Showing My References: On Reading Too Much About TV & Watching Too Much TV

by Michael Barrett

5 Dec 2011

(artist unknown) 

I have personal relationships to my favorite reference books. Some are early loves, some were with me almost every day for years, some were superceded by newer, more vivacious models. In idle moments I often imagine revising them in bold new editions. I don’t have a life.

I recall saving my dimes and nickels until I had the $6.95 to send off to Publishers Central Bureau for the original edition of Leonard Maltin’s The Disney Films in the ‘70s. It contained the complete credits for all the movies, a thorough discussion with pictures, and even lists of the short cartoons and the episodes of Disney’s TV show. It struck me as a perfect example of what a reference book should be, and I had the chance to tell Maltin so in an interview a few years ago. He said, “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

cover art

The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programs 1947-1976, 2 Volume Set

Vincent Terrace

US: Feb 1977

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The Compete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows

Earle F. Marsh,Tim Brooks

(Random House)
US: Oct 2007

I also remember one Christmas when I got a duplicate copy of a certain book (Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives), so we went to the mall bookstore (either Walden’s or B. Dalton’s) and I switched it for a long-coveted copy of Gary Gerani’s Fantastic Television. This was a seminal episode guide to several fantasy and science fiction shows like The Twilight Zone (long before Marc Scott Zicree’s crucial Twilight Zone Companion), Star Trek (though there was already Bjo Trimble’s Star Trek Concordance with the unique device of a title index built into the cover’s die-cut Enterprise) and Space: 1999 (unfinished because the show was still ongoing at press time).

Such books seem like dinosaurs in the era of IMDb, but you can’t trust IMDb, whose strength is its weakness. It’s a Wiki-melange of facts, factoids and misinformation without descriptive or analytical context. I’ve done my share of updating it, but always with the sick suspicion that some of my corrections may be erased and “corrected” by future contributors as cavalierly as I correct others. I still yearn for a hefty volume of pages to take down from the shelf, to leaf through at my leisure or to zero in on that relevant fact.

I was in the 8th grade, I think, when I came across Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV, a fat pocket reference in the vein of Maltin’s TV Movies. They were rival volumes. The Scheuer is forgotten now, as is his interview show All About TV on some PBS stations, but his book was my first acquaintance with this concept of rating movies, raving about some and dismissing others.

Until this point in my cinematic consciousness, I simply watched all comedies and all monster movies, and I pretty much enjoyed them all indiscriminately. I’d watch Abbott & Costello and George Bernard Shaw, the Three Stooges and Ealing Comedies, recognizing that they weren’t the same animal exactly and that some struck me more as masterpieces than others (how I was dazzled by Thoroughly Modern Millie and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but also by Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers), but the idea of prioritizing tastes and exercising judgment, really the idea that anything might not be “good”, was alien to me.

And here was this book lavishing four stars and lots of exciting adjectives on movies I’d never heard of and would never have watched. I began to sit through highly-rated movies on the late show, things like Rachel Rachel and Five Easy Pieces and Save the Tiger, and I recall that strange period of semi-bewildered transition as an apprenticeship from which I didn’t graduate until I realized I didn’t have to agree with somebody else’s ratings, as long as I understood what made something interesting to me. But in order to learn that, I had to sit through many types of movie, and I’ve never dropped that habit.

So much for movies. I want to focus on pivotal TV references that I use all the time and refer to in my columns or reviews of old TV shows. The basic reference for series on American prime time TV is Tim Brooks & Earl Marsh’s The Compete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows, and a second reference that casts its net as widely as possible is Alex McNeil’s Total Television. But first I must discuss my vexed first love: Vincent Terrace, the pioneer.

The first reference book I ever read was Terrace’s The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programs, 1947-1976 I checked it out of a local library and read it cover to cover. Yes, and it was two volumes, so cover to cover to cover to cover. To me it seemed ideal in mapping my interests, although it announced a contradiction immediately. Terrace explained that he only included “entertainment” series, by which he meant to exclude all of what might be called nonfiction: news, sports, interviews, public affairs, religion, documentaries. When you think about it, that’s a hell of a lot of TV and obviously invalidates the term “complete”, but it didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t care about those shows, either.

Almost out of whole cloth, Terrace was inventing a reference category worthy of study: the TV show. Clearly he’d gone through lots of old TV Guides and watched insane hours of TV with a pad and pencil by his chair. We’re talking about an era when nobody had VCRs. If you wanted to watch a show, you watched when it was broadcast or forever regretted it. The sense of anticipating a favorite broadcast months ahead of time, like The Wizard of Oz or the start of a new season, is now alien to people (not counting a definite event like the Super Bowl), as is the loss of having missed something because you weren’t home, or somebody else was watching your only TV on another channel, or the reception was wonky or the TV was in the shop. We don’t miss those days, but that anticipation was an important part of TV culture, as was the shared moment of watching a popular broadcast on one of the handful of channels and knowing that all your friends and strangers were watching at the same time.

VCRs were a liberation that brought their own thrall. Now you could replay or freeze the frame to take your notes, but you had the responsibility of those stacks of tapes waiting until you could get to them. Yes, in many ways we’re better off now with the saturation of instant information online, and I recall the rueful elation of the day I threw out years of TV Guides with untranscribed marginal notes on Kate & Allie, not without trepidation. Was all that carefully gathered information lost? I had to trust not.

Another inveterate jotter of this prehistoric age was one Larry Gianakos, who wrote several volumes of drama series episode guides for the college library market cornered by McFarland Publishers. He expressed careful and forceful opinions on his voluminous and multifarious viewings, but the books were inevitably a typescripted mess of additions and corrections to previous volumes that cried out for major overhauling. I blush to admit that I once sent him a fan note.

Back to the Terrace view, as it were. His formula was to label each series (Comedy, Drama, etc.) and write a short premise: “The trials and tribulations of the Such-and-such family in So-and-so, Nebraska.” The main attraction was the cast list, with each character identified. Clearly this fascinated Terrace and became his raison d’etre. Then he’d say who composed the music and give the broadcast dates. That was pretty much it. I praise him for for listing all the Peanuts specials as one series and for cataloguing all the Masterpiece Theatre serials so logically. (These would become inconsistent in his later books.)

Terrace’s flaws (aside from typos and misspellings) were that he usually didn’t say much about a show, its background, or the evolution of the action. He gave no dates for when a character was on the show, when one actor replaced another, or even the difference between regulars and people who only showed up two or three times. Basically, if you were on a show more than once, he’d try to list you just the same as the stars. He’d not only list the Addams Family but their postman, their mayor, their school principal, and the visiting relatives. I share Terrace’s belief in such information on the created world of a show, but the same logic requires that distinctions be recognized.

He published a one-volume update in 1979 that dropped some of the nonfiction shows he’d accidentally included the first time around, expanded some listings to include producers, writers and directors (far from complete), and added even more unclarified trivia about guest relatives and such. More books followed, expanding his territory to pilots and specials and more technical info and trivia like street addresses and pet names. He has produced a signal service in charting early experimental broadcasts before the co-axial (coast-to-coast) cable allowed the networks to establish themselves as nationwide broadcasters in the late ‘40s and begin the modern TV era.

//Mixed media