Television had a history long before it had historians; record-keeping about our dominant national mass-communicator has been disturbingly sloppy or halfhearted. I used to save TV Guides when I was a kid, but guess what my mother did. She threw them all away. There went an archive right out the window.
Alex McNeil, born in 1948, started a card file on TV shows while in his sophomore year at Yale, in 1967, partly because "there were no reference books on television at all" then. His mother didn't throw it away, and the result of this vigilance is a new, mammoth, 1,087-page paperback called "Total Television, a Comprehensive Guide to Programming From 1948 to 1980."
"We decided to avoid the word 'complete' in the title," says McNeil from Boston, where he now lives. "I maintain that no book on television can be complete. You get into subjective judgments with things like which syndicated shows to include and which to leave out. Besides, two other books on TV use the word 'complete' and they aren't."
Positively invaluable as a big fat clump of reference material, "Total Television" is also a gold mine of fascinating lore and minutiae about TV and, hence, popular culture. Open it at random and you can discover that the fourth highest-rated show of the 1949-50 TV season was "Fireball Fun for All." Or that in 1954, Merv Griffin was hosting a summer replacement series called "Song Snapshots on a Summer Holiday."
In McNeil's -- the best-written and most thorough TV directory ever published -- one learns that Jack Lemmon hosted a 1950 quiz show called "Toni Twin Time." That NBC's "Today Show" has occupied more total air hours than any other program. That on April 8, 1965, Dustin Hoffman guest-starred on an episode of "The Defenders." That Raymond Burr actually tested for the part of prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger on "Perry Mason" but eventually beat out contenders like Fred MacMurray and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. for the title role.
And somehow it's rewarding just to be apprised that there've been TV programs with such irresistible titles as "Demi-Tasse Tales," "The Bonny Maid Versatile Variety Show" and "Tootsie Hippodrome." This isn't a trivia book -- it's more the Whole Earth catalogue of electronic folklore -- but there's enough ammunition for hundreds of $64,000 questions about vintage television.
NcNeil says he's glad his parents "let me watch as much television as I liked" when he was growing up in Washington with such local kiddie shows as "Pick Temple" and "Hoppity Skippity." Among his favorite programs over the years have been "Topper," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "The Defenders," "The Avengers" ("the Diana Rigg episodes, anyway"), "Calucci's Dept." (a 1973 sitcom) and "George of the Jungle."
Among the surprises he found when researching the book was that Marilyn Monroe almost made her TV dramatic debut in an adaptation of "Lysistrata," but then reconsidered and withdrew; that Rita Hayworth made her only TV dramatic appearance in a 1966 TV movie "The Poppy Is Also a Flower," a plug for the U.N.'s anti-drug efforts; and that producer Don Fedderson had the habit of always casting his wife as an extra in series he produced -- among them, "The Millionaire."
And what about glaring omissions -- has he been notified of any of those by veteran viewers? "Well yes," says McNeil. "A guy at a station in Cleveland said I left out 'Happy Party,' a Dumont kiddie show from the fall of '52. I misidentified Dudley Do-Right's horse as 'Steed' when it was actually named 'Horse.' And I got an irate letter from a soap opera fan excoriating me for naming so-and-so as somebody's second husband on a soap opera when he was actually her third."
McNeil remains an avid television watcher (especially of "Taxi," Dallas" and "60 Minutes") and says he doesn't have to apologize for his TV passion even when socializing with hoity-toity Boston friends. "I think that kind of snobbishness about television is wearing away anyway," he says. "Remarks like 'I have a set but never watch it' or 'I only watch PBS' -- I don't hear that any more."
Now administrative assistant to a Boston judge, McNeil says that over the years there've been shows he knew were awful but that he loved to watch with morbid devotion. "In college I tried never to miss 'Truth or Consequences' with Bob Barker," he says. "And later I used to love Kathryn Kuhlman's 'I Believe in Miracles.' I'd watch that one and my wife would leave the room."
More perhaps than most people, McNeil looks forward to the 80-channel cable systems hovering in television's future. Asked if such an explosion of choices might not make it possible to OD on TV -- perhaps fatally -- NcNeil says, "That sounds like a pleasant way to go."