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How is this still a thing? The TV Guide's resilience in the digital era

TV is apparently dead. And as corollary a magazine about TV should already have a strong onset of rigor mortis. However, in a great display of resilience in a fragmented media world, The TV Guide is holding strong as New Zealand’s number one selling magazine. We go back to the magazine’s beginning and talk to editor Julie Eley to see how it's secured itself as the armchair companion to many New Zealanders.

By Erin McKenzie | December 13, 2016 | features

Wait in the checkout queue at any given supermarket and you're likely to see a celebrity's face peeking at you from the cover of the latest edition of The TV Guide.

And despite the fact that electronic programme guides (EPGs) are a touch of a button or click of the mouse away, The TV Guide makes the transition from display stand to trolley far more often than what many of us—this journalist included—realise.    

In fact, it remains New Zealand’s number one selling magazine, a title it achieves by 1.5 million more than its nearest competitor.  

Every week, it sells 78-79,000 copies, while 29,000 New Zealanders get it delivered to their house—a number that’s up 12 percent on last year, while retail is up one percent.

And with such large, stable numbers every week, Eley says the magazine is unique in publishing in that it doesn’t rely on advertising to make a profit. That said, it’s grateful for the support of its advertisers that recognise how good it is as an advertising medium.

Building the empire

The TV Guide began as a section in Truth magazine in 1986, when watching TV was a decision between two channels. But that decision was an important one, and saw readers buy Truth only to throw it away and keep The TV Guide – an action that prompted the decision to make it a stand-alone publication.

Since then, it’s progressed to a 120-page publication, covering eight free to air channels and 35 Sky channels. A ‘Digital Watch’ section also covers what to watch online, including Lightbox, Neon, Quickflix and Netflix, as well as the free to air on demand websites. And, all of this is packed into a publication that’s almost smaller than most smart phones and certainly tablets, making it the perfect size to rest on couch arms alongside those watching TV.

However, given TV is no longer limited to appointment viewing and the internet is diverting eyes to its own screens, one could question The TV Guide’s relevance, as it no longer functions as a strict guide to what to watch and when.

But according to Eley, it’s as relevant as ever; in fact, it’s even more relevant than it was five years ago because it helps pick out the best options.

“We’ve remained relevant, and we are more relevant than we used to be because when we had two channels it was like a flick between and when there’s 60 channels it’s a bit more complicated to find out what’s on.”

She adds it also cuts through all the clutter of all the EPGs that you scroll through only to forget what was on other channels. Instead, TheTV Guide offers something that can be flicked through quickly and many readers circle and highlight their weekly viewing.

“But they are going to watch TV on their terms,” she says.

“They are not going to be glued to watching Shortland Street at seven o’clock on a weeknight, but they appreciate a guide to tell them what’s on, even if it’s just to see what to set the recorder for.”

And it’s a behaviour that goes for all ages of The TV Guide readers, because while you may be forgiven for thinking it’s the older generations holding onto appointment viewing, Eley says “65 isn’t what it used to be,” and points out that they too are just as interested in the SVODs.

And while its readership does have a slightly older skew, audience growth manager Grant Torrie says the magazine continues to cover a broad cross-section of New Zealand.

Nowhere is that better shown, than in its ‘Kids Club’ section, which features a series of puzzles and jokes.

Eley says it’s “incredibly popular” and each week it receives so many jokes from readers, the team holds a session to choose them by having one person read them out while the others try to guess the punchline.

More than just programme listings

Feeding a 120-page weekly magazine requires a lot of content, but no programme gets a special mention before the editorial team has reviewed and is satisfied that it meets the quality requirements. 

And while local content gets a good showing across the pages, the magazine also generates interest by giving readers insights into their favourite international programmes.

In the past year alone, Eley has been to Los Angeles three times, as well as New York and London to interview the stars and visit sets. And she’s already scheduled another trip to Los Angeles early next year before paying a visit to the Games of Thrones set in London in March/April.

“We do get good access and I think we get good access because over the years, people have come to trust us. In The TV Guide, it’s never ‘an insider says’ or ‘a source close to the star revealed’,” she says.

“We go out and talk to the real people and that’s really it. And it does take a lot to build up that trust.”

Overseas gossip has always been an integral part of the magazine, but before the interviews and particularly the internet, it was harder to come by and other magazines had to be used as sources.

Eley recalls getting a writer’s girlfriend, who worked for Air New Zealand, to bring back the American magazines.

The TV Guide then went on to hire writers like Hollywood Foreign Press Association member Jenny Cooney Carrillo in Los Angeles, who’s still writing for it.

In addition to the content itself, Eley also says the cover plays an important role in driving 20 percent of the sales of the magazine.     

She gives the example of those featuring Downton Abbey and Shortland Street, which have previously produced huge sale boosts.

It’s also supported by The TV Guide's spot above all the other magazines at the checkout, which it’s come to call home over the years. Not only does this take advantage of impulse shoppers, it also tempts those waiting at checkouts to pick it up and have a flick through it.

Torrie calls it a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation, because a product doesn’t get a good position if it doesn’t sell, but on the other hand, if a product is given that position it will sell well.

For that reason, she thanks Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises for their support.

Accuracy is key

Making print deadline each week with 120 pages of content not a task the team takes lightly, and it’s made no easier by having to ensure all its TV listings are as accurate as possible when it goes to print nearly two weeks in advance.

With no crystal ball to predict future disasters, deaths or other media consuming events, there’s always room for error in its listings and Eley points out how David Bowie’s death saw planned TV programmes relaced with vigils. But in saying that, she is proud of how accurate it is.

Every Tuesday morning, before the magazine goes to print in the afternoon, one of the team talks to the broadcasters to run through every programme on every channel at every time slot across that week.

When the magazine goes on sale on the Thursday, the programme listings kick in nine days later.

It’s a community

Not only is the team in constant communication with the broadcasters, it’s in constant communication with its readers, who write letters, send emails, call and send Christmas cards.

Every week, Eley’s Editor’s Letter takes the top half of the first page, and in response to her comments, she receives loads of emails from readers expressing their agreement, making suggestions or asking for advice.

The morning we spoke to Eley, she’d been on the phone to a gentleman wanting to know what will be on TV over Christmas.

“Have you got your TV Guide yet?” she asked, to which he replied with: “I’m not buying it until tomorrow at New World and I just want to make sure I’ve got something to watch on Christmas day because I have my family coming.”

Having that constant feedback from dedicated readers keeps the magazine honest, she says, as it places great importance on listening to it and their ideas.

And after a day of talking, reading, researching and watching TV, Eley says she still looks forward to getting home and sitting down to watching a show or two (her current pick is Westworld at 8.30 on a Monday nights).

“I love good TV,” she says.

“I’m not advocating that people come in and sit in front of the TV for three or four hours every night, and I think children need to be rationed as to what they watch and how much TV they watch, but I think good TV is like having a good book, it’s like having a good hour's gardening, so why wouldn’t you do it?”

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