Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Book Review – The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows 1946 - Present

Thanks to my copy of this book – which is in its Ninth Edition – arrived on Tuesday which was also the day that it arrived in bookstores. It's everything that I hoped for and more. Admittedly, since the only previous copy of this book that I've owned is the Third Edition just about any up to date material would be what I hoped for. Still, I've seen more recent editions and this one still goes beyond it.

First, the "tale of the tape" as they say in boxing. The Third and Ninth editions of

The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present (henceforth mostly known as The Directory if only because that title is so long that by the time you get finished reading it you've lost your train of thought) have about the same dimensions. The Ninth Edition is about 700 pages longer – 1854 pages versus 1150 for the third edition – and the print is noticeably smaller.

There's a blurb on the cover of The Directory that says "This is the Guiness Book Of World Records...the Encyclopedia Britannica of television." They are absolutely correct of course. There are more than 6,500 series listed running from 1946 to the end of the 2006-07 TV season and there are some real obscurities. Each entry includes a broadcast history of the show including the network that it ran on, length, when the original episodes ran and the number of original episodes, when the show premiered, and the cast list, all of which is followed by a summary of the show. In most cases the summaries are a single paragraph although in some cases there are more. The entry for 24 runs something like two and a half pages of just the show summary – the cast list takes up another page – and details the plot of each season. In cases where a show had a definitive finale, the events of the finale are described. In some cases – as with Star Trek: Voyager – this summary takes a full paragraph while in the majority of cases it's tacked on to the end of the summary of the final season, as with The OC. It's not just network TV shows either. Major (and not so major) syndicated shows are listed – for instance the Canadian made Neon Rider which ran four season in Canada but was only available in the US for one – as are major cable network series. Inclusion of the latter seems highly arbitrary: just as an example they include The Sopranos but omit Deadwood and Rome. Finally, added this year are listings for many US cable networks. These listings include the date that the network was launched, the total number of subscribers and the percentage of US homes receiving the network. That is usually followed by a brief history of the network and the sort of programming that is shown. In some cases there's a listing of shows that the network has aired if some of them have a separate listing and others don't.

All that makes for a great package for which you'd gladly pay the price you say? But wait! (as they say in the commercials) There's more!! There is a short, if somewhat opinionated, history of television by The Directory's co-author Tim brooks. He currently splits the history of the medium into eight eras. Six of these were in the Third Edition of The Directory: Vaudeo (1948-57) – the era where the dominant form was the variety show; The Adult Western Era (1957-early 1960s); The Idiot Sitcom Era (early to late 1960s – Brooks dismisses this period by saying "Was there anything serious on TV in the early 1960s? The answer is 'not much'; even the network newscasts were only 15 minutes long until 1963"; The Relevance Era (late 1960s-1975); The ABC "Fantasy Era" (1975-1980); The Soap Opera and "Real People Era (1980s). Subsequently Brooks has added two more: The Era of Choice (1990s) and The Reality Era (2000s). The book also has ten appendices. These include a listing of Fall TV schedules from 1946-47 to 2006-07 for all of the broadcast networks – well except for PAX but including MyNetworkTV. There is a listing of major Emmy winners from 1948 to 2006 (no "Outstanding Single Camera Photography in a Reality or Documentary Series" in other words), and a listing of the thirty top rated programs of each year from 1950-51 to 2006-07, and a list of the longest running series (The Tonight Show is listed at 53 seasons which doesn't take into account host changes. There's an interesting list of the "Top 100 Series of All Time" which is based on both longevity and audience size each year – the most recent series on the list at 99 is Desperate Housewives while 60 Minutes is #1. There's a listing of reunion shows (sometimes more than one per series), listings of series based on movies – did you know there was a 1987 TV version of the 1938 movie You Can't Take It With You; it starred Harry Morgan, Lois Nettleton and Richard Sanders – and of series were also on network radio. There is a listing of various websites – not just the network sites but also informational sites which are given letter grades – Wikipedia is rated highly while IMDB gets "an A for comprehensiveness, C- for accuracy", an evaluation I agree with for a variety of reasons not least of which is the tendency to not actually list the cast of the show on a show's page because actors who have the most number of episodes on the series get onto the main page and on many shows the stars either have "unknown number" or no number at all beside their listings). Finally there's an extremely hard 200 question "Ph.D Trivia Quiz" which is devilishly hard. I suggest reading the book from cover to cover before trying it.

