TV Guide Breaks Up Listings Grid

Long past its heyday, TV Guide is about to launch its latest attempt to remain afloat. The onetime TV viewer’s bible is tearing up its longstanding back-of-the-book listings grid, a mainstay of the 56-year-old magazine that has largely become irrelevant in the era of interactive program guides on every TV set.

With its April 19 issue, TV Guide will incorporate the grid into day-of-the-week sections that are color-coded to help readers find which day they’re on. The magazine also will take stronger viewpoints, telling people what it recommends watching and on what platform, and highlighting its recommendations on the grid itself.

With so many viewing choices and ways to watch TV, the magazine needed to adapt, said editor Debra Birnbaum. “That’s our mantra: It’s what to watch, how to watch,” she said. “We’ll be telling people what to watch live and what to watch online.”

TV Guide also finds itself veering away from the direction it went in 2005, when earlier management converted it to a full-size format and bumped up its celebrity content. Now, the title is trying to separate itself from the crowded field of celebrity weeklies.

It remains to be seen how much the changes will help the title. Weekly circulation, which once stood at 20 million, has dwindled to about 2 million. Then came the recession, whose effects were exacerbated by a string of ownership changes, the latest of which had TV Guide sold for $1 to OpenGate Capital, a Los Angeles private equity firm, in late 2008. In ’09, ad pages fell 24 percent to 725. (This year through April 5, ad pages are down 22 percent to 162, per the Mediaweek Monitor.)  

TV Guide also has to figure out its Web strategy. When Macrovision sold the weekly to OpenGate, Macrovision kept the url TVGuide.com, forcing the magazine to start over on the Web. Now, TV Guide is found online at TVGuidemagazine.com, which risks the potential of confusion with its predecessor. The site posts news and reviews, but it has no listings and has yet to sell any ads.    

Publisher Lori O’Connor said a new Web strategy was about three months away. But she is taking around new internal research showing that the magazine’s ads and content lead to ratings lifts. She hopes that research, plus the new format allowing for more mentions of the day’s shows, will help drive advertisers to the print edition, especially endemic ones. “That’s obviously invaluable to our advertisers,” she said.