Part One

By Graham Kibble-White

First published August 2006

What follows is a compilation of five separate interviews, cut together to form a notional round table …

I’ll be honest. Up until recently, when I thought of the TV listings industry, I tended to think of two words, and neither of them were “TV”.

Radio Times always felt to me like the last word on television – the most prestigious, definitive, clued-up source on the subject available on the newsstand. As such, I would never think of looking anywhere else for my weekly information on what to watch, and surely the rest of the world was in agreement. Wasn’t it?

Since the deregulation of television listings in 1991, the market has become an increasingly competitive and crowded one, numerous titles hustling for as big a slice possible out of an overall readership of five million. With the Radio Times/TV Times duopoly of 15 years ago long since smashed, RT has done well to maintain a circulation of around about a million. And, if anything, in terms of prestige, it’s improved on its status, becoming the only TV listings magazine the broadsheets will acknowledge.

“If it’s on, it’s in,” as they used to say, but Media Guardian and my own long-standing patronage aside, it’s worth noting RT has long since lost its mantle as the nation’s favourite source of scheduling information. Yes, as hard as it is for me to believe, there’s more to the market than Gill Hudson’s weekly letter, Alison Graham’s Judge John Deed fixation and a bunch of 6Music jocks poring over the week’s DVD and CD releases. Much more in fact.

It was upon learning IPC Media Ltd’s cheap and cheerful What’s On TV is not just the best selling listings magazine in the UK, but the best selling magazine – period – that I began to realise how skewed my own impression of the industry is. From 1 July to 31 December 2005, the publication’s circulation averaged at a hugely impressive 1,502,977. Coming in second to that was H Bauer Publishing’s even cheaper, but equally cheerful TVChoice, at 1,212,246. The best Radio Times could manage was a bronze, clocking up a still impressive 1,093,850.

So there was the headline: More people get their TV information from magazines other than RT. Within the listings industry itself, all eyes aren’t actually on BBC Worldwide’s flagship title, but two modest red-tops deemed to be at the “value” end of the market who, between them, carve up nearly three million readers a week. And there are other players too. TV Times (IPC Media Ltd), now considered by many to be an ailing brand, clocked up 407,878; TVQuick (H Bauer Publishing), 285,733; new kid on the block TV Easy (IPC Media Ltd), 284,602; TV & Satellite Week (IPC Media Ltd), 207,119 and Total TV Guide (H Bauer Publishing), 92,004.

Interested to find out more about these publications, I spent a couple of days in May and June meeting the people behind them. One morning it was over to BBC Worldwide’s offices in the less-than-palatial environs of White City to meet Radio Times’ Editor, Gill Hudson. Another day was spent at IPC’s King’s Reach Tower just off the South Bank (I hear the company will soon be leaving the building for new premises, its ultimate fate uncertain), where I met up with Colin Tough (Editor-in-Chief of What’s On TV and TV Easy), Ian Abbott (Editor, TV Times) and Jonathan Bowman (Editor, TV & Satellite Week). Finally, it was over to Camden, to Bauer’s offices for a conversation with Jon Peake, the man at the helm of TVChoice, TVQuick and Total TV Guide.

“I famously turned down Radio Times three times”

I began by asking each of them a little about their background, and what sort of magazine they felt they were inheriting when they took on their current role.

Gill Hudson – who joined RT in 2002 – greeted the question with a huge laugh. “I actually didn’t want the job at the start,” she reveals. “I famously turned down Radio Times three times.

“One of the reasons I didn’t want to do it was I simply wasn’t interested in the magazine. I looked all the way through it and thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with this ? It just isn’t speaking to me’. So I went through it again, and I still felt the same. This was getting very concerning, because I’d accepted the job by this point. Then the third time I sat down with it, I suddenly had a complete switch in mindset and realised, ‘Actually, it’s not speaking to me because it’s not speaking to me. That’s not my problem, it’s the magazine’s problem’.”

As her thoughts crystallized, she says she realised, “It had become just rather moribund”.

“It had lots and lots of regular columns stripped in that weren’t particularly linked to key programmes that week,” she continues, “and there was a sense of lack of surprise.

“For me a magazine is a treat. You need to kind of go, ‘Oh, I wonder what Radio Times is going to do this week?’. It was very flat and quite ponderous style. As soon as I got into that mindset I could see this magazine needed to start talking again. So my commitment was to do that.”

