TV, Or Not TV? It’s Your Move

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When the first 2007 edition of the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times hit the street, its decades-old free-standing television programming digest “TV Prevue” was gone, as the paper had warned for a couple of weeks. In its place was a colorful four-page insert offering a TV Guide subscription at a special price for Sun-Times readers. TV Guide has discovered a new and growing marketing niche: Newspapers that are dropping their TV books. “We look at it as a wonderful opportunity to reach out to a new set of consumers who obviously have an interest in TV,” says Scott Crystal, president of the TV Guide Publishing Group.

TV Guide began targeting readers with discontinued newspaper program guides last summer when The New York Times announced it was dropping its TV section. Since then, the magazine has taken the campaign to five markets. It approached The Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times, which did not eliminate their books but instead converted to an “opt-in” system requiring subscribers to order them.

The campaign has “produced thousands of new orders,” says Crystal. TV Guide, like most consumer magazines, long ago stopped using free-standing newspaper inserts (FSIs) to drum up subscriptions because of the high cost. “But we seem to be getting a response rate that’s 200% to 300% better than normal FSI response rates,” he says. TV Guide has even created a marketing task force whose job it is to track newspapers about to drop their TV books. “We do expect this trend to continue,” Crystal adds. “Obviously newspapers have not been able to monetize these sections. That was no surprise to us ? we’ve known that for years.”

Ironically, the newspaper inserts pitch a magazine that itself has dropped the detailed listings that made it famous. In October 2005, the Guide abandoned its traditional digest format ? plus two-thirds of its circulation guarantee ? and relaunched as a full-sized, full-color magazine with an emphasis on entertainment articles.

Over the years, Crystal says, newspapers repeatedly rebuffed various ideas that TV Guide proposed for partnerships in television listings. But with the newsprint crunch and other cost pressures persuading more and more papers to drop their books ? and listing information ever more convenient on the Internet or the television screen itself ? the magazine sees a new opening.

TV Guide has talked with some newspapers about sampling the magazine in home-delivery copies ? and it’s offering consulting skills to confront the inevitable consumer discontent. “We know a little bit about consumer outrage [caused by] taking something away,” Crystal says, “because that’s what we did a year ago when we eliminated the digest.”

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