Will 500 Channels Kill TV Guide?

It's not your grandmother's TV Guide anymore. When Philadelphia publisher Walter Annenberg launched the magazine in 1953, a busy time slot might have four or five listings. The choices? Programs such as Today with Dave Garroway, Twenty Questions, or Hopalong Cassidy. Today, the digest with the familiar red and white logo shaped like a TV screen is still around, but the industry it serves has been transformed. With the advent--finally--of a 500-channel world thanks to digital technology, TV listings on paper are headed for extinction. After all, who could afford to mail a digest the size of a phone book every week, especially TV Guide, with its 200 local editions?

"UBER-BRAND." Well, the venerable magazine that has been plopped into so many grocery carts at checkout lines over the past half century is finding ways to survive, even though its circulation has plummeted in the past two decades. The familiar brand is moving beyond print: TV Guide is now a programming guide, a TV channel, and a popular online site. It sponsors its own TV awards show, broadcast on Fox, based on readers' votes for their favorites. And TV Guide works with the Food Network, providing segments about what celebrities eat, and with VH1, coordinating music-news coverage. Via all of its properties, TV Guide content reaches 100 million people every week, its executives say. "We are still the uber-brand of TV," boasts Joachim "Joe" Kiener, co-president of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. (GMST )

The makeover seems to be paying off, capturing the younger audience that advertisers love. A study last year by market researcher Total Research Corp. showed that people age 20 to 29 had a greater awareness of TV Guide than those 60 and above. That could be because of the heavy dose of music-industry news covered on its TV channel and Web site. "While the technology is changing, what's not is people wanting to be entertained. And the sheer power of our reach is mind-blowing," says Kiener, a former executive at music company EMI Group.

Not that the fall-off in circulation doesn't hurt. After all, at its peak in the mid-1970s, TV Guide had a paid circulation of 20 million and was read by nearly 50 million people each week--nearly 25% of the U.S. population at the time. Those were the magazine's golden days, when upstart TV supplements in Sunday newspapers could do little to chip away at its franchise. In 1988, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS ) laid out $3.2 billion to buy TV Guide from Annenberg's Triangle Publications. Soon after, TV Guide got clobbered by an avalanche of entertainment news, in print and online, that was geared to a younger audience. Today, circulation has fallen to 10 million. True, TV Guide is still the U.S.'s largest-circulation weekly and the fourth-largest of any magazine. But the drop-off, particularly on the newsstand, is troubling to advertisers, says Dan Capell, editor of Capell's Circulation Report.

Once TV listings become so voluminous that they have to go online or on TV-screen guides, will TV Guide magazine be dead? Absolutely not, says Kiener. With so many choices on TV, finding what you want to watch will be "cumbersome," he says. "You will need editorial guidance. That's what we will give you in the next generation of our magazine." But with a cramped field of entertainment offerings, a listings-less TV Guide just may end up capping off its rich history in print and continue as a digital-only brand.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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