TV Guide Offers New Ad Units, Cuts Rate Base

In its 55-year history, TV Guide magazine has evolved its signature listings grid to include color, icons and banner ads. Now, for the first time, it’s selling paid channel placements in its daily prime-time TV grid.

Like the online paid search model, the so-called Sponsored Spotlight program lets a network be featured in the top slot and be the only channel in the grid to have a color logo. The sponsor’s program description will appear slightly bigger, although it will still be controlled by the editorial side.

Turner Entertainment Networks’ TNT and TBS are the first to take advantage of the program, which launches in the May 11 issue. The two networks will share the sponsored spot for the duration of their 12-week commitment as part of a larger print buy.

“We’ve done some creative ad placements within the grids, but this is the first time we’ve changed the traditional alpha placement of channels,” said Scott Crystal, president and CEO of TV Guide magazine, who wouldn’t disclose the rate charged for the sponsorship program.

The new ad offerings are the latest example of how the economic downturn is driving publishers to devise new, nontraditional ad formats. TV Guide has run ads that intrude into editorial space and recently started offering “wallpaper” units that let an advertiser take over the white space around the listings grid.

TV Guide is still finding its footing following two ownership changes in the past year. In May 2008, Macrovision Corp. bought TV Guide parent Gemstar-TV Guide. Seven months later, Macrovision sold the magazine to OpenGate Capital, a private equity firm.

Crystal said that the magazine, which has lost money most of the past few years, was in the black for the first quarter of 2009.

“This is the first quarter, as a new company owned by a private-equity company, separate from the other TV Guide-branded entities, that we hit profitability,” Crystal said. “It shows that we righted the business model.”

TV Guide still faces uncertainty as an independently owned magazine competing for readers and advertisers with a panoply of print and online entertainment sources, though. It’s had to start over on the Web, as its sale to OpenGate severed the magazine from its Web counterpart. TV Guide earlier this year launched a new site, but has to train people accustomed to going to for listings to come to its new site. ( features news, video and photo galleries, but no listings.)

Crystal acknowledged that concern and said the magazine is heavily promoting the new site in print to raise its awareness. TV Guide wants to build a new identity online based on its journalism, access to stars and social networking, given that there’s nothing unique about listings, he said.

“We really want to tap the passions of television fans and get them to share their thoughts,” he said. “We’re not encouraging them to come to our site for listings.”

When the print magazine published a cover story on Simon Cowell in its May 4 issue, for example, editor Debra Birnbaum used the Web site to break news from her interview with the American Idol judge and posted online only his answers to readers’ questions.

The advertising climate being what it is, TV Guide also is challenged on that front; print ad pages declined 25 percent to 240 through its April 20 issue, according to the Mediaweek Monitor.

TV Guide’s new owners have cut staff and circulation costs. In January, the magazine trimmed its rate base 9.4 percent to 2.9 million from 3.2 million. The magazine also will publish six fewer issues this year, for a total of 40. Circulation is already down drastically from 2005, when TV Guide slashed its rate base by two-thirds and transformed from a digest to full-sized magazine.

“Clearly we’ll continue to be challenged for the rest of the year,” Crystal said. “We have continued to evolve the business model in trying to drive efficiency.”