'TV Guide' to undergo extreme makeover

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For TV Guide, this is do-or-die time.

In a bid to save the once-mighty, 52-year-old bible of TV listings, Gemstar-TV Guide International plans drastic changes for TV Guide, including slashing its 9 million guaranteed circulation to between 2 and 3 million, and ditching listings in favor of celebrity coverage.

The magazine will become a full-size glossy, with one national edition instead of the 142 it has today, according to people familiar with the planning. The comprehensive local listings that have defined TV Guide content for so long will disappear to make room for coverage of highlights, celebrity profiles and feature articles.

Little seems set in stone, nor is it clear when the new TV Guide will appear, but planning has progressed far enough that prototypes are circulating outside Gemstar, executives familiar with the matter said.

Christine Levesque, a spokeswoman at Gemstar-TV Guide, declined to discuss specifics. "We have been evaluating and testing a number of different options," she said. "We've discussed different concepts with our key clients."

It has been clear for some time that the magazine needs saving. Its revenue declined by $17.3 million, or 20.1%, during the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period in 2004.


"We continue to see declines in all our significant revenue streams at the magazine," Gemstar Chief Financial Officer Brian Urban told analysts and investors during a conference call.

Rich Battista, CEO, said subscription revenue, advertising sales and newsstand sales had all fallen. "We no longer believe that our current product offering is compelling at the newsstand," he said.

"It is now clear that the initiatives we have implemented over the past two years to improve our advertising revenues and to stabilize our subscription circulation have not been sufficient to reverse the long-term downward trend in this business."

Ad pages for the first half of this year totaled 947.4, down 20.6% compared to the first half of 2004, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Ad pages fell 7.2% in 2004 and came in essentially flat in 2003. A rate base slash will likely mean a vast reduction in its current $177,700 full-page, four-color ad rate.

Its circulation may, moreover, have room to give. Of its circulation of 9 million, nearly 3 million goes not to subscribers or newsstand buyers but to distribution in spots like hotel rooms for whoever may want to pick it up.

Despite readers' passion for celebrity gossip, TV Guide is not about to become a tabloid. It will instead provide family-friendly content as it pursues young families with children. Earlier this year, Gemstar introduced Inside TV, a celebrity-focused magazine for women. The company has described that launch as the "first step" in a strategy to return its publishing division to growth.

TV Guide, of course, dates back to the dawn of the TV age, launching in April 1953 with Desi Arnaz Jr. on the cover. After decades of dominance, it still had the gargantuan rate base of 15.8 million in 1992.

"They have a very broad reach and an impressive subscription list," said Charles Alfaro, a spokesman at Frito-Lay, which advertises in the magazine. Its focus on the "occasion" of TV viewing makes it a smart place to advertise products like Tostitos and dip, he added.

But the advent of on-screen program guides, whether from TV Guide Channel or the pop-up grids available to satellite and digital cable subscribers, has made the magazine's core offering a nice amenity at best and irrelevant at worst. A black-and-white digest-sized version of the familiar TV Guide, including listings, will continue for subscribers that want it.

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