Desperate (for) Housewives

Inside TV markets itself as a “TV Guide for women.’

Inside TV, a new weekly magazine from the publishers of TV Guide that just hit the newsstands last Thursday, is marketing itself as a TV Guide for women, (more specifically, in the words of one press release, “a bright, upbeat, in-the-know weekly that reflects how the new independent, intelligent young woman of today watches TV.”) The most obvious question raised by the appearance of yet another full-size, glossy, celebrity-centric weekly on the newsstands is: Why on earth do women need their own TV guide? The almost-as-obvious answer is that young women, “independent and intelligent” as they may be, don’t need their own TV guide—at least not as much as TV Guide needs them.

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TV Guide is the most widely read weekly magazine in the United States. It has a circulation of 9 million and a readership of 25 million, including newsstand sales. But as recently reported in the business section of the New York Times, TV Guide is in rapid decline. The now 52-year-old magazine has an aging reader base—like the three big nightly news broadcasts, it’s a lumbering relic of another time. TV Guide’s median reader age is 44.1, while the median household income of its subscribers is $48,516, or $3,000 below the national median.

In addition to being (by the brutal standards of marketing research) old and poor, TV Guide’s subscribers tend to be “analog” rather than “digital”—less likely to get their information online or take advantage of new television technologies (TiVo, webcasts, podcasting, etc.) In terms of advertising dollars, TV Guide readers may be big fat nobodies, but they still provide the company with a huge and loyal subscription base. So, rather than alienate its core audience by trying to jazz up the guide’s now-iconic format, the TV Guide Publishing Group has chosen, in essence, to cut TV Guide loose, letting it die out slowly along with the generation that’s currently reading it, and turn its attention to the publishing industry’s latest goldmine, the celebrity weekly.

As YiLing Chen-Josephson observed in Slate last year, celebrity weeklies have been churning out fresh litters of demon-spawn at an alarming rate. Celebrity Living, which launched on April 21 (the same day as Inside TV) is Star publisher Bonnie Fuller’s first entry into field of the celebrity “lifestyle” magazine, patterned after the shopping-driven In Style rather than the scandal-driven Us Weekly or the outright sadistic paparazzi rag Star.

Inside TV is smart to take on Fuller’s American Media company in the battle for the celebrity-weekly audience, because in an increasingly vertical market, it offers something that none of its rivals do: It’s a full-on service magazine, offering readers not only entertainment and gossip but a tool they can use in their daily life. It’s also more niche-specific than its competitors, catering not only to celebrity watchers in general but to TV-celebrity watchers. But Inside TV’s mistake is that, in trying to take the editorial high road (and maintain that all-important access to the stars whose lives it chronicles), it founders in celebrity worship and bland nicey-niceness.

Even TV Guide itself, one of the un-edgiest publications imaginable, gets cranky on a regular basis—its “Hits and Misses” list column recently called one starlet “vapid,” accused VH1 of “scraping the bottom of the celebrity barrel,” and bemoaned Farrah Fawcett’s “sycophantic entourage” on her new reality show. But Inside TV is more like a chirpy, not-quite-famous-yet starlet skulking at the fringe of that sycophantic entourage. It’s so eager to please everyone in sight—the readers, the advertisers, the stars it profiles—that the result is graphically and editorially frantic, maddeningly substanceless even for an entertainment magazine, and virtually unusable as a practical guide to what’s on TV.

Desperate Housewives

Inside TV is not really a TV guide so much as an annotated digest of one. The first fifty or so pages consist of standard celebrity profiles (Nick and Jessica’s “brave mercy mission” in Iraq) and semi-blatant product placement (Who decorated the “funky-chic” set of Medium? Where do the Desperate Housewives shop in real life?). The back of the book consists of a week’s worth of selected program listings, divided into columns by genre: “Drama,” “Reality,” “Beauty & Style,” “Body & Soul,” etc. The female-specific features, which appear as pop-up boxes within those weekly listings, include “The Daily Male”: quotes from TV hunks about what they’re seeking in a woman. There’s also “TV Sitter,” a guide to children’s programming, whose title I love for its candid admission that, yes, the TV keeps kids occupied —you got a problem with that? Other pop-ups include “Chick Picks,” “Quick Tips,” and “Viewpoint,” in which female readers weigh in on TV trends: “Big thumbs up to The Weather Channel’s pregnant meteorologists!” says Shirley in Sparta, N.J. Not only does this endless proliferation of pop-ups visually clutter the page, but the sheer number of recommendations detracts from the power of each one. If everything on TV is so indistinguishably wonderful, why watch any one show over another? Why watch anything at all?

When you get right down to it, the idea of marketing a TV guide specifically to women is a deeply depressing one. By subdividing households by gender, it turns the already-alienating practice of television-watching into an even more solitary pastime, turning the TV into a kind of surrogate husband. The magazine’s publisher, Christine Petrillo, gets at something of this sadness when she perkily points out in a press release that “today’s woman doesn’t just watch TV; she has a relationship with it.” And in the closest thing I’ve seen to a statement of Inside TV ‘s editorial policy, executive editor Debra Birnbaum writes in the first issue that “that’s why we’ve created this magazine—to celebrate the stars and the shows we invite into our homes every week, and to fill in the void before their next visit.”

Of course, the void Inside TV is most interested in filling is the one created by the loss of TV Guide’s advertising dollars. It remains to be seen whether the idea of a gender-specific television magazine will make female consumers feel pampered, or just patronized.