When Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. paid nearly $3 billion three years ago for TV Guide, the little digest with the giant circulation became the most expensive magazine ever acquired. Many people wondered at the time if it was worth it.
Since then, circulation has declined by 949,000. Advertising pages are down 20 percent so far this year. And some industry experts question whether the weekly magazine is moving aggressively enough to combat competition from local Sunday newspaper supplements that are carrying more and more television listings.
Moreover, technology is becoming available for cable systems to expand up to 150 channels in the next five years, posing a formidable challenge to TV Guide. Nonetheless, after the recent completion of a three-city test of a larger edition, it has decided to stay with its digest size for now.
Leslie Hinton, the president and chief executive of News America Publications Inc., said Murdoch was committed to keeping and building TV Guide, not selling it.
In answer to whether TV Guide was worth its price, Hinton replied, "It was."
And, he said, "its value going forward will only increase."
As proof of renewed energy for the magazine, Hinton pointed to the recent appointments of Anthea Disney, former editor in chief of Self magazine, as editor of TV Guide and Barry Golson, former executive director of Playboy and editor of the defunct Men's Life, as executive editor.
When Murdoch decided to sell most of his American magazines earlier this year, TV Guide was the one magazine that he did not put up for sale. "It is a core asset, as he describes it, and there are all signs that he has an ongoing commitment to the magazine," said Joseph W. Cece, president and publisher of TV Guide.
Cece said that when Murdoch bought TV Guide, many people expected "the magazine was going to go in a down-market direction." Instead, Cece said, the magazine is now becoming "more sophisticated and more authoritative."
TV Guide's primary asset is not the magazine itself, but the fact that it has the most comprehensive information-gathering system in the television industry, providing listings for 114 editions. Cece said he was exploring new ways to present this information to consumers.
"Our strategy is to protect that franchise and to grow it," he said. "If there are other ways of communicating with people, we should be prepared to present them. No one can foresee the technology; all we know is that we are the best gatherers and purveyors of that information."
He noted that since the magazine introduced an edition specifically for cable viewers in Manhattan a year ago, circulation has doubled there. TV Guide is increasingly developing cable-specific editions in partnerships with cable operators around the country.
But Carl Kotheimer, executive vice president and director of marketing services for the ad agency Della Femina McNamee, which places advertising for the USA Net work in TV Guide, said the magazine's editions specifically for viewers of different cable systems were not growing fast enough.
"I don't think they are moving quickly enough for their position in the marketplace," he said. "With their leadership position, I would expect them to be more aggressive."
Martin S. Walker, president of Periodicals Studies Service, a magazine consultant, said that with the proliferation of cable listings, it was questionable whether TV Guide could be as knowledgeable about each market as a local newspaper could be.
"When you get into cable, you don't know how accurate they can be," he said.
Walker also said that unless the magazine spent heavily to improve its editorial product, it would be unable to match the kind of celebrity and entertainment coverage provided by consumer magazines like People, Entertainment Weekly or Premiere.
Disney, the new editor, disagrees. With its circulation of 15.3 million, she says, the magazine has established itself "as the authority" on television. "People have come to know that we are television's biggest cheerleader and its biggest critic."
She said she planned to run more articles like the Nov. 9 cover piece by Ken Auletta, "Is Network News Crumbling?" That report bemoaned the "death" of network news.
Disney said she wanted to assign pieces that involved more in-depth reporting and were more timely. The Nov. 23 issue, for instance, will have an interview with Madonna.
"We know all these things about Madonna, but we have no idea what she thinks about TV," Disney said. "How does she relate to TV? What does she herself watch? How does she feel about this medium that she uses so effectively to market herself?"