|By Brett Weiss
For those who enjoy flipping through the pages of TV Guide, perusing its articles and program listings, a debt of gratitude is owed to Walter H. Annenberg, who conceived the publication 60 years ago.
Annenberg, then head of the family-owned Triangle Publications, got the idea for a weekly national television magazine from such local publications as Philadelphia’s TV Digest, Chicago’s TV Forecast and New York’s TV Guide. In fact, during the early 1950s, Annenberg bought out those magazines, along with similar periodicals covering Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, among other cities and regions.
On April 3, 1953, Triangle Publications, which also owned various newspapers and radio and TV stations, published the first national issue of TV Guide. It featured Lucille Ball’s newborn son, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV (aka Desi Arnaz, Jr.), on the cover, with a small photo of Lucy herself on the top right corner. A caption across the top read, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 baby.”
Sought after by Lucy fans and TV Guide collectors alike, that first issue, cover-priced at just 15 cents, is easily worth $800 or more in near mint condition.
Lucille Ball, who died in 1989, would be featured on the cover of magazine 40 more times, making her by far the all-time leader in TV Guide cover appearances. The next four are Johnny Carson (28), Mary Tyler Moore (28), Michael Landon (27) and Oprah Winfrey (23).
Ball’s latest cover appearance is the 60th anniversary edition, published in April. To commemorate 60 years of television coverage, the issue had six different covers, each spotlighting the most influential show of a decade: I Love Lucy (1950s), Star Trek (1960s), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970s), The Cosby Show (1980s), The Simpsons (1990s) and Lost (2000s). Each cover is a mosaic comprised of covers from the respective decade.
Since the early 1990s, TV Guide has a history of multiple covers for a single issue. The Sept. 3, 1994 issue, for example, had seven different covers for the forthcoming NFL season: John Madden, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. Covers were distributed on a regional basis – such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Aikman appearing in Texas and Detroit Lions running back Sanders gracing newsstands in Michigan.
While the NFL covers were distributed regionally, certain cover variations appear in all markets. A good example of this is the Sept. 28, 1996 issue, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. Four national covers were produced, each depicting a different ship captain: James T. Kirk from the original Star Trek (William Shatner); Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) from The Next Generation; Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) from Voyager; and Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) from Deep Space Nine.
A unique case of multiple covers occurred with the July 13, 1991 issue featuring Michael Landon, star of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. The cover feature was entitled, “What Michael Means to Us.” Unfortunately, Landon died while the issue was being printed, so another cover was produced with the title, “What Michael Meant to Us.”
In 2000, the Oct. 21-27 issue of TV Guide had 24 different covers, each spotlighting a character from The Simpsons. This was a publishing record at the time, but the April 20-26 issue, celebrating the 35th anniversary of Star Trek, broke that record with 35 different covers.
These cover variations create a special challenge for TV Guide collectors. One solution is to buy in bulk. Complete sets of The Simpsons and Star Trek covers, for example, show up frequently on eBay, selling for around $80 to $100 per set.
TV Guide has been available for subscription and on newsstands since its inception, frequently appearing on or near grocery store checkout counters. While it’s a national publication, regional variations are produced beyond simple cover variations.
Local programming differs from market to market, and TV Guide produces issues to reflect that. The articles are the same, but program listings vary.
For Oklahoma native and pop culture memorabilia expert Bart Bush, regional differences are important.
“I only collect Oklahoma editions,” he said. “For me, the whole purpose to collect TV Guide is to see the listings and remember the shows/episodes and the times I watched them. I wish sellers on eBay would always list what regions their copies are from. I don’t want other state editions, and often they don’t mention where they are from.”
Bush, whose parents began subscribing to TV Guide when they got their first color television set in 1959, zeroes in on a specific era for his collecting habit. “I only collect issues from my golden age of TV watching, 1958-1966,” he said. “There are around four to five hundred issues that are important to me, and I’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 200.”
Copies of TV Guide dating back to the 1950s can sell for hundreds of dollars, especially in nice condition, but Bush has managed to accumulate the bulk of his collection for surprisingly cheap.
“I generally pay three to five dollars each for reading copies,” he said. “While they may be collectable, I really think value is in the nostalgic memories for each collector.”
TV Guide publisher Michael Davis agrees that nostalgia plays a key role in collecting the ubiquitous periodical. In the foreword to TV Guide The Official Collectors Guide: Celebrating An Icon (2006, Bangzoom Publishers), he said: “Vintage issues of TV Guide are like little time machines. They provide a window to any given week, day or even hour of our past. They bring us back to happy times with family and friends and help us recapture the fleeting and the ephemeral.”
Affordability is also important. “Compared to collecting vintage Corvettes or antique Harleys,” Davis said, “TV Guides are an affordable indulgence and a smart investment in an age when all it takes is a couple of clicks to track down a long-desired item.”
When it comes to evaluating the financial worth of a given issue of TV Guide, the celebrity or program depicted on the cover, along with the age and condition of the magazine, are primary considerations.
According to TV Guide The Official Collectors Guide: Celebrating An Icon, the three most valuable, most sought-after U.S.-released issues of TV Guide – after the first issue – are: the Superman/George Reeves cover (Sept. 8, 1956), the first Elvis Presley cover (Sept. 8, 1956), and the Bob Smith/Howdy Doody cover (June 25, 1954). Each issue is worth $400 or more in near mint condition.
Foreign editions can command premium prices, as well. A recent search of completed eBay auctions turned up several Argentina issues from the 1970s auctioning off for considerably more than their American counterparts. For example, the Oct. 11-17, 1978 edition with Charlie’s Angels on the cover sold for $200. By comparison, U.S.-released issues from the 1970s go for around $5 to $15, each.
For decades, TV Guide was a digest-sized magazine. During the 1970s and up until 1980, the magazine reached the peak of its popularity with a circulation of more than 20 million copies per issue. However, that number has declined in the ensuing years.
The ubiquitous nature of cable television beginning in the early 1980s reduced the subscriber base for TV Guide as most cable companies began publishing their own TV listing guides. Further, as cable television became more sophisticated, guide channels came into play, accessible via the push of a single button on the cable remote.