TV Guide’s backstory is a long (and sometimes cringe-worthy) one, but what’s important to know is that the magazine was once distributed to nearly 20 million American households and at one time was valuated at more than $3 billion dollars. But the rise of digital cable and the Internet disrupted its bread and butter, which was offering local TV listings in virtually every U.S. market. Its capital and brand equity allowed it to make pivots, but in hindsight they were reactionary and ill-conceived and led to crippling debts. Since 1988, the brand has changed ownership a handful of times, and the magazine and its digital assets were split, with the digital business going to CBS Interactive.
But TV Guide the magazine is still here. And not only has it survived, its new debt-free owner NTVB Media has transformed it into a money maker that’s increased its EBITDA by $4 million dollars since its 2015 acquisition. Sure, that’s a far cry from the billion-dollar business it once was, but times have changed, and so has TV Guide… and TV for that matter.
What’s perhaps most interesting about TV Guide is how it’s succeeding. Essentially, it’s bucking every trend that’s working against print magazines in 2018. It grew newsstand sales by more than seven percent in the second half of 2018. It has a healthy (and clean) subscriber list of 1.25 million readers. And it’s investing in its advertising business by increasing its sales staff and tapping into new categories.
New Ownership = New Potential
The secret to this success may be in the ownership itself. NTVB has been around for more than 35 years. It started as a printing company and then expanded its business into TV listing inserts for local newspapers. However, Andy DeAngelis, CEO, says about nine years ago the writing was on the wall that that piece of the business was in trouble because of the struggles newspapers were facing.
“We were afraid to answer the phone because [newspapers] were killing their TV books to save money,” he says.
So he took a risk and launched TV Weekly, a magazine that borrowed from TV Guide’s heyday. TV Weekly taps into 160 markets and for all intents and purposes acts as a programming guide for TV viewers who consume TV the old fashioned way.
The success of TV Weekly led NTVB to expand its footprint in the market. Today, its portfolio also includes Remind, OnDIsh, View! Magazine, Channel Guide Magazine and TV Insider, a website devoted to informative content about TV programming.
Its TV assets made NTVB an ideal buyer for TV Guide when its former owner, OpenGate Capital, was looking to unload it in 2015. But DeAngelis was skeptical at first.
“When the investment bankers came to us my comment was ‘are you kidding?,’” DeAngelis quips. “The magazine was trying to be like People, but there was already a People. It was trying to be a general interest magazine and we didn’t see that as the way forward. There needed to be a sea change.”
Evolve the Legacy
“You have to focus on what you have and make it better rather than chasing the shiny new things that might not happen.”
The sea change was inspired by Michael Fell, who was the managing editor of TV Guide at the time of the acquisition and is now editor-in-chief.
The process began with research via email, direct mail and surveys, Fell tells Folio. “It’s all old school but I wanted to refocus our efforts on what our readers were telling us. They want more service. The volume of TV and when you get to watch it has changed and we are uniquely qualified to guide people through that. So it’s my job to partner with the readers to share in that excitement and tell them what’s worth watching.”
While TV Guide still tells its readers when network and cable network programs air, the bulk of the content within its 80-90 page biweekly magazine talks about the shows themselves, as well as the actors. Each issue is packed with quick snippets and smaller features. It offers reviews, behind-the-scenes looks, interviews and even the old franchise classic “Cheers & Jeers.” Perhaps the best comparison would be Entertainment Weekly, but with a strict focus on TV, which includes streaming programs on OTT channels like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
What’s refreshing about NTVB’s forward-looking strategy for TV Guide is how its grounded in reality and focused on doing what it does best. This magazine isn’t trying to capture the attention of Millennials, or trying to be more of a tech company than a magazine publisher. It’s a magazine, pure and simple. It knows who its audience is and what they want from its pages.
“You have to focus on what you have and make it better rather than chasing the shiny new things that might not happen,” Fell says.
“There’s 150 million Baby Boomers in this country,” DeAngelis says. “We aren’t looking to drive our demo down to 35-year olds. We concede that younger people aren’t reading print like we used to at that age. But if we can drive our demo down even just a couple years the effect on our circulation could be gigantic.”
Think Big, Act Smart
Speaking of that circulation, as mentioned it’s not small at 1.25 million. But what DeAngelis and David Jackson, SVP of advertising and marketing, especially boast about is the cleanliness of its subscriber list. Both argue that very few, if any, other magazines have a subscriber list cleaner than TV Guide’s. The company has worked diligently to minimize verified subscriptions to less than one percent, and it doesn’t believe in discounting its product just to increase readership size.
“We’re a great buy [for advertisers],” Jackson says. “We’re a dual-audience magazine with close to 11 million readers [factoring in pass along rates]. While the market is challenged and moves more to digital, there is still enough business out there for us to grow and that’s our goal. It’s going to take a little time, but I think we’re making a lot of headway.”
Jackson says each issue typically sells around 20 ad spots (not pages) and the endemic buyers are entertainment companies like NBC, who is its largest advertiser in terms of spend. But Jackson has expanded his team, adding sellers on the West Coast, Midwest and a few more in New York. All of this has led to new business in categories that include automotive, pharmaceuticals, food and packaged goods. For example, Oscar Meyer is a client, and Jackson was excited to reveal he and his team have added Kraft. So it goes without saying that the magazine is attracting blue chip clientele.
Events are another beacon of growth for the brand, and Jackson says its involvement with Comic-Con is a tent pole opportunity for the brand. It’s editors will be extremely busy interviewing hundreds of actors and TV execs to get its readers excited about the myriad of programming available across platforms. Jackson implies this is another prospect for advertisers, but can’t elaborate just yet on exactly how. However, he does say “it’s a great opportunity where edit and advertising can come together.”
Build a Future With the Past
An intangible asset NTVB has going for it with TV Guide is nostalgia. Anyone who follows media sees it as a product in and of itself these days, especially in TV. Not only is TV Guide a nostalgic product on its own, but look at all the TV reboots in production with “Fuller House,” “Rosanne,” “Will and Grace,” and others. TV Guide is capitalizing on that. In March alone its covers featured the new “American Idol” judges (March 5-18) and Rosanne Barr and John Goodman (March 19-April 1).
Interestingly, NTVB isn’t leveraging TV Guide alone to capitalize on nostalgia. It also has a sister publication Remind, that looks like it’s been plucked out of a time capsule. The magazine is sort of a paper and ink version of TV Land or Nick at Night, with the inclusion of crossword puzzles and games. Each issue looks back on a different era and the TV, film, music and pop culture from the time.
While TV Guide the magazine operates separately from the CBS Interactive-owned TVGuide.com, it does market subscriptions online. Further, NTVB is very much invested in digital and sees it as a great opportunity to grow its company. It also isn’t opposed to forging a partnership with CBS Interactive to create synergies between the print and digital brands, but DeAngelis admits he isn’t quite sure what that would look like or how it would work.
Nevertheless, TV Insider acts as a formidable online sister brand to TV Guide, and DeAngelis says the company is working on exciting new digital products that he hopes to reveal soon.
Although TV Guide may not have the massive audience it once had, or may not be doing some of the cutting-edge things major publishes like Condé Nast or Hearst are, what it is doing is thriving as a traditional magazine publisher in an otherwise difficult environment. In many ways it’s doing things that should seem obvious to any successful business by focusing on and iterating on what it does best. But as anybody who’s been following magazine media over the past decade can attest to, that notion has been anything but obvious.