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.

  • Maureen

    Quick suck-up time here. Jeff you were great as the Couch Critic! To this day, my family still laughs over some of your reviews. We were always disappointed when you actually liked a show–those reviews weren't nearly as fun!

    BTW–do you watch the reruns of "Murphy Brown" on TVLand? You were memorialized recently on one of the broadcasts. The boss (played so well by Gary Marshall) was telling Murphy there are 4 people on tv she should never cross: Oprah, one of the characters from that episode, can't remember the other–& "Couch Critic Jeff Jarvis. That man is a ball of hate!"

  • cathar

    Does anyone remember that greatly amusing scene in Robert Altman's "California Split" where the hooker wakes George Segal from a sound sleep, so she can search under the cushions of the sofa for "the Guide?" Those were indeed the days for TV Guide and that one little bit summed up how important "the Guide" was to many of us.

    What was best about it was that it was available on Mondays in Port Authority. And thus that, when I wasn't dating anyone, I could console myself with advance notice that there'd still be "something to do" next weekend.

  • DCThunder

    I believe there was a Seinfeld episode about George stealing an edition of "The Guide" from Frank, who had a collection of every edition ever published. Much hilarity ensued…

  • Jeff,

    What was really amazing was how long TV Guide kept up this method of publishing. Especially in the past decade when they couldn't just get away with "regional" editions. And started with different editions within the old regions.

    It used to be that the entire state of Maine had a single edition. Now there are multiple editions depending on what Cable System you have in your area. With satellite services thrown in that makes for a lot of different editions.

    TV Guide did a hell of a job trying to keep up. But I haven't even so much as looked at a TV Guide since I got my first TiVo in 2000. (Though I do notice that the guide information on my new TiVo, has the TV Guide logo on it, so I guess that TV Guide is still in the business of detailed TV listings, just not in print anymore.

    We've come a long way since I was a kid in the 70's, and I read the TV Guide from cover to cover, listings included, and had the network schedules memorized. (Yeah, I was a weird kid. I chalk it up to having 3 parents: My mother, my father, and a 19" RCA Color TV Set.)

  • billg

    It's only TV, folks. Turn it off. There's nothing on.

  • Thanks for the direct link for my blog. I copied the comments page info but it tested dead.

  • Jay

    Waiting Room Reading Services (WRRS) sends me all kinds of publications for my "waiting room," of which I have none. I don't even know how I got on their mailing list. But for over 15 years I've received various magazines and newspapers; they change about twice a year. When it changed to TV Guide, suddenly I was gettng four every week. Straight to the trash, except for two issues. One was from the week Michael Landon died; the cover changed mid-week and both versions arrived in the mail: "What Michael Means To Us" became "What Michael Meant To Us." And I kept the issue with the cover of Oprah's head on Ann-Margaret's body.

    Count me as one of those 50's-60's kids who read TV Guide more closely than any schoolbook, and could easily tell you when any show or special was on. Now I can't remember the last time I opened one, even when they showed up in the mail.

  • Sandra Mundy

    Rats- and I just renewed for another year because I WANT the local listings feature. Hope I can cancel & get my money back! I can see their reasoning but I have no need for just another show-biz fluff mag.

  • You know, I use TV Guide's listings all the time – right from my browser. I'm 23 years old, if it makes any difference (so often these are portrayed as generational things) and I wouldn't think of subscribing to a print magazine, but as long as I can dock a tiny little TV Guide logo at the top of Firefox's links bar, it doesn't matter – I get all the listing info I need. And for the convenience of providing me with up to date local listings, I return the favor with my eyeballs on the ads from their sponsors. Seems like a fair trade to me.

  • Unless a magazine truly values its readers, it can't survive in the age of such a strong consumer movement. It's why those with a web model, viz. one that interacts with readers, and can translate that into print, can survive in the 2000s. Otherwise, they may well become defunct like TV Guide. I'm in New Zealand with fewer channels, and I prefer finding listings digitally than in print now.

