TV Guide is dead. Long live TV Guide.
It's the stuff media critics have been getting wrong since they were spilling ink on their spats. Radio was gonna kill newspapers, TV would do in both radio and movies, and the Internet would finally deliver a death blow to newspapers, magazines, radio, movies, TV, CDs, staple removers, and Wite-Out. And yet all those things -- and TV Guide -- are still around.
On the other hand, rarely have the periodical gods expressed disdain with such gusto. At its peak circa 1970, TVG reached -- cue the Dr. Evil chortle -- almost 20 mil-lion readers. Of course, the cathode ray tube looks half empty when considering a 670% dip in circulation and a loss of 17 million subscribers. Ouch! But the plus side remains a plus: Today's base of 3.3 million readers ain't exactly shabby for just about any magazine this side of AARP. There's no denying technology has played a huge part in this spiral, but it's more complicated than that.
My teenage son doesn't quite understand stories of my childhood tantrums when I was threatened with missing a favorite program. Serving as ring bearer at my sister's wedding overlapped with "The Brady Bunch" camping episode, and I lobbied hard but in vain to skip the Friday night rehearsal. Now, of course, if I miss "Mad Men" on Sunday at 10, AMC will rerun it throughout the week. Or I can record or TiVo it. Or view it via iTunes or on-demand. Or wait a few months for the DVD. Soon enough, I'll be watching "Mad Men" on my wristwatch, or replaying it courtesy of the chip imbedded in my forehead.
The very idea of needing to watch a given show at a given time has evaporated, and with it TVG's original raison d'être.
For decades, TVG arrived in millions of homes on Fridays, mine included. And woe when the mail prevented me from planning extracurricular activities around "The Mod Squad" or "Room 222." Newspaper TV listings were too barebones.
That's why I'll admit that reading the Aug. 11-24 issue was a bit surprising, since I probably haven't bought a single TVG during Miley Cyrus' lifetime. The familiar red-boxed logo is still there, but today's TVG is larger in size and therefore less likely to defend its long-standing title as The Magazine Most Likely To Get Lost Under Your Sofa Cushion.
The first thing that strikes you is there's a heck of a lot more content in this generation's TVG -- true, photos trump the written word and much of it is fluffier than Reddi-wip. But the listings themselves now constitute only 13 of the 100 pages, and there are some interesting Q&As tucked in among the press kit glossies and "High School Musical" gossip.
Which raises a key issue. There's a certain bipolar (or perhaps bi-generational) quality in both the editorial content and the ads. On the one hand, the cover (collect all 4!) pays homage to "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and its spin-off series, and even includes a polybagged CD-ROM supplied by Toys"R"Us. Take that, Luddites! However, many of the other ads seem geared toward the female audience that buys Parenting: Goldfish crackers, Chips Ahoy!, Ambien, Abilify. Not to mention an advertorial sponsored by Weight Watchers and NutriSystem urging, "Tune in & Tone Up: Make TV Your Workout Partner." The medium is the message indeed.
There's a stereotype out there that today's TVG is catering almost exclusively to AARP card members. However, the target market is 25-54, and the editorial in this issue seems to be skewing much younger. In fact, 10 of the 12 horoscope profilees were born after 1960 (bless you, Cheryl Ladd and Dennis Haysbert). And if TVG is the tyrannosaurus of the grocery check-out rack, why does columnist Damian Holbrook toss around Gen-Y hipster slang like "OMG"? That Wal-Mart Hannah Montana ad on the back cover sure looks like advertisers are reaching toward a new generation.
Yet through it all, the subtext firmly established with Issue 1 in 1953 still holds: TV is good for you. TV is something you should care about. TV is not a waste of your time. So screw Newton Minow.
Thankfully, one other thing hasn't changed. The TVG crossword puzzle, long known for cerebral twisters like The Mary Tyler ___ Show or Dick ___ Dyke. It remains publishing's greatest ego-booster. Quick... 29 Down. ___: Warrior Princess. Four letters. Okay... starts with an X. Time's up! And no peeking at next week's issue.
Publisher: Gemstar-TV Guide International
Frequency: 46 per year (6 double issues)