“Let me tell you why you’re doomed.”
It was 1989, three months before the launch of Entertainment Weekly, and three days after I had started working here as a staff writer. The man who buttonholed me in the elevator was a longtime magazine editor — an expert in the field. He seemed oblivious to my discomfort, and also to his own, since he continued to hammer home his point while the elevator door banged insistently against his hip.
“You’re doomed,” he said, “because nobody cares. People like movies. People like TV. But they don’t want to know how it’s made. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to read about it. And they don’t want to think about it. I give you six months.”
He was not alone. “Doomed” was an early EW prognosis, one that some members of the magazine’s original staff cheerfully co-opted by starting an office pool about how many issues we would last. (The highest you could bet was 26.) I will admit to a small twinge of satisfaction each time a publication that smugly predicted our quick demise was suddenly confronted with its own. But at the end of our first quarter century, I feel much deeper satisfaction in knowing this: He was wrong. You did care. You still do.
Twenty-five years ago, however, the mistake was understandable. The world into which Entertainment Weekly was born was one in which there were three networks (at first, the magazine’s TV department wasn’t sure whether to count Fox as one because its ratings were so low — and then The Simpsons arrived). There were a handful of basic-cable options, no such thing as DVDs, an indie-film movement that had just barely begun, no MP3s, no streaming, no file sharing, no recaps, no Oscar season that received months of media attention, no binge-watching, no live-tweeting, no websites that mattered, no Internet to speak of, and thus, when it came to popular culture, no sustained discussion. Was that a void waiting to be filled, or just the natural state of things? At the magazine, we knew we were obsessed, but how many of you were?
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News arrived agonizingly slowly; we kept CNN on all day at a low background hum in case anything happened. Press releases and reader letters came via snail mail. There was an early internal debate about whether the magazine should get this thing called a fax machine. Would anybody use it? Would anybody need anything that fast? “Buzz” about a new movie or album or TV series or book or star was not quantifiable in anything approaching real time. So a gigantic unanswerable question hung in the air: Were we having a conversation about pop culture, or were we just talking to ourselves?
In the early years of EW, we had no choice but to follow our passions, our personal tastes, and our instincts—and to hope that in doing so, we would reach an audience of the like-minded. Sometimes we played what turned out to be a pretty good long game: The subject of the magazine’s first cover was k.d. lang. (At EW’s launch party, Regis Philbin looked at a blowup of the cover photo and said, loudly, “Who’s he?”) While the magazine’s first (and only) public slogan was “Kick back. Chill out. Hang loose. Have fun” (no apologies — it was 1990), privately, our mission was defined differently: In any spare time we had after explaining to people that, no, we were not affiliated with Entertainment Tonight, we were charged with reporting on the big, the hyped, the important, and the good. At least one of those boxes had to be checked to merit serious attention in the magazine.
As a result, every story we did felt like a kind of bet: Was the brand-new thing we were covering going to be embedded in the culture a quarter century later? Sometimes it was! My very first assignment was to go cover the launch press conference of the channel that became Comedy Central, and soon after, I got to write about a new sitcom star, Will Smith, and a fledgling TV series that had just gotten through a somewhat rocky first season, Law & Order. But sometimes, we knew the stuff we were reporting on — the thing that everyone was talking about that week — would probably wind up as a trivia question, a delightful time capsule of a fleeting moment in pop culture (Wayne’s World, Vanilla Ice, Hammer time!). Sometimes we literally didn’t know what to cover: We would bang our heads against the wall only to discover they were empty. (One brainstorming session ended not with a “Eureka!” but with one exhausted staffer raising his hand and saying, “I’ve noticed that children are getting larger, but children’s dogs are getting smaller.”)
And, sadly, there were also countless man-hours expended on instant fizzles unworthy of even a week’s attention. (Had I known the Internet would come into existence and make everything searchable forever, I might have waxed just a shade less enthusiastic about how Cop Rock was going to change television.) On the other hand, we weren’t — and aren’t — trying to be timeless. Entertainment has always been a combination of the enduring and the ephemeral, and part of the fun of covering it is complete uncertainty about what posterity will decide.