment until I ever see this four-volume work, but I still maintain that ordinary readers need an affordable Brooks & Marsh or McNeil-sized reference.

It’s ironic that we live in an age when more classic TV is accessible than ever before, thus allowing for the creation of ever more definitive reference books, at precisely the time when publishers perhaps imagine the need for such is obviated by the internet. Not so, not so. Such sane, all-encompassing, carefully researched references—the product of pioneering starstruck “amateurs”—are needed all the more.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media