Whereas Hudson had no prior experience in TV listings (although an impressive track record within the magazine industry), over at IPC, Colin Tough had worked for years in what’s now referred to as the IPC tx division. He took on the reins of What’s On TV in 2002, the publication’s 11th year in circulation.

“It was still in good order,” he says of it at that time, “but the sales were beginning to drop off. It was obvious the cut-price competitors were beginning to have an effect on it, which is one of the reasons I took the job.”

Like Hudson, he initially expressed misgivings.

“My first thought was, ‘I don’t want to takeover the biggest selling magazine in the country, all that can happen is its sales will go down’. But actually, when I looked at it, I realised that was happening anyway, so I thought, ‘Oh there is something I can do here’.”

Tough says some of the steps he took felt quite radical at the time: “We did things like, in the soap section, numbering the pages and putting a contents page there to make it feel much more like it’s a magazine. In fact, we did that much more throughout. Again with the films, we pulled it together and made it feel like a separate magazine.

“Some of the colours were getting quite garish and quite outrageous, so we pulled back on those as well. But it was all more evolutionary than revolutionary.”

Aside from helming What’s On TV, Tough also presides over TV Easy, IPC’s handbag-sized listings magazine, launched in 2005 under the day-to-day editorship of Richard Clark.

“I use TV Easy at home,” Tough tells me. “I’m probably an evangelist for it because it’s our youngest title, but that’s all I use now.

“The whole idea of it is that you should be able to pick it up and virtually inhale the information. If you look at it, we’ve got captions, we’ve got pull-out boxes, we’ve got the headlines and the pictures and very little text. Just by looking at that, you can immediately understand what’s happening in Emmerdale that week.”

He describes the thought process behind the launch of the title.

“About two and a half years ago we were looking at the market and we realised TVChoice and What’s On TV were selling about three million between them, and that the value market was really booming, while the rest were either flat at best, or some of them were actually falling – this was more at the premium end of the market.

“So we thought, A) There’s an opportunity here – because obviously what people want is a value market title and, B) There might be a threat some other publisher decides to launch one. So we started to look and it was about 18 months we spent working on TV Easy.

“Obviously we wanted to find something that didn’t cannibalise the existing What’s On TV magazine, but also we wanted to try something different because all that’s happened in this market since we launched TV & Satellite Week in 1993 is other people – Bauer in particular – have launched ‘me toos’. TVChoice is a ‘me too’ of What’s On TV and Total TV Guide is a ‘me too’ of TV & Satellite Week.

“Because of that, all that was happening was readers were moving around the titles. They weren’t actually coming into the market, because, why would they? There was nothing new there – just the same titles with different names on the cover.

“So we found there were lots of people out there who even if we were to give them What’s On TV at half the price – or for free – didn’t want a big read about television. What they wanted was just to find out what was on TV, have a recommendation and have basically this: ‘This is the stuff you’ll be interested in tonight’.”

Hence TV Easy.

A floor or so up from Tough’s office is the HQ for TV Times. Ian Abbott took over the title in March 2006, having been deputy editor for three years. He says that when he stepped into the role, he was inheriting, “A hugely well established magazine, but one that needed updating.”

“In my role as deputy before,” he continues, “I’d gone through a period of research for the previous six months, so I had an idea of what changes were needed to make the magazine more premium. I decided we were going to use pictures better and create a much more rounded product.”

His use of the word “premium” surprised me, as I’d always considered that term to signify publications with more of a broadsheet sensibility. But in fact, as I was now learning, “premium” was more a signifier of price, and at 90p, TV Times is up there with Radio Times, Total TV Guide and TV & Satellite Week.

“Us and TVQuick [70p] were in the mid-range of the market,” he tells me, “but we felt that was the area that was being squeezed the tightest. So we thought we had to move the magazine one way or another, and going into the budget section would have been a disaster, because it’s already very highly populated. So we felt we had to move it more upmarket in order to steady the ship.”

It’s no secret TV Times has steadily been losing sales for some years now. I asked Abbott if he felt he’d taken on a poisoned chalice.

“There’s challenges there,” he concedes gamely, “but, erm, I wouldn’t call it a poisoned chalice.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity because you’re in a situation where a lot of people have tried and not done so well. So there’s not a great expectation that you’re going to totally turn it around straight away and your circulation is going to start rising through the roof. But there is an expectation that if we do it properly we can stem any decline in circulation and actually steady things out. And I think that’s very realistic. We’re seeing the signs of that at the moment.”

