The Trials of 'Entertainment Weekly': One Magazine's 24 Years of Corporate Torture
Jessica Alba on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in March of 2001, summer of 2006, and again this month.
When I was a young and odd child, one of the oddest things I did was collect Entertainment Weekly. Our family, like so many middle class families, had always had a subscription to Time, and one day Entertainment Weekly began arriving with it. In those early days, it was called entertainment weekly, and in many ways, it resembled many of the entertainment websites (The A.V. Club, Grantland, Vulture) that dominate the field today. There were long, industry-oriented cover stories, buttressed by surprisingly non-banal interviews with stars, producers, directors, musicians, and authors. The second half of the magazine was divided by medium: Movies, Television, Music, Books and Video, each with its own colored tab. Delightful.
I’d read each issue from cover-to-cover, deciding on its predominant “themes,” and record this data in an elaborate database program on my Apple IIe. As a finishing touch, I’d give each issue a “grade,” emulating EW‘s own, then-novel system of affixing a grade to the media products it reviewed.
In my North Idaho town of 30,000, we had three movie screens and I wasn’t allowed to watch cable. But EW‘s approach to media appealed to me in the way that all broad, detail-oriented taxonomies appeal to children: It provided me with a field to master and the tools to do so. Eleven-year-old me was an expert on the Weinsteins, Sundance, and the phenomena of sex, lies, and videotape and The Crying Game—without ever even seeing the movies, or really even knowing what they were about.
The early and mid-90s Entertainment Weekly was a trade magazine for the masses: A publication that promised to make consumers, whether 11 or 45, into near-experts. It took a while to figure out the format—at first, it was a little too snobby New Yorker and not enough Henry Luce-style middlebrow—but by the mid-90s, it had hit its stride.
But doing what its readers liked and doing what its parent company Time Warner needed did not always, or even often, coincide. Entertainment Weekly premiered just about a month after the completion of the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications in 1990, and they were entrusted to convey to stockholders, to industry observers and to the world that the union of two media empires, with two distinct styles of operation and implicit and explicit goals, was, in fact, an act of corporate genius.
Last year, Time Warner announced its intentions to spin off Time Inc.’s 95 “brands,” 23 of which are U.S. magazines, which include Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly, but also there is NME, Wallpaper, ESSENCE and both Yachting World and Yachting Monthly. (There are also the 50+ international editions of the main properties.) That was the announcement of the end of 23 years of Time Warner’s flailing attempts to create synergy across its sprawling holdings.
Now Time Inc. is on its own. Last week, for the privilege of being dumped, Time Inc. paid Time Warner the amount of $589,858,212.54—leaving the new company with “cash and equivalents” of just $136 million.
EW‘s rise, scattered identity, brilliant heyday and slow, gradual decline mirrors the same journey of Time Warner’s conglomerate hopes and dreams. The leading magazine company weds a film and television giant? It all looked so great on paper. But here we are with the EW of today, and it’s clear: Just because it looks pretty in a business plan doesn’t mean it’s a good idea at all.
Of Time Inc.’s ten current executive vice presidents, two were appointed in 2014, four in 2013, three in 2012, and one way back in 2011.
“Clamor for Glamour Sparks Media Melee” declared a front page headline in Variety in January of 1990. The trade paper detailed the rise of “entertainment information”—”ent-fo,” as characteristically abbreviated by Variety. Entertainment information was not new: Entertainment Tonight had made entertainment news part of many Americans’ media diet in the early 80s, inspiring dozens of knock-offs. If you’re wondering when, and how, the American public became familiar (and gradually obsessed) with things like “weekend grosses” and “sweeps ratings,” trace it back to ET.
“Ent-fo”—celebrity gossip, box office figures, “behind-the-scenes” looks at future programming—proved to be big business. It was cheap, easy to produce, and most crucially, blessed with a seemingly infinite stream of source material.
Various executives and publishing magnates had recognized the seeds of the trend in the 1980s, attempting to introduce or rejuvenate products focused on making people feel in-the-know about Hollywood. But the trend didn’t truly take off until the turn of the decade, with the relaunch of the Movietime cable channel (later renamed E! Entertainment Network) and the staggered arrival of four new magazines—Premiere, Movieline, Hollywood, and Entertainment Weekly.
Those behind the boom attributed the demand to the rapid spread of new delivery systems—home video, cable, and compact discs enabled each consumer to become a media connoisseur. According to a market study, the number of “heavy entertainment consumers” had risen more than 50% between 1986 and 1989.
