In Memoriam: Steven H. Scheuer
Steven H. Scheuer, a television critic who helped change how newspapers reviewed programs and thus how viewers decided what to watch, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, his wife, Alida Brill, said.
For more than 50 years, Mr. Scheuer (pronounced SHOY-er) was a prolific author, a talk-show producer and host, a newspaper columnist and a seemingly omniscient historian of television. He was also one of the medium’s innovators. In the early 1950s he was a young assistant director at CBS, working on “Theater One,” “The Fred Waring Show” and other programs when he had a realization.
“In the middle of the night I woke up, and it was absolutely clear to me that the whole approach to TV criticism was backward,” he recalled in a 1992 interview with The New York Times. “It was being covered the same way as books and plays and movies. You were told on Thursday by a newspaper critic that there had been an interesting program on Tuesday. It was live. So you couldn’t see it if you missed it.”
He quit his job at CBS and began using his industry contacts to arrange access to show rehearsals, and often to scripts. By 1953 he was writing “TV Key,” a syndicated column of guidance and recommendations eventually carried by 300 publications.
In the late 1950s, as reruns became common, he wrote a book of capsule reviews, “TV Movie Almanac & Ratings.” Regularly updated and expanded, the book went by the title “Movies on TV” for many years until new technology and viewing habits prompted another change, to “Movies on TV and Videocassette.” The last edition was published in 1993. (The book predated by about a decade the similar guides published by the movie critic Leonard Maltin.)
Mr. Scheuer once said that about 90 percent of what was on television was not worth watching, but that there was plenty of good material within the remaining 10 percent. In the 1970s he was on the air himself, as a producer and host of “All About TV.” Broadcast on WNYC-TV, the city-owned UHF station, the show won critics over with candid discussions by its guests — in 1971, a young John Kerry suggested that his clean-cut New England Yankee image might have helped raise his profile as an opponent of the Vietnam War — and Mr. Scheuer’s readiness to question the medium that was his bread and butter.
Television, he said on the show, should not be allowed to discuss “every damn thing in the world except itself.”
Steven Harry Scheuer was born on Jan. 9, 1926, in Manhattan. His father was an investor. After graduating from the Fieldston School, Mr. Scheuer attended Yale. He claimed to have written the first review of the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for The Yale Daily News, when it was being performed in New Haven before its Broadway debut in 1947. After graduating in 1948, he attended the London School of Economics.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include two children from previous marriages, Evan and Abigail; two stepchildren, Eve Lubin and Marc Lubin; three grandchildren; and a sister, Amy Cohen. His brother James, a Democratic congressman from New York who served 13 terms, died in 2005.
Five thousand scripts Mr. Scheuer collected from about 1953 to 1963 are now at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale (Steven H. Scheuer Collection of Television Program Scripts YCAL MSS 266). More of his papers are at Syracuse University.
In 2002, Mr. Scheuer revisited his past in an eight-week series on CUNY-TV in New York, “Television in America: An Autobiography,” for which he conducted lengthy interviews with influential friends and colleagues in the industry, including his former CBS associates Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite.
See a detailed description of the Steven H. Scheuer Collection of Television Program Scripts in the Yale Collection of American Literature: YCAL MSS 266