  • PMain

    Unfortunately the real trade off that everyone will experience is an increase in postal rates. Junk mail, magazines, etc. Generate a large portion of the revenue for the Postal Service, when those numbers begins falling; guess who gets to pick up the slack? I personally haven't read or looked at TV Guide in well over a decade.

  • I agree with Jack, to survive a periodical must fulfill a need. To prosper it must exceed that need. TV Guide isn't doing the first, much less the second.

    Magazines can do things the Web cannot, yet, do. But all too often magazines try emulating the Web, leading to half-assed imitations and the repeating of graphical and presentational errors all too common on websites.

    It comes down to, many publishers have no idea as to what they're doing, or how to do it. They have no knowledge of their core audience, and quite often no knowledge of their Core Story (in a sense, why they exist). Instead of fulfilling a real need they try to be all things to all people, and in the doing end up driving away all.

    I submit it's because we don't teach kids how to focus. How to stay on track and it's showing up in the business world. The lack of focus leads to scattershot efforts, and scattershot efforts leads to lack of interest. And so projects (such as magazine publication) end up in the trash because nobody can tell what they are about.

  • A copy of a post I made at The Game Show Forum:

    Back when I was 3 years old in 1960, I could read (not write, but read). The local paper actually did an article on me and noted "one national magazine that comes to the house is considered to be Ray's and he insists on reading it first" or something like that. Yup, TV Guide. (That's how I learned to read, such words as "BUICK" and "PHILCO.")

    Now, the magazine seems aimed at a 3-year-old. I gave up on TV Guide when it started running as many covers on movies as it did on TV shows. There was a time when it ran high quality writers – Edith Efron, Cleveland Amory, Mel Durslag, and many others. At a time before regular newspaper coverage of TV (except in the largest cities) it was a rare center for critical comment on TV, as well as news.

    In short, it's sort of followed TV's decline. Yes, I loves me my online programming guide, but it was nice to have everything at a certain hour listed together by channel, complete with writeups.

    One wonders if it would be feasible for somebody to try to start over again.

  • If anything, TV Guide's problems are also the result of trying to be something that it's not.

    When you have a magazine called TV Guide, you think everything would be run around a pretty simple business proposition. As much about TV as possible, and that's it. And yet, over the past decade, the magazine has increasingly relied on movies and other non-television related content to fill its pages.

    Even worse, it's both cut the size of its online staff and "upgraded" the site into a bloated, almost unusable piece of crap.

    The business model of TV Guide makes pretty sense, even if you end up with a much smaller sub base. There are ways of leveraging the listings online that could both bring in revenue and increase the influence of the magazine. TV Guide could have cut deals to combine exclusive mag content with audio and video for the website, an approach that wouldn't have cost much, but would have brought the entire organization slowly into the current decade.

    Yes, TV Guide is a very old media. And you can make a good arguement for shutting the whole thing down. But there's also an arguement to be made for a turnaround. I just don't think anyone there is capable of pulling it off.

  • Mark

    A snippet in a USA Today article in today's print version puzzles me. TVGuide indicated that their new InsideTV (launched in May) publication has not been performing up to expectations.

    Its format is identical to the proposed new format for TVGuide, I'm guessing they'll fold it into their revamped TVGuide, but if it's not doing well, why would they continue on that path for the parent publication despite that?

  • Could TV Guide have been saved? Probably not. But had they adapted to change five years ago, it may have been possible. The Guide should have adopted the large, regular magazine size years ago — and moved to a strictly grid listings format. Perhaps TVG could have also focused on just the top 50 cable channels (and broadcast, of course), rather than trying to cram too many listings in. You want digital listings? Go to the web.

    They could have paired it with a much more vibrant editorial package, rather than the weak TV coverage of the past few years.

    Sadly, it's now too late. And having collected TV Guides as a kid, I feel like a bit of my childhood is now gone.