My final appointment at King’s Reach Tower was with Jonathan Bowman, Editor of TV & Satellite Week. He’s been in the role for three and a half years, having worked on various listings magazines beforehand, including What’s On TV, and the Bauer titles.

“When I inherited TV & Satellite Week,” he says, “it was in a fairly healthy state.”

Nonetheless, he admits, “It was starting to plateau in terms of sales and it was still very much connected to the first generation of multi-channel TV. Plus, it was very much about sci-fi and cult programmes. It almost pretended people didn’t watch BBC1 and ITV, which I felt was going a little too far.

“So when I first joined, a lot of the effort was about just trying to drag it back to some of the mainstream stuff people were watching. Although we do very little soap, I kind of dabbled in that. So, we maybe do a page a week of it now, but at the time the magazine treated soap as if nobody was watching it.

“I think when I joined there was just a slight change of balance. There was also an effort to try and change the look of the magazine. It was very text heavy, with a slightly geeky edge to it. We’ve tried to address that, although not completely successfully.”

While I had the chance, I couldn’t resist asking Bower if there was any chance the magazine’s slightly clunky name was ever going to get an overhaul.

“At the time,” he muses,” the name was spot on. But it’s not quite right now. It’s still a Ronseal name where you know what it does, so it is kind of effective. And changing your name as a branding exercise for the magazine is not something that’s really on the agenda. I suppose what we’d like to get to – and we’d work to as our kind of brief – would be Digital TV Week. But, I mean, it doesn’t really matter. Radio Times is an old fashioned name. It doesn’t hurt it in the slightest.”

At Bauer’s offices in Camden, Jon Peake told me how he came to take over the editorship of TVChoice, TVQuick and Total TV Guide.

“Well, I was acting up for the features editor on the Sun TV mag,” he says, “who was on maternity leave. One day I got this call from someone I knew at TVQuick, saying the previous deputy, Jonathan Bowman, was leaving, and was I interested? And I wasn’t really. But, I was thinking about what was going to happen when the features editor came back and I’d have to return to my old job and my old money.

“I thought, ‘Well, I suppose I wouldn’t mind a change’. So I came along not thinking I would do it, and then they offered me the job on the spot. I kind of walked out after this very brief 10-minute interview, and I’d got this new job. I was paraded around as the new deputy editor. So, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’ – and the money was good.”

At that point, TVChoice and Quick were edited by Lori Miles, who was seconded to work on a new project – Total TV Guide.

“This was in August 2003,” remembers Peake, “and I was asked to step up as acting editor. By July 2004, Lori had left the company, but in the meantime, TVChoice had gone over a million, so I was offered the job as editor-in-chief of all three magazines.”

At this point he says he felt TVQuick had become “a very poor alternative to Heat magazine”.

“But if you want Heat, you buy Heat – there’s no point pretending otherwise. So I got rid of a lot of the Heat-style elements, like pictures of people wandering around with shopping bags, and beefed up the features and soaps and stuff.

“On TVChoice it was just really concentrating on getting the covers right, but the actual content has not changed since it launched, really, because it’s always been a case of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“We need a little bit more tone of voice”

Back at Radio Times, Gill Hudson found there were more than a few aspects of the magazine that needed a tweak.

“I think it was a good idea to bring in someone from outside the listings genre,” she says, “because you just bring something fresh to it. And I was able to question things, like, ‘What do you do that for?’ and have no shame about asking, because why would I know? I’d not done it before.

“More often than not people have said, ‘Dunno – because we’ve always done it like that’. That’s the kiss of death. Never do something just because you’ve always done it that way.

“So it was quite exciting, actually. We kind of reinvented the magazine. And we’ve kind of got key things about it that I insist on. Everything goes through the filter of, ‘Is it intelligent? Is this something that appeals to people of a discerning nature? Is it absolutely authoritative? Do you know it’s right? Is it easy to use?’ – which is terribly important on a listings magazine.”

As part of the overhaul, Hudson cut regular columnists John Peel and Mark Porter (“They were perfectly fine, but columnists have a life”) and says, “we had no complaints at all when they were dropped.”

On a side-note, then, I was interested to know if any of her changes had meet resistance.

“I dropped Trackword because I thought it was a bit tired,” she remembers, “I had about 100 people write in about it, so it went straight back in the magazine! Straight back in, because, I’m not stupid! Listen to your readers! But everything else, absolutely fine.”

With Peel and Porter gone, in came Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and Phill Jupitus.

