The incredible shrinking magazine

TV Guide just announced that it is getting bigger, in physical size, while its audience is shrinking — no, imploding — and, at the same time, the magazine is surrendering its raison d’etre: local listings.

And it all probably makes sense.

I worked at TV Guide as critic and in magazine development about 10 years ago.

TV Guide is lowering its rate base, the circulation guaranteed to advertisers, from 9 million to 3.2 million … and that’s down from a high of 20 million. Look at it this way: TV Guide has lost the circulation of five People magazines.

Some of that audience is going elsewhere. It’s hard — no, impossible — to present a comprehensive guide to a world of unlimited choice in print. It is possible to do that online. It is possible to do that via TiVo and decent on-screen cable guides (not those damned scrolling ones designed for the slowest readers alive). But even before that digital competition, TV Guide had to fight competition that was perceived as free in TV books and listings in newspapers.

Some of that audience is dying off. When I was at the magazine, we got low returns on a readership survey and they found, when they looked into it, that a large number of the nonrespondent subscribers couldn’t respond because they’d died. Old people read listings in print.

And some of that audience wasn’t (cough) really there. TV Guide is getting rid of its junk circulation. For example, my late father-in-law, a dentist, got a weekly pile of at least seven copies of the magazine every week. That was no fluke; my kids’ orthodontist got the same pile. And I have little doubt that because they were sent to waiting rooms, those copies were counted with extra readers-per-copy — a standard measure in the (cough) measurement system in publishing. There is a bigger publishing story than TV Guide here. Other publications have similar junk circulation and the Audit Bureau of Circulations just disallowed counting from some questionable sources. This is a ballsy move and I’d expect to see advertisers demand more of the same. The process will be painful but, in the end, it will lead to better publishing, for maintaining that junk circulation can be expensive — from marketing costs and just from printing and distribution — and inefficient and ultimately unproductive for advertisers who, at the end of the day, are paying for an engaged audience who actually want and read the publication.

At the same time, the magazine is killing its very core, its local listings. But those listings had become very frustrating to use, especially against digital competitors. And they were extremely expensive to produce; that hit me in the face the first time I visited TV Guide HQ in Radnor, PA, with its armies of people writing those tiny squibs and even watching those shows (many wearing slippers, oddly). So the company reduces its costs by shifting to a single national edition (with two time zones) and recommended instead of comprehensive listings. I think that’s a decent idea. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I included reviews and wanted to include more recommendations (which the magazine later did). When I was at TV Guide, I suggested the same. But the magazine was a cash monster and any change was difficult. Now, change was inevitable.

Will the magazine work as a general-interest entertainment pub next to People, US, and many others, including its own new title? Time and money will tell.

But this is an important moment in the history of TV, pop culture, and publishing. This is the official end of the mass market.

: Here is the TV Guide press release.

: And a few comments are waxing nostalgic about TV Guide as an American cultural icon. Any fond memories?

I think of all those people used to I see on the subway with highlighters marking their lives for the week to come and wonder whether they will be set adrift or whether they’ve already gone digital.