TV Guide Mission: Rejuvenation

Fifty years since TV Guide debuted and became part of America’s coffee tables for generations, the mini-sized title has become a drama of its own as readership of its heritage magazine declined. The latest episode in the plotline came this week, as TV Guide named J. Scott Crystal as publisher of its publishing group, filling a position that has been vacant for more than a year.

“Our mission will be to reinvigorate this flagship magazine brand,” says Crystal, who joins TV Guide from Gruner & Jahr, where he served as president/CEO of its Business Innovator Group, which included Inc. Magazine and Fast Company. Prior to that, he was the publishing director of the consumer magazine group at Ziff Davis Media. He is also the former publishing director at National Geographic.

Not only will the company focus on developing new ad categories, but it is also evaluating its content, says Crystal. “[We will] evolve the magazine editorially so that it includes more advise and recommendations and allows the magazine to function as the arbiter of TV entertainment and pop culture that relates to television along with the listings so it becomes that much more an influential magazine.”

The layout of the magazine will be updated and new columns are under consideration. That task will be up to TV Guide’s new editor, which should be named within the next few months.

Crystal’s appointment comes less than one month after the company named Jeff Shell its new chief executive, after Gemstar 42% stakeholder Rupert Murdoch forced former CEO Henry Yuen to step down. During a shareholder meeting November 19 in Pasadena, Shell vowed bring in new management, as well as to put more focus on TV Guide’s print product. He also promised investors that its magazines would be more profitable in 2003.

The move comes as advertisers are increasingly voicing their concern. “They have to become more contemporary, as an entertainment sources,” says one buyer, calling it a promising sign that TV Guide is at last addressing the problems that have increasingly caused them to question the title.

“The brand is certainly tired and certainly needs an infusion of freshness,” says Horizon Media VP/director of planning Eric Blankfein, whose agency buys print for clients such as NBC, A&E, History Channel, Game Show Network, and Fine Living. What has Blankfein most concerned is the magazine’s recent declines in circulation. Since 2000, TV Guide has cut its rate base twice. While it presently sits at 9 million, it is a far decline from the 20 million subscriptions it counted in the mid-1970’s. “We’re buying people, and we have seen less and less people there, so we are questioning if we want to use it as a vehicle,” he says.

“Their circulation declines is a major concern,” agrees OMD US Director of Print Strategy Cyndi April. She believes not enough attention has been put on the magazine’s print product, adding, “They’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Crystal recognizes that some buyers are worried, but says the momentum is in his favor. “The rate base will stay at nine million in 2003,” he assures advertisers. “You don’t sell nine million copies a week without having an incredibly loyal audience, and I’m not sure that the ad community is aware of it.” Privately, he says a number of the magazine’s clients are pulling for the magazine to get back to where it once was.

Through November, TV Guide’s ad pages were down 11.6%, although the company seems to be on an upward trend. In November, ad pages were up 11%, and the company says its fourth quarter advertising revenues were up 25% with new business from Sears, Shell, and MasterCard.

This spring, TV Guide’s cable listings channel will also get a facelift. While it, as well as other online and interactive listings services continue to be a growth area for the company, the print product continues to generate most of TV Guide’s revenues. That will likely be the case for some time to come, and Crystal wants to work with planners and buyers to craft more cross-platform selling across its multimedia offerings. “We will continue to offer on a more customized basis for clients to get involved in the channel, online, the magazine, the interactive programming guide.”

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