Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Requiem for an Alma Mater: RIP, Television Week

My first job straight out of Northwestern -- actually, I started there a month before I graduated -- was at the Chicago-based TV trade magazine "Electronic Media."

That was back in 1995, long before the journalism world was rocked by the Internet age -- and before consolidation dramatically changed the way the TV conglomerates did business. Back then, syndication ruled the paper -- and network TV, which I covered upon moving to EM's Los Angeles bureau in 1996, was secondary.

That's because in the mid-90s, there were still many syndication companies selling shows to countless station groups -- and weekly TV books like Electronic Media, which were targeted more to local TV stations, benefited from that bounty.

Every January, when local TV station execs and syndication companies held court at the NATPE convention, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on big, lavish advertisements in both Electronic Media and rival Broadcasting & Cable, as those syndicators hoped to clear their wares ("The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show"! "Scoop with Sam and Dorothy"! "Richard Bey"! "Baywatch Nights"! Off-net runs of "Cybill"!) across the country.

Back then, that meant syndicators had to dust off the Pontiac and sell their shows station by station, market by market. That made EM and B&C an important advertising buy if you wanted to reach a wide audience of local station buyers at once. If you had a new first-run talk show, action/adventure hour or game show you needed to sell, or an off-network sitcom or drama that had garnered enough episodes to be sold to local stations in repeats, you bought an ad in EM or B&C. Period.

I remember having to fill many a thick, 100 page-plus issue during the height of NATPE season with virtually any piece of editorial we could get our hands on. There were just too many ads! We filled the books with every executive announcement, every calendar item and every product listing we could get our hands on. Electronic Media even made up a big feature, "12 to Watch," in order to fill all those pages between the ads with feature content.

But once industry consolidation left the business with just a handful of station groups, syndicators could go to one or two execs and clear their show in the majority of the country -- eliminating the need for those ads. Those NATPE issues started getting thinner and thinner, just as the NATPE convention's relevance grew smaller and smaller.

Eventually, most of the syndicators dried up as well -- as companies merged and others got out of the business entirely.

I left Electronic Media for Variety in 1999, but still enjoyed reading the publication even after I left. EM continued to make noise, and even increased its presence in Hollywood by moving its base of operations here, from Chicago, at the start of this decade. In 2003, Electronic Media (which was never a great name; too many people thought we wrote about, well, electronics, instead of TV) changed its name to "Television Week."

I'm not sure that was much better; most newspapers called their weekly TV listings supplement "TV Week." But it at least better explained what the magazine was all about.

People had been predicting for some time that TV Week might not continue as a print publication; most of the rumors had it merging back inside Advertising Age, the Crain Communications-owned trade magazine that had originally spun off Electronic Media in 1982.

Instead, TV Week announced Tuesday that it would indeed cease publication -- but continue as an online-only news source. My former Variety colleague Joe Adalian, who's been doing a bang-up job there already, will be at the center of it, along with publisher Chuck Ross and executive editor Tom Gilbert.

I write about the change here. I'm happy to see that the TV Week brand will continue; but it's tough to see a great group of folks lose their jobs because of this. And it's never a good thing to lose another publication, even if it's a rival, as it puts more journalists out of work and makes all of us more vulnerable. As someone mentioned to me today, this is what the future may look like for print: Stripping it down to its studs, and getting the cost basis more in line with the revenue basis.

They sure didn't predict all of this at Northwestern, back when I was clutching my journalism degree in 1995.

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