Just to test The Directory I decided to look up The Rich List, a show which had a single airing on FOX. The Directory had four paragraphs on the show including this little nugget of information: "One of the teams in the first episode had apparently completed in a previous episode that had not aired, since they were introduced as the 'reigning champions' with current winnings of $25,000." Who knew? Next I looked up Power Play, a show that aired for two seasons on CTV in Canada but only lasted two episodes as a summer series on UPN – it's there, as is Traders, which ran for five seasons in Canada but only thirteen episodes on Lifetime Cable. In fact that's the greatest joy of this book – at least for me – and one of the reasons why it is taking me so much time to write. You look for something and find it, but then you see something else which leads you on a tangent that you never expected to take.

That's not to say that there aren't problems with the book. There are errors; in a review of the current Battlestar Galactica the authors refer to "Lieutenant Kara Starbuck" even though their cast list gets it right and calls her "Captain Kara Thrace ('Starbuck')." The omission of significant cable series like Deadwood,
The Wire, and even Oz, is arbitrary even given the authors' statement on the criteria for the inclusion of cable series: "Favored for inclusion are (1) series with casts, such as dramas and sitcoms, (2) series that had reasonably long runs, typically two seasons or more, and (3) series of any type with especially large audiences." Many (probably most) of the reviews for shows that had ended at the time of the Third Edition are unchanged in the Ninth, but really that's to be expected. What I find vaguely troubling is that entries for shows that were on the air at the time that the Third Edition went to press are either unchanged or just supplemented – the listing for Hill Street Blues is word for word the same as in the Third Edition even though the series had two more years to run after the Third Edition came out. The first two paragraphs for Cheers are the review from the Third Edition. There's some editorializing in reviews of some shows, like this from the review of Traders: "Overcooked drama about romance and backstabbing at Gardner/Ross, a powerful investment house located in Toronto, Canada....The camera swooped and dodged across the trading floor, as if looking for a plot and there were frequent extreme close-ups into characters' eyes (maybe the plot's in there?)." Things like this are annoying particularly when you like a show (Canadians were glued to Traders despite what seemed to be Global's best efforts to kill it off, for example scheduling it opposite ER, which it actually beat in its time slot). Still, all of these factors don't take away from the worthiness or the value of The Directory as a reference work. It would be nice to see the correction of errors like the one about "Kara Starbuck," which comes across as someone just not giving a damn. It would be nice to see periodic revision of previously written articles, not just to supplement them but to bring them up to a certain standard both in terms of seeing the show as a whole and maintaining a consistent degree of impartiality.

Brooks writes of the Era of Choice "When I first wrote about the (then) 'Six Eras of Prime Time' in 1984 it looked as if future updates would be easy. One network would sooner or later stumble upon the next trend and the other two would immediately copy it, and the viewing public would be inundated with clones – the next programming 'era.' But it hasn't worked out that way. Instead the once tightly controlled world of national television has exploded into hundreds of channels all with their own independent voices. No longer can three powerful networks dictate what you will see, and no longer does programming move in lockstep. For the first time viewers have a real choice, all the time, and they are using it." This is the sort of thing that may eventually spell the end of a source like The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows 1946 – Present. There is a limit to how large a book like this can get while being both useful and affordable. I love this book for all its faults because it is a specialised reference on a par with the Encyclopedia Britannica or The Guiness Book of World Records. For any true Child Of Television it is probably a must have item, warts and all.

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