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Citizen Media Critic: Guide-ing Light

The new TV Guide: lighter, fluffier, and infinitely less essential

By Joel Keller - September 12, 2005

In July, Gemstar-TV Guide announced that in response to plummeting circulation and massive operating losses, it would revamp its flagship publication beginning with the October 17 issue. While the magazine will still be called TV Guide, the changes to the venerable title will be massive. Local listings pages will be replaced by a national full-color grid. The listings will also be minimized in favor of more stories about TV personalities and gossip (currently, listings account for 75% of the pages). And in the most drastic change of all, the digest size that the title has maintained since its 1953 debut will be abandoned in favor of a full-size format.

To most observers, these changes were not unexpected. "The magazine was an aging property that didn't have the freshness that a lot of the competition has, and I think this move addresses that concern," Eric Blankfein, senior vice president Horizon Media Inc., a media and advertising buying company, told the Associated Press. Indeed, the infiltration of digital cable, satellite, and digital video recorder technologies, all of which carried their own up-to-the-minute on-screen listings, made TV Guide's listings—which were compiled weeks in advance of publication—obsolete.

But it was more than just the listings that did in "the Guide", as it was affectionately called in a classic Seinfeld episode. With the explosion of celebrity obsession in print (US Weekly, In Touch, all the tabloids) and TV (The Insider, ET, Access Hollywood), TV Guide always found it hard to keep up. In the last decade, it became a magazine that did not know what kind of publication it wanted to be. It wanted to dish about the latest hot starlet or hunk, but it also wanted to be loyal to its long-time readers, who wanted information about their favorite shows and the history of the medium in general. Often, it failed on both accounts.

It's not hard for me to remember what TV Guide was like in its heyday, since I've loved the magazine since I was able to turn pages. When the magazine first arrived in my parents' mailbox, usually on a Thursday or Friday, I'd follow my mother around, begging her to let me be the first one to read it. When she finally granted me or my brother permission to read it, we fought over it like it was a treasured toy. The cover was the big deal to me; a show that was featured on the cover of TV Guide instantly elevated a show's status to "must-see". I'd examine everything from the stories to the listings to the "Close Ups" that did in-depth coverage of a notable episode of a series. By the time I finished thumbing through that week's issue, I knew what was going to happen on all my favorite shows and I knew what I would bug my parents to let me watch during the week. For a TV lover like me, it was The Bible.

When I struck out on my own ten years ago, the first thing I did—almost before I signed up for cable—was subscribe to TV Guide. By then, the magazine had already started slipping. The stories had become shorter and had less depth than they once did, and the editors were leaning more heavily on stories about celebrities than on the candid behind-the-scenes looks at television. Also, its hard-hitting stories about television's impact on current events and vice-versa had also disappeared in favor of "Top 50" lists, counting down everything from "best musical moments in TV history" to the "sexiest TV stars of all-time". I read "the Guide" less and less as the years went on; even the Fall Preview, usually my favorite issue each year, gathered dust on my coffee table.

When my subscription ran out last year, I didn't renew. If you want to see how much TV Guide has fallen over the years, look no further than its excellent web site, tvguide.com. The weekly Q&A column "Ask the Televisionary" regularly delves into the magazine's extensive archives to recount the stories behind viewer's favorite shows of the past. What the Televisionary, an unnamed staff writer, produces are the unvarnished opinions of a show's stars, many of which would never pass through the multiple layers of publicists that protect today's television stars from making asses of themselves or the producers. For instance, a recent column reprinted a very blunt assessment of Laverne and Shirley that Penny Marshall gave the magazine in 1977:

"The characters have potential, but they're certainly not the characters either Cindy [Williams] or I envisioned. I thought we were going to have our hair in rollers and wear black scarves to cover our hickeys. But they don't think people want to see two toughies in their living room every week, so they mellowed us out and made us kind of blah. But we're a hit, so maybe they know what they're doing."

Also indicative of the magazine's decline is the Cover Gallery. Featuring every cover the magazine has released from 1953 to the present, it's interesting to see what the topics TV Guide tackled at the height of its influence and circulation. Type in the keyword "terrorism", for instance, and you'll see a cover with the title "Terrorism and Television—The Medium in the Middle". Fully expected, given the times we live in—only the cover story in question was written in 1976, twenty-five years before 9/11. Other cover stories from the Seventies and Eighties discussed foreign lobbyists' influence on US networks, sexual harassment in Hollywood, how the networks covered the battle for Northern Ireland (with a classic 1981 cover that depicted an IRA bomber), and television's increasing permissiveness.

In the Nineties, news-oriented cover stories gave way to more and more celebrity covers, reflecting the fluffier stories that existed within the magazine. Only the stories didn't reveal all that much insight or provide all that much news. The immediacy of the Internet and the quick turnaround times of the celebrity rags destroyed any newsworthiness TV Guide could muster. Even the magazine's own website scoops its print parent on a regular basis, as gossip, quotes, and news items that are exclusives to the magazine's writers are often "leaked" to the web site well in advance of the print edition's release. The leaks usually appear in columns by staff writers like Michael Ausiello, whose weekly "Ask Ausiello" online column has more information in any given week than two issues of the magazine can fit between its mish-mash of blurbs, recipes, and top-50 lists.

I'm going to miss the old TV Guide, but it needed to go. It just wasn't doing the job anymore; its listings were inadequate and its stories were out of date. No one short of the Gemstar-TV Guide employees has any idea what the new version is going to be like, but a larger format or increased number of stories is not going to save the magazine unless it finds an identity that can fit in with today's culture of celebrity fixation. Even if it finds its niche, the TV Guide I knew will be gone forever on October 17. I can't see my future kids fighting over this new version when it comes in the mailbox.

Joel Keller is a freelance writer from New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, and The Black Table, among other publications and websites. He can be reached at jkeller@thecafe.com.



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