“I just like their tone,” explains Hudson. “They’re entertaining. They all write with absolute passion – you can hear a voice coming through, which, I think, is one of the reasons I didn’t respond to Radio Times before, because there wasn’t enough copy with a real voice. I still think we’ve got a way to go on that, actually, but it’s much, much better. You can hear individual voices coming through with passion and interest.”

Lack of “voice” is something that also troubles Ian Abbott and Jonathan Bowman.

“A star columnist is something we’re considering on TV Times,” reveals Abbott. “But there’s the question of whether or not it becomes a bit of a chore. They tend to have a great opening couple of weeks and then it becomes a bit relentless.

“But it would help to have someone who could be the voice of TV Times. There are a few people who would be ideal for that. And I think the voice of the magazine is something we’re going to be developing more in the future.”

He readily admits the publication may have lost its distinctive tone over the years, and goes on to say: “Everyone trusts us and believes what we say, but we’re possibly not the best at shouting about how good we are. Maybe in a market where everybody’s shouting these days, we should do a bit more, because we’ve got an awful lot to offer.”

Jonathan Bowman has similar concerns about TV & Satellite Week.

“There’s not a particular attitude to the magazine,” he says. “I acknowledge that we need a little bit more tone of voice.

“We want to lighten up a little bit. Have a little bit more enthusiasm. A little bit more actually nailing our flag to the mast, and saying, ‘We love this programme’, rather than, ‘You might want to watch this’.

“Also,” he continues, “I want us to have more fun with the shows, because it is just all entertainment. We’re not terrible about that now, but there are times when it can be a bit dry.”

By contrast, Colin Tough is confident that both TV Easy and What’s On TV have established a clear, recognisable housestyle.

“TV Easy is irreverent,” he explains, “but it never takes the piss out of TV.

“What’s On TV is chatty. We try to be the mate at the pub,” he adds, before catching himself. “Actually,it’s mainly women who read the magazine, so we try to be the mate on the bus. Or the friend down the supermarket. We try to get that feel of just chatting to them and they seem to like that.”

“Decide yourself whether you want to watch it or not”

While tone and voice are clearly desirable in defining a magazine, I wondered if sometimes opinions could become laboured – that point where a TV listings magazine moves from describing, to prescribing your choice of viewing. It’s something I felt Radio Times had suffered from in the past, and I put the point to Gill Hudson.

“My concern is that we always make sure people are left in no doubt about what kind of programme they’re going to see,” she tells me. “If they choose to watch it, that’s fine. Don’t beat them up for it.

“I mean, Alison [Graham], our TV editor, she absolutely hates Judge John Deed. She absolutely loathes it. She gives it a pasting every time. But if you want to watch it, that’s fine.”

And then, laughing: “I think there’s a difference between opinion and bullying! If I want to watch The Eurovision Song Contest, I’m bloody well going to watch The Eurovision Song Contest, and don’t tell me it’s rubbish. Actually it’s fabulously entertaining, probably for all the wrong reasons. But the main thing is readers understand Radio Times gives them enough information to know whether it’s right for them.”

At this juncture, I couldn’t resist but point out that, for a TV editor, Alison Graham’s column of late had been largely negative about what she was watching. It seemed odd she wasn’t showing more enthusiasm for her subject.

“Yes I think that’s fair comment sometimes,” says Hudson thoughtfully. “But she does have very strong opinions and tries to uphold what people want to see.

“She speaks on behalf of an awful lot of readers, who do criticize. And Radio Times is the forum for that, because these are the people who care about what they want to watch. So, I absolutely defend her right to say what she really thinks, and it’s a bit of an indictment that there’s not always a huge amount she can enthuse about.

“However, she has absolutely enthused about things like Green Wing, Doctor Who, Peep Show, Shameless. There’s just not been that much brave new stuff to wave the flag about.

“Readers adore Alison. I mean, she gets mobbed wherever she goes. People come up to her and say, ‘You’re great!’ And they absolutely buy into her comments, and most people agree with her when she has a moan.”

There’s no room for overt, critical comment in What’s On TV, says Colin Tough.

“The way we look at is, if it’s not good, we shouldn’t be shouting about it in the first place. The other problem with that, I always feel, is you take the Carry On films. To some people they’re absolute classic British comedies and they love them. To other people they’re smutty. Who’s in the right?

“So what you have to do is really lay it out to people and say, ‘This is what it’s like, decide yourself whether you want to watch it or not’.”

Similarly, he wouldn’t risk alienating readers by allowing either of his magazines to become too arch or knowing.

