[This story has been updated with a correction.]
Television listings magazines have been on life support for several years and one by one, publishers are pulling the plug. The Hamilton Spectator’s weekly insert, Go @ Home, was the most recent book to join TV Guide in print edition heaven when the newspaper’s publishers and editors killed it three months ago to save on production costs. “The problem was with the TV listings,” Howard Elliott, the newspaper’s managing editor, said of the magazine, which also carried home and décor content. “In the industry, there’s a dramatic trend toward fewer and fewer people using TV listings in print, because of the growth of onscreen programming [guides]. Both in terms of numbers and demographics, advertisers are not particularly interested in them because they’re not that well used.”
Figures from the country’s two largest remaining listings mags—The Toronto Star’s Starweek (Torstar) and TVA Publications’ TV Hebdo—confirm Elliott’s assessment. Since 2003, Starweek has lost 403,000* readers, according to data from the Print Measurement Bureau. Over the same period, revenue has declined about 59.5%. TV Hebdo’s readership has also sunk by 498,000 readers and revenue is down 31.5%. In October 2006, Transcontinental Media stopped the bleeding for TV Guide—which had lost 57% of its paid circulation over six years—and turned it into an online-only publication.
The publishers at Torstar have taken several cost-cutting measures with Starweek in recent years. Last year’s switch to an all-grid format, for example, drastically reduced the page count (and angered a lot of readers); editorial content is increasingly outsourced (primarily from Tribune Media Services); and earlier this year, the magazine was pulled from Leading National Advertisers (Canada), which tracks ad pages for most of the country’s largest magazines.
“The real enemy of print TV guides is the digital revolution,” says Starweek editor-in-chief Gord Stimmell. “A new generation of users are receiving specific lineups for all listings in their handheld remote controls. At the same time, no TV guide can possibly be comprehensive in a thousand-plus channel universe. To do so, each week the TV guide would have to be the size of a telephone book, devour forests, cost a fortune to produce and be a pain to deliver.”
Still, despite the title’s drastic decline, Torstar isn’t going as far killing Starweek—at least not yet. To do so would risk alienating the small but vocal element of the Star’s audience that still relies on print listings, Stimmell says. “They’re not all in the senior demographic, but they are certainly a part of it. Senior readers are the first to complain if something changes, because—sadly in many cases— they rely on TV for their entertainment and watch an awful lot of it.”
It’s not just TV viewers who’ve turned away from print for their listing needs. Toronto-based alt-weeklies Now and Eye Weekly—which have traditionally been a must-read for locals who want to know what’s happening in the city that week—have taken big hits in readership, according to the latest numbers from PMB. Now has lost 97,000 readers in just two years, while 91,000 Eye readers have vanished in that same period. The culprit is that damn Internet, where any scenester can get music, comedy, movie and theatre listings without inking up her hands.
Ramping up editorial coverage and sales efforts for the online product (something Eye and Now are both doing) is an obvious solution, but is there any hope for print mags? Sort of.
Over the last four years, Canada Wide Media’s TV Week in Burnaby, B.C., has grown its readership, circulation and advertising sales by de-emphasizing listings, zeroing in on local personalities and targeting its covers to women in grocery checkout lines. “We made a conscious decision to expand editorial outside of television,” publisher Samantha Legge says. Health, shopping and consumer report columns were added to the magazine in Sept. 2004, as were more colour pages, a celebrity style page and a weekly list of the top ten things to do around the city.
The listings are still an important part of the magazine, Legge says, but she doesn’t assume they’ll be there forever. “I think it’s a possibility that there will be a future where there are no longer listings [in the magazine],” Legge says. “However, because we have so many readers who are buying the magazine for the listings, I think we have to be sensitive to them. It’s a challenge to do both.”
- "TV Guide Canada to become web-only publication" [CBC]
- "Once the hipsters' bibles, Eye, Now shed readers" [Globe and Mail]
*An earlier of this version had an incorrect figure for the number of Starweek readers lost since 2003. We regret the error.