Gemstar channels $20 mil to TV Guide

Shorter stories, more sex hope to boost circulation

NEW YORK — TV Guide is putting money where its mouth is.

After hiring a new editor and publisher earlier this year and vowing the compact compendium was once again front and center at troubled parent company Gemstar-TV Guide Intl., the magazine is backing its pledge with dollars: a $20 million redesign is under way at the 50-year-old folio.

Some of the upgrades can already be seen. Under the guidance of a new creative director, TV Guide’s cover this week features the leggy “Sex and the City” stars posing coyly next to the unsubtle headline: “Sex is back.” (Somehow the mag managed to pass the censors at Wal-Mart, which put a plastic shield in front of Redbook this week to cover up the “S” word on the cover.)

Inside the book, too, sex is a prescription for boosting ad pages and circulation, both of which have been suffering due to the unwieldy size of cable TV — 250 channels are hard to pack into a digest-size publication — and competition from the Internet, Sunday newspapers and onscreen listing services.

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A Q&A with Beyonce Knowles reasons: “People call you ‘bootylicious. But you’re actually very skinny.” Another piece takes a look at the top babes from Maxim magazine’s “Hot 100,” which recently aired on NBC.

Less is more

Shorter and more opinionated stories are other remedies being implemented by TV Guide editor in chief Michael Lafavore, who was hired in February from Men’s Health magazine and is based out of the mag’s Gotham editorial office. Lafavore was brought on by John Loughlin, who was named prexy of the TV Guide Publishing Group last fall.

“In the past, TV Guide ran very long profiles, between 14 and 15 pages. Now there’s less patience for that,” Lafavore said. “The average household gets about 100 stations. There’s so much on and so little space that we have to shorten everything.”

Lafavore also says to expect less plot-driven reviews. “In the end, people want to know, ‘Should I watch it or not’? I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb for us to step forward and get in more of the opinion stuff.”

Circulation dips 30%

TV Guide is the third most widely read magazine in the country, with a rate base circulation of 9 million. That number dropped 30% over the past five years, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (In the mag’s heyday, circa 1980, circulation was about 20 million.) Ad pages are also down: 1.3% for the period between January 2003 and June 14 compared with the same period in 2002, according to Steve Cohn, editor of the Media Industry Newsletter.

“In the old days, it was easier to be the editor of TV Guide, when you had so many stars with high visibility,” said Cohn, citing examples like Lucy and Desi Arnaz and Jackie Gleason. “You’d just alternate those guys every week and sell a zillion copies. Now even with shows like ‘Friends,’ there are relatively fewer viewers.”

Corporate support

Yet despite sinking numbers, Pasadena-based Gemstar, which owns the TV Guide brand and is 50% controlled by News Corp., has reinstated its support for the flagship magazine after shifting support to the brand’s online services in recent years.

TV Guide is not the company’s only concern. Gemstar recently reported a more than $45 million loss for the first quarter, compared with $270 million for the same period in 2002, and is working to boost consumer confidence following Securities and Exchange Commission accounting investigations and patent disputes.

For the moment, however, TV Guide is getting the biggest — and most expensive — brush-up.

“TV Guide the magazine has not done well, but it still brings in money because people still pluck down $1.99 for it,” Cohn said. “When Gemstar put its money on the Internet and forgot about the magazine, that was a mistake. Now they’re trying to say, ‘Hey, let’s be more sane about this. The magazine still makes money, it’s an American tradition, let’s give it a little more TLC.’ “