“I tend to work to the lowest common denominator,” he says, “because otherwise you cut people out and that whole idea of it being friendly and matey – well – if you’re talking about something people don’t understand or know, then you’ve lost it.

“But you’ve also got to make sure you’re not patronising. It’s getting that balance that’s always the main thing. I think the most important aspect is making sure the programmes we pick to highlight are the most relevant to our readers. I’ve noticed some other magazines don’t manage to do that. You’ll see the big programmes like Six Feet Under or The West Wing on their covers. That’s not our readership at all. If you start to put in too many of those shows, people tune in to watch them and think, ‘Oh, this isn’t really me,’ and, again, that whole friendship thing of, ‘We understand you and we like the same things as you’ is gone.

“The moment you’ve lost that, you’ve lost your readership.”

On TV Times, Ian Abbott is equally cautious about which programmes the magazine will support.

“There is an element of educating the reader,” he explains, “because there are so many channels now. Over two-thirds of our readers have some form of Freeview or satellite, so the choice is immense. Without telling them what to watch, we have to provide a guide of what is available, so they’re not missing things that they’d really enjoy.

“But it’s our reputation on the line and we can’t afford to have people saying, ‘That’s utter rubbish’. So we have to be thoughtful. The last thing we do is look down on any aspect of TV. People need a bit of escapism, and there’s always this snob value about programmes like Heartbeat. It’s a fantastic programme, and outside the soaps, it is, week in, week out, the most popular show on television. And it should be as well, it’s a fantastically done, heart-warming, nostalgic, perfectly-pitched programme. We would always support that kind of show.”

The situation is almost reversed on TV & Satellite Week which, thanks to its more “hardcore” persona, attracts a different type of audience.

“What excites our readers is exciting new TV,” says Jonathan Bowman. “Not another derivative Sunday night set in the Peak District-hybrid programme. What they’re looking for is more high concept programming. A little bit more on the fringes of the mainstream. So stuff like Lost is manna from heaven to us.”

Despite Bowman’s efforts to make TV & Satellite Week more mainstream, Jon Peake – who presides over its direct competitor Total TV Guide – feels it’s still positioned slightly on the fringes.

“We’ll write about the culty stuff too,” he says, “but not as much as they do. We certainly wouldn’t do those kind of cult covers, expect when it comes to something like Doctor Who, because that’s now become so mainstream.

“In fact, we have done the odd soap cover on Total, although we’ll only really do that when we need to. Very often, if there’s big dramas starting, that will take precedence. But we’re not averse to doing it, while TV & Satellite Week would never put a soap on the front. They’d do anything else but.”

And he’s right.

“We don’t really have a relationship with soap at all”

“I’ll be honest with you,” Bowman says, “We don’t really have a relationship with soap at all. We do just under a page a week. We have an external writer, who’s an ex-colleague of mine from the days I worked on Inside Soap magazine, and she does a round-up for us every week.

“I haven’t spoken to a soap press officer since I took on this job. They don’t speak to me, they have no reason to. We’ve never had a soap cover line and we very rarely put soaps on our pick of the day.”

On Radio Times, Gill Hudson feels the magazine’s comparative paucity of soap coverage is one of the very things that defines it.

“If we went down the soap route, we’d lose half our audience,” she tells me. “It’s not being sniffy about the soaps, because our readers watch them too. But, they’re not primarily driven by that. They’re looking for quality. It’s thought-provoking programmes that do it for them, and if you were to look at what kind of programme gets Radio Times readers going, it’s something like Springwatch. It is Bleak House. It is Planet Earth. It is the big current affairs and documentary programmes. It just is.

“Even if they watch Coronation Street, they don’t want to read too much about it because they know these are soap lives, and they don’t care about the psychology of the characters. It’s just mindless entertainment. That’s fine. Very good mindless entertainment. But really, it’s in its place.”

Ian Abbott, who’s pushing TV Times into that premium bracket, is perhaps stuck between a rock and a hard place on this subject.

“It is still a huge staple of our magazine,” he admits, “and at the end of the day, when we did our refresh one of the key factors was increasing the coverage from five pages to six.”

Nonetheless, he’s keen to distance TV Times from the budget market’s devoted reportage of soap comings and goings.

“The difference with us is, we’re not just going to do storyline-related stuff, we’re going to try and go behind that and go to the actor or actress. That’s our job. If someone is bashing up someone else that week in Albert Square, putting two big faces on the cover just wouldn’t work for us.”

But it absolutely would for TVChoice …