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The TV Guide Thing

By RD Heldenfels Published: August 26, 2005

I've been meaning to blog about the coming changes at TV Guide. In case you missed it, here's a bit of the official explanation, from tvguide.com:


Debuting with the Oct. 17 issue, TV Guide magazine will be transformed into a vibrant full-size, full-color magazine. The magazine will now be published as a single, full-sized national edition.


The new full-size, full-color TV Guide will include 100 full-color pages with more breaking news and features, more eye-catching photos, and more behind-the-scenes insights and information on viewers' favorite shows and stars. It will include reviews and recommendations of best choices, can't miss and must-see TV which fans say are more important than ever in a TV universe with so many shows and so many ways to watch those shows.


With approximately 40 pages of program listings, there will be plenty of highlights and recommendations. Grid listings will become full-color with a prime-time spread of about eighty networks each night. In addition there will be two pages of program highlights each day.


In rationalizing the format change, TV Guide said this:


Our research indicates that TV viewers want a full-sized, full-color entertainment magazine that focuses on television.


However much sugar they pour on it, TV Guide is still getting rid of the thing that for so long set it apart: detailed listings of programming, local and national, in a given region.


The announcement came when I was at the TV critics' press tour, and writing about a lot of other things. But you can rightly assume there was plenty of conversation about the TV Guide decision, and about how it might affect TV supplements in newspapers.


It seems there are two ways this can go. Either papers can see TVG's abandonment of regional listings as a reason to expand their own, and so serve the audience the magazine is abandoning. Or they can look at TVG's decision as validation of the idea that print listings are becoming obsolete, and so continue the national trend toward cutting back on newspapers'  TV listings. We'll see how things shake out after October.


In any case, the decisions will reflect something I've written about before: the separations along technological, generational and financial lines in the information we get.


I am hard-pressed to remember the last time I picked up a TV Guide to look at its listings. I see tvguide.com far more often than I do the inside of the magazine. But I may be atypical.


Besides having access to an onscreen guide through my cable service, and being a happy Internet wanderer, I have stacks of papers reminding me when shows air. (See the previous posting about my messy desk.) I also get a lot of things in advance, from review copies, so I don't necessarily have to track a week's viewing. (This creates another problem -- remembering to check on a show I like for the episodes I didn't get advance copies of. But that's a different conversation.)


Still, there are a lot of people who use resources other than print to keep track of what to watch. That said, there are also plenty of other viewers who rely solely on print listings. Who don't have computers, the Internet or onscreen guides -- or have some kind of access to them but don't know how to take advantage. If market research is to be believed, those folks tend to be older or poorer than advertisers desire, so they're SOL* when the marketplace makes decisions.


(*I prefer to think of that as ''sure out of luck,'' for those of you who imagine that I'm swearing.)


Of course, the people running this country believe in the marketplace, even if that means that every trip the rest of us make to the gas pump should be an article of impeachment. And TV Guide has decided that the marketplace rules, at least the youngish audience it wants to attract to get advertisers.


But will the magazine attract that audience with yet another slick magazine that most likely will be driven by celebrity profiles? It apparently did not succeed with all those stupid ''collectors edition'' covers, where they'd put four people from a show on different covers, so obsessed fans would run out and buy all four versions. Nor have I been enthralled by Inside TV, the magazine from the TV Guide people, where no story is too long, no celebrity is without redeeming value, and no cover is complete without a picture of Patrick Dempsey.


But when I worry most about the loss of TV Guide's listings, I do so because of the loss to TV history. I've used TV Guide more than once while researching books, and not just for the articles, either. The listings were a repository of information you could not find in newspaper lists for the same period: more detailed, more thorough, and often loaded with program and station advertisements that provided additional glimpses at the past. Now TV Guide is going to stop providing that resource as newspapers are scaling back their own listings; future historians are going to lack information that the magazine made readily available in library archives.


I know that's a pretty narrow reason for missing the old TV Guide. But I'll miss it nonetheless.


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