TV Guide celebrates 50th anniversary, looks to the future of television technology

Thursday, April 3rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ At age 50, TV Guide is showing signs of maturity. Circulation is down amid competition from newspapers that offer their own listings and TV shows that provide a steady stream of celebrity news.

But TV Guide has also adapted to the changes in the media business in recent years, with online listings, an interactive program guide and a television channel that make the most of its instantly recognizable name and logo.

Founded by Philadelphia publisher Walter Annenberg, the television viewer's bible debuted April 3, 1953 in 10 Midwest and East Coast cities with Lucille Ball's young son Desi Arnaz Jr. on the cover. Now owned by Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., it has 209 regional editions nationwide and just over 9 million subscribers, according to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The magazine is now just one part of TV Guide's domain. The company estimates that it reaches about 100 million users each week, when all of its various formats are considered _ the Web site,; the TV Guide Channel on cable and the TV Guide Interactive digital program listings.

As more home technology develops around the television screen, TV Guide's mission is to help readers make the most of their leisure time, not just tell them what to watch, said John Loughlin, president of the TV Guide Publishing Group.

To that end, the company plans a redesign of the magazine to make the listings easier to read. It will also have shorter stories and expanded coverage of home-entertainment products, such as DVDs and high-definition TV sets, Loughlin said.

It will also direct readers to the Web site and on-screen guides for the latest news.

``The magazine, because of its history and its size, it's at the heart of the brand, and we've got to be sure that these different platforms, these different media reinforce the same set of messages,'' Loughlin said.

TV Guide has a place in the heart of baby boomers who grew up in the early days of TV, and that nostalgia has helped make issues of TV Guide collectors' items. Vintage editions can command up to $100 on the Internet auction site eBay.

``You would come to know the cover of that thing because it would stay with you for a week,'' said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

But by expanding to other media, TV Guide is appealing to younger readers who are more drawn to online and interactive formats than many boomers are.

Most consumers are already looking to multiple sources for news and entertainment, said Rebecca McPheters, head of the New York magazine consulting firm McPheters & Co. Inc.

``What TV Guide has going for it is its utility, and that goes for all parts of the brand,'' she said.

The magazine and the TV Guide channel generated about $803 million in revenues last year, the company said. During the fourth quarter of 2002, ad revenues were up 33 percent over a year earlier.

The growth of TV Guide's new formats has helped make up for the erosion in the magazine's subscriber base over the years. The 9 million subscribers recorded in the six months ended June 30, the most recent figures available, was a 4 percent drop from the previous year and compares with the 17 million TV Guide had in the late 1980s, according to John Harrington, president of Harrington Associates, a consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn.

The magazine also sold more than 8 million copies a week off newsstands at its peak; now it sells about 900,000 copies a week.

The explosion in the number of TV channels contributed to the drop in subscribers. When television began with just a handful of channels, TV Guide was the definitive source for program listings and entertainment news. Cable companies now provide their own listings to subscribers, including channels not listed in TV Guide. More television programs _ such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, the E! cable channel _ offer celebrity news on a daily basis.

Harrington said major daily newspapers hurt TV Guide's circulation when they improved their own program guides. ``In the early 1980s they barely helped (viewers) at all. Now it's probably, if not quite the quality of listing that TV Guide offers, it's pretty close,'' he said.