TV By The Book

When I was a kid, the last couple of weeks of September meant I needed to keep a special eye on the mailbox. It was time for the TV Guide Fall Preview! Please, don’t take this to mean that I had no friends and my whole young life was devoted entirely to watching television. I’m not saying that isn’t true but I’d rather you not take it that way.

These days, it seems there is no actual “new” season. With so many viewing options a new show can start at any time. But, back in the days before cable, when three networks ruled the dial and, when there was still a dial, September meant school was starting, leaves were falling, and ABC, NBC and CBS were urging you to forget those first two things and watch TV.

Television was different then. For example, “streaming” was what you did as efficiently as possible during a commercial break. It was called the “Boob Tube” because there really were tubes inside the set. Today, based on much of what comes over the digital transom, we could call it the “Mean Screen.”

Where I grew up, we had three and a half networks to choose from: the aforementioned, ABC, CBS, NBC and, the half, was PBS which wasn’t on the air during big chunks of the day. All of the stations went off the air around midnight. You’d hear a deep voice say, “That concludes our broadcast day.” Then, the National Anthem would play. Finally, the station would throw up what are called “color bars.”

If you were lucky enough to have a color TV, that was pretty exciting. If you wore lots of bright colors, some smarty pants would come up to you and say, “You look like the end of the broadcast day.” Another fine joke destroyed by modern technology.

On a side note, let me say that I think the world was a better place when TV turned itself off at night. It forced us to take a breath. Just like having all the businesses in our little town close on Sundays. You had to stop. Just plain stop. Now, we live 24/7. It makes me tired.

But, back to The Guide!

My Grandma, known to me as Little Grandma, (you have to read a previous blog to know why) would give me two presents each Christmas: homemade M&M cookies and a subscription to TV Guide. Every week it was like the world of Show Biz was being hand delivered to my door. I would read every article and go through and mark each show I wanted to watch.

There was no DVR or VCR. There was WIWIOOMI. Watch It When It’s On Or Miss It. Frank Costanza and the guy from the subway get it.

The Fall Preview issue was extra thick and extra special. It had updates on changes coming to old favorites and background about the new shows. Like this:

I still watch “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” Darren McGavin is probably known to most folks as Ralphie’s Dad in “A Christmas Story.” He was great in that and everything else he did. “Kolchak” was just scary enough and just funny enough. And, I first learned about it in The TV Guide! I never watched the other show, "Kodiak." I couldn't "bear" it. Sorry.

In the 1990s, when I was working at KMBC in Kansas City and, apparently, looked about 12, I would get a pile of VHS tapes every June. These were the new ABC shows for the fall. My wife, Jessica, and I would watch them and choose our winners and losers. I was wrong, a lot. Jessica was right, a lot.

A couple weeks after watching the previews, I would fly off to Hollywood and interview the stars of the ABC shows, both new and on-going.

I was one of about 25 reporters from stations around the country to attend the weekend event. ABC would set up interview areas all around the hotel pool. It was a Lazy Susan of TV Stars. At this point, I apologize to everyone named Susan. I don’t know the history of that phrase or why it applies to a rotating tray. Let’s not even get started on the word dumbwaiter. Anyway, we reporter-types would move from personality to personality. Ask four minutes worth of questions and move on.

For me, it was like the TV Guide Fall Preview edition come to life!

I was able to interview Claire Danes when she was sorting out “My So-Called Life” long before she was defending the “Homeland.” Today, Ryan Reynolds is “Deadpool.” Then, he was one of “Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place.” Before “Chappelle Show” there was Dave Chappelle co-starring in “Buddies.” Ellen DeGeneres was promoting her sitcom. I told her that my then six-year old son had a crush on her. She said to let her know when he was 21 and they could get married. Well, that never happened.

Betty White was delightful. Kevin Nealon and Richard Lewis were hilarious. (Their show was called “Hiller and Diller.”) Bob Saget hung around with everybody after he was done. George Foreman was, well, George Foreman! Tony Danza was funny and considerate. Teri Hatcher was real…and spectacular.

Lots of names and lots of shows. Every now and then, they’d take a photo. I don’t know where most of them are but here are a few.

The Olsen Twins! Mary-Kate and Ashley or Ashley and Mary-Kate. John Oliver insists there is only one and she just moves back and forth very quickly. This was in their post-Full House days. Their new show was called "Two of a Kind." I was called One of a Kind and that one was plenty.

Rick Schroder was doing "NYPD Blue" by this time. I accidentally called him Ricky and he attacked me with a silver spoon. That's not true. He was very nice.

The hilarious and thought-provoking D.L. Hughley was promoting his program, "The Hughleys." We talked about family and he could not have been a nicer person.

I was fortunate to interview Michael J. Fox on three different occasions. He was always funny and forthcoming. When the sound and camera folks were getting things set up, I would often mention my kids and show off a photo of the four of them. It helped break the ice. Turned out Mr. Fox had a son named Sam who was just a little older than my daughter, Samantha. Sam and Sam, sort of. The next two times I talked to Michael J. Fox, he remembered the photo and asked about Samantha. That was pretty nice. No surprise that his work off camera has been remarkable for so many people. By the way, Michael J. Fox is 12 days older than me. How did he stay youthful and I get so old?

I don't recall what ABC special Cindy Crawford was there to talk about. But I do know that a KC radio personality named Just Plain Dave, treated me with greater respect and awe after he saw this photo.

Yes, when I was a kid, September meant new TV shows. Now, it means old songs. Just about every day of the month, I listen to at least a little bit of Frank Sinatra’s “September of My Years.” Songs with titles like “Don’t Wait Too Long” and “Last Night When We Were Young” and, of course, “It Was A Very Good Year.” The tunes are timeless even as so many of the once important TV shows of my youth have faded into the ether. Every song on the album is perfect but one always makes me stop and listen. So, make right now the “end of the broadcast day” and listen to this.