Endangered Species: Print TV Listings?

By: Steve Outing Late last week, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. sold a controlling stake in TV Guide to a division of TCI, the largest U.S. cable television company. Assuming this deal isn't derailed by antitrust challenges, TV Guide-branded listings will reach the television screens of more than 50 million U.S. cable subscribers (and a few million more in other countries), in addition to the 13 million print editions of TV Guide itself. This is a big, big development as we slowly move from printed TV listings dominating the market to on-screen listings replacing them for a large portion of the TV-viewing population.

TV listings are one of those newspaper staples that face a significant threat in the coming years from new media. Some might even suggest that they'll go away long term, as the television and computer meld into one box. Athena Disney, former editor of TV Guide and now CEO of News America Publishing Group (a News Corp. unit), was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on Friday as predicting that current listings in TV Guide would continue only for several more years. As the listings gravitate toward electronic media, she says, TV Guide magazine might evolve into a more traditional entertainment news magazine; its future readers will get their TV Guide-brand listings from an interactive cable channel (which the magazine will, of course, promote heavily).

That's the way it will be

TV Guide executives understand the future. Do newspaper publishers? This deal should make newspaper executives concerned, and it should be an alarm bell to pay closer attention to getting TV listings online and preparing for a future when on-screen listings will largely eliminate consumers' need for a print schedule.

Skeptics might question whether print TV listings will ever lose their appeal; the printed coffee-table television guide is convenient and cheap, so why would consumers give it up? But the problem is the proliferation of channels in most television and cable markets. We are in the era of "500 channels and nothing on," so TV listings books are becoming increasingly unwieldy and consumer-unfriendly as they are forced to list programming for so much broadcast content.

(I have evidence of that. My local newspaper's Sunday TV insert is fatter than ever with listings, and it's just plain annoying to flip through so many pages to find the correct grid. And when I do find a program listing, there's seldom any information beyond the program title. I'm nostalgic for the TV guides of old, when there were few enough channels that publishers could include descriptions of individual programs. In short, the typical newspaper TV grid and Sunday TV insert today does not serve the consumer well.)

Despite the convenience of print, channel proliferation is slowly demeaning newspaper TV listings' utility.

Newspapers no longer 'definitive' source

Most people in the newspaper industry don't believe their TV books will go away. But on-screen and online TV listings services undoubtably will become the "definitive" venue for complete television information -- replacing newspaper TV inserts' current status as well as the print edition of TV Guide. The Sunday TV newspaper insert can't afford the additional pages to run descriptions of every single program on all "500 channels." But the online or on-screen interactive TV listings service can provide that information plus a lot more -- including reviews of programs, information about the cast, even viewer comments from those who've already watched a program and discussion forums among a show's fans. It's the old limitless news-hole characterisitic that makes interactive media superior to print for certain applications.

If online or on-screen TV listings services become the "definitive" source -- supplanting newspapers' TV inserts -- this trend could put a dent in Sunday print circulation, points out Rich Gordon, online services manager for the Miami Herald. Many consumers pick up the Sunday paper primarily because they want the weekly TV insert (which is cheaper than picking up a copy of TV Guide magazine at the grocery story), he says. Will they stop buying the paper when the listings are available in interactive form on the TV set itself? Like many newspapers today, the Herald has added an interactive TV schedule service on its Web site, powered by the TV Week Interactive online service from Tribune Media Services, which is promoted heavily in the print edition. This is an early effort at being ready for the day when reliance on print listings by readers dwindles.

Limited options

Mike Pilmer, vice president of Hollinger Digital (and also the top new media executive for Southam Newspapers in Canada), says "there are not many different directions (that newspapers) can go." They can expand their print Sunday TV insert to 100 or more pages in order to accommodate all the programming, but at some point that becomes just plain uneconomical -- not to mention unwieldy for the consumer. The other, better option: the Web, with its limitless news-hole, "is at least partially the answer," Pilmer says.

Southam is currently experimenting with putting its listings online. Its Web TV service -- which is based on the TV Week print insert that Southam produces for all its papers -- is on Canada.com, the newspaper chain's national Web service, rather than on the Web sites of individual Southam papers. Starting next week, Canada.com users will be able to type in their postal codes and get listings specific to their local cable TV system. (Currently, the interface requires clicking down a menu tree to find the corrrect local listings.) The company will watch how the service is utilized and further develop interactive TV listings as the future of television becomes more digital. "I do not believe that the status quo is maintainable" because of the proliferation of TV channels, Pilmer says.

If there's a short-term consensus building in the newspaper industry, it's that Web TV listings services must be integrated with the print product. The shortcomings of print listings in dealing with the channel glut can be ameliorated by referring print customers to a newspaper's online services where more depth and personalization features are available.

Kevin Weafer, president of Student.net, says his company (which is backed by US West) has developed an Internet interactive TV listings service (TVGrid.com) -- which the company is marketing to newspaper companies, among others -- in large part to address the issue of channel glut. What's needed today, he says, is a service that allows a user to be effective in finding a needle (quality or desired content) in a haystack (500 channels). The challenge today is not determining what's on TV, but "what's worth watching."

The dominant vendors offering Web TV listings services for newspapers in the U.S. are TV Data and Tribune Media Services. (More than a dozen companies offer TV listings on the Web.) TMS' marketing director, Steve Tippie, says the competitive threat that the TCI-TV Guide deal represents "makes it even more vital that newspapers use content such as TV listings to bring readers to their brands online." He says that newspapers need to heavily promote their online TV offerings -- including in-print ads, outside promotion (such as newsrack cards, billboards, etc.), banner ads throughout the Web site, and promotions on the print TV grid itself referring print readers to the online service.

Part of the strategy for newspapers today should be training readers that the newspaper will carry on as a major provider of TV listings into the digital future. When TCI (and Microsoft, which also has targeted listings as a business thrust) rolls out a full-blown interactive TV listings channel, newspapers need to be ready with a competing digital service. Not to do so dooms a paper's TV listings to a serious loss of users, and a significant drop-off in Sunday edition purchasers who buy only to get the weekly TV book.

Tippie points out that today's TV sets are not set up to operate like a computer, so interactive listings services are still clunky. You can't do things as swiftly using a TV remote control as you can with a mouse and keyboard. But, he warns, "you'll be amazed at how fast it gets there."

As the cable industry moves forward with interactive TV listings, to protect their TV listings franchises newspapers must prepare for the day when the television and the computer are merged in one device. Microsoft-owned WebTV is, of course, the first significant incarnation of this trend. When you can flip back and forth between TV viewing and the Web, the newspaper online listings services are a viable competitor to what TCI and TV Guide are building.

Mark Weinberg, managing editor of Knight Ridder News Media, says that if TCI-TV Guide execute their listings service well, "everyone will have to rethink how they address this audience" -- including newspapers. "Newspapers must recognize that they will be only one way in which consumers get TV listings information."

The days of newspapers being the dominant source of TV listings are numbered. It used to be that a newspaper only had to worry about consumers in their community buying or subscribing to TV Guide. But papers' Sunday TV books had the considerable advantage of being cheaper. The coming on-screen interactive competition from cable companies is far more serious and threatening. Are you ready for the challenge ahead?


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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