The golden age of live television in the 1950s was problematic for TV critics: By the time they wrote about a live show, it had come and gone.
But a young assistant director, Steven Scheuer, came up with a way to get reviews in print before the shows aired. He used his connections to see rehearsals, and then wrote reviews that appeared in a newspaper column on the day the show was scheduled to run.
The column caught on nationwide, and he followed up with another innovation: a book of capsule reviews on thousands of films, paving the way for Leonard Maltin and others who later turned out movie guides.
Scheuer, 88, died May 31 at his home in New York. The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Alida Brill.
He got his idea for TV reviews when he was in his mid-20s and working at CBS. “It was absolutely clear to me that the whole approach to TV criticism was backward,” he said in a 1992 New York Times interview.
“You were told on Thursday by a newspaper critic that there had been an interesting program on Tuesday.”
Scheuer quit his job and in 1953 created “TV Key,” a column that described upcoming shows and made recommendations. Television executives, hungry for advance coverage, not only welcomed him at rehearsals but also gave him scripts. “I had immediate access to the giants,” he said in a 2002 New York Times interview. “It was a heady trip for a 26-year-old.”
But that didn’t mean he looked favorably on all shows. Sometimes the daily column advised, “This is the right evening to catch up with a good book or a good movie.”
In 1957, Time magazine called Scheuer “the nation’s most influential TV critic.”
Born in New York on Jan. 9, 1926, he was raised in a world of wealth and privilege. His father was powerful investor and real estate magnate Simon Scheuer. Steven and siblings grew up in sprawling Manhattan abodes and country houses. Scheuer graduated from Yale and was sent by his stern father to the London School of Economics to study politics. “But he spent most of his time going to the theater,” his wife said.
After establishing his TV review column, Scheuer turned out his first book of movie mini-reviews, “TV Key Movie Guide,” to inform viewers about old films getting new life on TV.
Los Angeles Times book editor Robert Kirsch said of the third edition in 1967, “For me, this has got to be one of the most useful books of the year.” It contained capsule reviews of nearly 7,000 films written by Scheuer and a group of contributors. “This book can save hundreds of hours of wasted time,” Kirsch wrote.
Another fan of the Scheuer guides was Maltin, who began writing a fanzine about movies when he was still in high school in New Jersey. “His book was the first of its kind and very useful,” Maltin said last week of Scheuer’s guide.
In fact, it played a key role in launching Maltin’s own career – he was asked by an editor at publisher Signet to produce a similar guide. “He asked me to do a competitive book,” Maltin said. “My book was meant to be a rival.”
The highly engaging Maltin went on to become a household name, not only because of his bestselling books, but also his many appearances on national television. Scheuer hosted shows on the history of TV, but they were mostly confined to cable and educational channels in the New York area.
“He would have loved to have had a national TV presence,” Brill said. But she said he was constantly involved in thinking of new ways to use the medium. “His great interest in life was TV and how to make sense of the multichannel universe we all live in,” Brill said.
“Long before there was an iPhone, he was talking about a time when the computer, TV and phone would merge into one device.”