  • I'm one of the "old ladies [who is] going to be really [mad]" with the new TV Guide format, since it won't really be a TV guide any longer. We have enough magazines and newspapers covering "lifestyle and entertainment" junk. It's time to cancel the subscription.

  • I was a faithful TV Guide subscriber for years, but stopped when I set up my handy-dandy Yahoo! account with TV listings. TiVo didn't help matters, either. While I feel sorry for such an institution going by the wayside, I am going to state the obvious and say that we also have to realize this is just another sign of the times.

  • "Old people read listings in print." And not all of them are dead yet. My 80-year old grandmother, who has never touched a computer, faithfully keeps a copy of TV Guide next to her remote, stuffed full of bookmarks and paperclips and yellow highlighter. She, and countless others like her, are doubtless going to have a tough time with this transition. It's great for us that everything's moving to the web, but not so great for the millions out there who don't use it.

  • Stu Gitlow

    As a 42yo who read TV Guide religiously from the time I could read, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the grid format and long for the old days of pure listings. Admittedly, they have grown too long with the onset of cable stations. But the cable listings make it impossible to know whether I want to record Program X one week from tonight; they don’t extend far enough ahead. TV Guide has been the one place I could turn to find out for certain what the planned schedule would be. No longer, I suppose, as of October. And if the listings aren’t specific to my area, I suppose it will be time to cancel my longrunning subscription as I get the local schedule from the paper. Walter Annenberg would be unhappy with the change, but I suppose he saw the writing on the wall when he sold what he started.

  • What frustrates me is that TV Guide is rarely about television anymore as it is. Every other week it seems we have four Elvis, Beatles, or NASCAR multiple covers. Or five covers that have nothing to do with television at all, like Fantastic Four. I could justify a cover for a movie release if it was based on a TV show, ie Dukes of Hazzard or Bewitched, but the way things are done right now is very frustrating.

    And it seems when they DO a TV-related cover… without fail.. it’s Desperate Housewives or Lost. Seems those two were alternating for a while there. Where’s my Veronica Mars cover darnit?

  • Dave

    Have any of you been successful at cancelling TV Guide and getting your money back? I didn’t see any place to cancel on their website or address in the magazine.

  • Brian

    Just to get to the crux of the matter, it WAS only a guide to what’s on. I had cancelled my subscription while it was still a nice small discernable size but the listings had been so shortened as to be useless. I could always accept all of the inserts, the cardboard ads and other money making things the guide stuck in your way but it made big money for them, nobody seems to relate here that it was the highest cost print vehicle out there to advertise in for many decades and never known as an employer that made anyone millionaires other than the owners etc. BUT when they even got so cheap as to put the bunch of weekly daytime and morning grids in front like an airline schedule and unashamedly got rid of the late night and early morning listings, it’s of no use, just a gossip rag with the flavor of the week on the cover. I wish somebody would print a useful guide again, even for more money I think it would be worth it and happily pay for it if it were the old format again with at least the major area listings such as the Tri-State area in the Northeast and of course the major cable listings such as news, comedy channel , HBO etc. we don’t need all of the shopping and religion and special interest listings, that’s fine for online listings..

  • Edwin

    TV Guide has been declining over the years. When it abandoned its detailed program listings and immitated the grid systems used in newspapers, it offered no value over listings I could get for free. Now it has turned into a useless fluff magazine. I guess that I am one of the 6 million readers they expect to lose.

    I have a feeling that this format change will become the biggest corporate fiasco since New Coke.

  • Julie

    I am also one of the readers they expect to lose.
    Putting aside all the other objectionable content changes, the one that really puts me over the top is the decision to only publish Eastern and Western time zone editions. So, depending on where you are in the great heartland (which I have to believe has been one of their strongholds as many rural cable companies don’t have an on-screen TV guide option), you get to add or subtract an hour from the listings in the edition you receive in the mail.
    And you have to wonder who decided it would be a good idea to drop the weekend day listings.
    I grew up in a home where, if you borrowed dad’s TV Guide, you had darn well better return it to the arm of his chair. Now I have a feeling dad would say he wouldn’t care if we returned the mag or threw it in the trash.

