World: Stuart Elliott in America

Years ago, ads for TV Guide magazine proclaimed: "TV Guide helps you decide." Now, as the digest-sized weekly brings in another new editor-in-chief, readers and advertisers may well decide the fate of TV Guide.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the newcomer, Ian Birch, is British. TV Guide was brought out in 1953 by Walter Annenberg, once a US ambassador to the Court of St James. Birch, most recently the editorial director of Emap's Heat and Closer, is being touted as an expert on boosting newsstand sales.

That's compelling to a magazine that has suffered a circulation slide from almost 17 million in the early 90s to about nine million today - with almost 150,000 of that total lost in the first six months of this year.

TV Guide has ranked among the country's top-selling titles for decades, riding the early fascination with television to become a staple in almost every US living room. Its formula of day-by-day TV listings, celebrity profiles, articles and viewing tips proved potent from the era of I Love Lucy through the dawn of Friends.

But the fragmentation of the TV medium from mass to niche markets, as typified by the multiplication of cable channels, has proved as problematic to TV Guide as it has to media planners and buyers. Finding it impossible to provide complete listings for all the channels in readers' local viewing areas, Birch's predecessors have shifted their focus to the rest of the editorial content, playing up coverage of popular stars of hit series, while relying on the TV Guide website as a medium through which to offer lengthier listings data.

But that has placed TV Guide right in the path of an oncoming train: the suddenly popular celebrity magazines such as Us, In Touch Weekly and Star, along with the powerful Time Inc twins, People and Entertainment Weekly. It's difficult to sell a magazine the size of Reader's Digest at $2.49 to $2.99 a copy when the standard-sized In Touch, from Bauer's US division, is priced at $1.99.

Plus, it's hard to figure out which TV stars to cover when viewers are divided among more programmes than ever. If a series can succeed by drawing an audience of as few as two or three million, that's too small to help TV Guide maintain its readership or its present ad rates.

That sea change, as well as the competition from the bulked-up TV books now included with many Sunday newspapers, has led TV Guide to start adding movie stars to its coverage mix. But that has been off-putting, reminding many readers, and advertisers, of the cheapie film-fan magazines of bygone days.

Though Birch, not surprisingly, has been reluctant to share specifics of his plans before starting his job on 18 October, he told interviewers he favours more service journalism, ie. helping to separate the video wheat from the chaff.

If only TV makeover mavens such as the Queer Eye guys could step out of the magazine's pages and offer solutions. One idea might be to launch a celebrity-focused, standard-sized spin-off, under the TV Guide name.

Another could be licensing the name for Sunday newspaper TV books, emulating how Time Inc intends next month to reintroduce Life, once a weekly magazine, as a Sunday supplement.

Or maybe the two publications could merge and offer self-help advice.

Life Guide, anyone?

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