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

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 Some are early loves, some were with me almost every day for years, some were superceded by newer, more vivacious models.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.”

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.

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.