  • Hi, I cancelled my subscription to TV Guide immediately, after many, many years. I’ve tried endlessly to get them on the phone. Sent two e-mails, and no response. Wrote a letter to the editor, no response. I’m sending one more to the president of tv guide, just to air my disgust. Customer service doesn’t exist. They should find another name, it’s no longer a tv guide, it more like an Enquire. I didn’t subscribe to a magazine, I subscribed to just what it’s suppose to be, a tv guide. I no longer have any use for it. I can find better in the newspaper. I don’t have digital yet, can’t afford it, but I do have cable. Can’t afford the movies either, so TV is my main form of entertainment. Plus renting videos. Wish I could afford to start my own TV programing booklet, bet it would sell. Well, thanks, it was great to air my irritation. Caroline :)

  • Brian

    The crux of the matter is that we have all just about realized that with the new changes TV Guide absolutely sucks!!! So the real question is this..
    Seeing as they are going to be too stuborn (my career was in publishing and it seems that with every publishing company the British come into power within it doesn’t take them very long to ruin the workers and the product). Knowing ehis to be the standard, I assure you, will there be anobody around smart enough to see the opportunity to fill a gap and take advantage of capitalizing on the current TV Guide’s fiasco ?
    I really wish I knew of a readily available publication just to give me my listings for 24 hour days around the clock and make them easy to look up without those awful TV Guide style mazes with missing days and times. Bad enough you have to navigate all those cardboard blow in ads and staples in fold-outs.
    Lastly, the new full magazine size, don’t think it’s to make it better for us the public, sure it’s now lost with all the junk mail and mags.. but they have more space for ads and dumb articles that nobody cares about but them.

  • Jim_Mccc

    The golden age of TV as entertainment is clearly gone.
    We all see the dullness and sameness in all the current fall shows. The spark of creativity/quality on TV is replaced with shock value which really creates a decline of show value. The shock takes away from the advertisment.

    The producers are focused on stimulation by fear, sex and crude jokes which does over-stimulate their audience. By the time the commercial somes around the viewer needs a slight mental break and isn’t as receptive.

    The final feeling after the show is not the ‘good feeling’ as experienced with TV years ago, but is like minor trauma and creates more of a ‘bad feeling’. Years ago a TV show gave a feeling all-is-well and felt they are ‘good’ too so they deserve a reward when the commercial comes around. The buying mood was right. Their world was good, no worries all was fine.

    Abusive and disfunctional people portrayed in the shows give the feeling the viewers best hold up their guard. That guard remains up during the commercial. A distrusting attitude becomes the mood during the show.
    The shockshows hinder a receptive ‘buying mood’.

  • Rod Walker

    How right you are. Luckily my sub expires in December and good riddance. I sent TV Guide a letter on the issue of the increasing uselessness of the publication, particularly the fact that it now offers “detailed” listings for only 3 hours a day, using the wonderful color coding of yellow and not-yellow. These pathetic charts are no more detailed than those in the TV Week insert in my local Sunday paper. Which offers 24-hour listings and which I’m now using. I also pointed out that their listings web site is not user-friendly and has suffered a similar decline in utility. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND Zap2It.

    I didn’t mind a few articles and stuff, which were much more readable once I tore out the ads. But now we don’t have TV Guide so much as TV Hype. Yuck.

    The much-ballyhooed larger size is a real non-starter. The old size was instantly identified among the welter of mail nobody wants. Now the ‘zine looks like just another catalogue.

    I’m not sure if TV Guide has been taken over by people determined to sabotage it or by people who just terminally stupid.

  • Mark

    As a TV Guide collector for almost 35 years, I am very dismayed at the transformation of the “new” TV Guide. Not only is the new guide size the hot topic of discussion, but what’s not inside really bugs me.

    I totally agree with previous comments that noted the enormous non-TV content of the magazine. Some times I felt like I was reading my subscription to “Entertainment Weekly,” which is what the new TV Guide is trying to be, but with little success.

    In my opinion, larger photos and fonts are not going to put TV Guide in the black and return the magazine to its “tiffany” status as the leading popular TV publication.

    Several years ago when TV Guide began those multiple issues per week, its marketing plan was very shrewd. The publisher knew that many TV Guide collectors would go to the store to complete their “every issue” set and those into Lucy, Elvis, Seinfeld and Nascar would scarf up each unique issue, too. I actually sensed what was going on and I just bought those extra issues that appealed to me. Perhaps others subscribers began to feel the same way as sales began to dwindle and readers were finding other ways to get their local television listings.

    Have you noticed, too, that the stock of paper used for the guide is very flimsy like a Paris Match you would read in the library? Or is it me? Maybe I’m being picky, but it just doesn’t feel substantial enough when I pick it up and thumb through it.

    My subscription will expire in about two and a half years. As an ardent TV Guide reader and longtime subscriber (since Nixon was President), I never thought I would consider cancelling it, but it has seriously crossed my mind. I’m not going to drop it just yet, because I want to see what happens, but I am very disappointed with TV Guide.

    A friend’s TV Guide subscription is scheduled to end in a few weeks. He received his obligatory form letter from “Paul Davis” the other day, but it was interesting what it stated in the first sentence. It noted that because he agreed to continue his subscription without it lapsing, he was being asked to send his money in soon. Well, my friend never agreed to renewing it and he was furious. Being upset, he tried calling the 800 number to drop the subscription, but he was told several times to try again later or go online, which he did.

    Let’s hope that all of these jumbo issues will be a short phase of TV Guide’s history and the magazine will come to its senses. However, if the magazine does fold, then these issues may become more valuable to TV Guide collectors than they are worth now to the average TV viewer.

  • Brian

    I just noticed what has surpassed the most moronic thing I’ve yet to see a company do. To me this really ranks up there with the new coke!
    Well once again I made the mistake of actually trying to use the new tv guide for something other than toilet paper I happened to look at the section that in a normal guide would actually give the shows scheduled for after 11:00 PM.. you know, name of show, channel in my area, content of show etc.. what our new wiz kids from good old England have done is squoosh that same listing down to two words covering the entire week around the clock.. Those brilliant work and time saving customer screwing words are “VARIOUS PROGRAMING” think about that!!! Yup, why do we need them we already know what’s always on, various programming!!!
    Burn your copies!!!!!

  • Fred Ackerman

    Reading TV Guide used to be ‘easy’ now the layout is so chaotic that finding shows is difficult.. I’m not renewing after 50 years and I won’t miss it at all!

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  • i think maybe we all just need to renew our minds

  • Charles Shunk

    I wondered why they changed their format. Now I know. I’m letting my subscription lapse after many years for two reasons. First, I don’t like not having the channel numbers out there for me to look at. Second, and most important, mixing the schedules in amongst stories makes it more difficult to find out where the listings are; anyway, I didn’t buy TV Guide for the celebrity gossip, and all that stuff, I could care less about that kind of stuff. I just want to know what’s on TV.

  • Random Person

    anyone else suddenly get a year subscription for the mag out of nowhere? did not pay a cent, and I wont, when your TV has a guide built in it the mag is completely useless, they better not try to make us pay for the subscription, they will not get a cent. They cant anyway, no money to pay :P

  • JC

    The problem with TV Guide is people had perceived it to be a “low-cost” magazine. Something that could be picked up for some change. By the time the little digest-sized tome had reached 2 bucks, I am quite sure that a great many people, including myself, stopped picking it up at the supermarket. After all, a handful of freebie TV “digests” are available right in the front of the store.

    I never purchased a TV Guide since they changed the format, until now. I am SHOCKED! This magazine is a piece of dreck! If I wanted a People/Us-azine, I would have purchased one (fat chance). Rupert Murdoch gets nothing from me from now on. (Isn’t that rich fat b*stard rich enough, yet?)

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