The more media products available, the theory went, the more consumers supposedly yearned to learn about their creation. As one studio exec prophesied, “in the 90s, audiences will no longer simply dance to the tune of ‘let me entertain you.’ People have broader interests now—they want to know more about entertainment.”
This executive was reproducing the very rhetoric used in advertisements to attract consumers: By watching our show, reading our magazine, or turning to our channel, you, too, can become a Hollywood insider. The invitation proved an alluring one: The term “ent-fo” has failed to become part of the industry lexicon, yet the boom in industry-inflected publications and programming has remained steady since the 1990s, most recently manifest in the likes of Deadline Hollywood, Vanity Fair, and TV By the Numbers.
This proliferation, initially, had far more to do with the major media conglomerates’ desire to create “synergy” rather than any altruistic desire to inform the public. “Synergy” is any cooperation between entities in which the combined effect is greater than the sum of the separate efforts; over the course of the 1980s, “synergy” became one of the entertainment industry’s hottest buzzwords, with Disney so committed to fostering synergistic connections that it created an entire department focused on their development.
In the 1980s and 90s, deregulation facilitated a raft of mergers between media companies, including the union of Time and Warner, but also Sony and Columbia (1989), Matsushita and MCA (1990), Viacom, Blockbuster, and Paramount (1994), and Disney and Capital Cities/ABC (1995). For these conglomerates, entertainment news programs were like a synergistic lynchpin: A cable channel, television show or magazine can promote the projects of other conglomerate holdings in exchange for “exclusive” content and access, all at a relatively miniscule cost.
Entertainment Weekly should have been a magic bullet. Its struggles, however, are but one symptom of Time Warner’s overarching struggle to prove itself more valuable than the sum of its parts. For nearly two decades, leadership has lacked a clear vision of Time Warner’s future: As an article in Time itself made clear, “squabbling factions” plagued the conglomerate, with its “two distinct corporate cultures that were mingled but never quite merged.”
From the initial union to the 2000 merger with AOL, Time Warner’s past is pocked with conflicting impulses to condense yet expand, to jettison debt yet avoid losing face, to encourage synergy but keep individual properties content and autonomous. The Time Inc. spin-off is but the latest, but perhaps the final, symptom of that conflict, with the uncertain fate of Entertainment Weekly indicative of much more than a struggling print market. It’s not just the twilight of print. It’s the end of synergistic optimism.
Throughout the 1980s, executives at Time Inc. had struggled to launch new magazines. Two forays into the entertainment news format—TV-Cable Week in 1983, which shuttered after just five months, and Picture Week, which suffered through two expensive trial runs in 1986—resulted in enormous losses and public embarrassment. By 1989, Time Inc. had not successfully introduced a working magazine since People, nearly fifteen years before. So they were at least ready again when Jeff Jarvis, television critic for People, and Michael Klingensmith, general manager of Time, independently proposed the idea for a magazine focused on the latest in entertainment.
To promote creativity and an “entrepreneurial” spirit, initial development and market research for the magazine were carried out independent of Time’s “corporate culture,” with Time Inc. going so far as to move the EW offices to a separate address.
The idea for the magazine was straightforward. Just as People had been borne of the “People” section of Time, the new magazine would function as the “Picks and Pans” section of People, with Jarvis’s own television reviews as a model. Like Time and People, Entertainment Weekly was aimed at “busy subscribers” (read: middle-class people) and trumpeted its “quick-read, 1-stop guide” to “whatever’s noteworthy” in media. Put differently: The plan was highly digestible reviews intended to keep the bourgeoisie in touch.
Yet EW was no trade publication—Jarvis wanted to make sure that insider trade news would only be covered when “it has an effect on what you’re going to be watching.” For instance, “Dawn Steel leaving Columbia Pictures is not an EW story,” he explained—”But Jeff Sagansky’s new hand on the CBS programming levers is.”
They wanted to assist “the aging baby boomers who still wants to be plugged in,” using a scale (A to F) that reflected the “universal experience” of school grades. If you read EW, the logic went, you were saving yourself from your own bad decisions: The magazine’s pitch for subscribers even asked potential readers to weigh the $50-dollar yearly rate against “the cost of a bad evening’s entertainment.”
Two-thirds of the initial Entertainment Weekly was filled with reviews, with the remaining one-third devoted to features. Charts presenting weekly box office, national book sales, television ratings, and video rentals punctuated each section. In interviews leading up to the magazine’s launch, the editors were firm in their insistence that the magazine was not an industry-minded People: EW would avoid the “interminable personality coverage” that characterized People and its imitators. “If we do a story on Michael Keaton, it will be timed to the release of Batman and be in the context of the movie,” explained Klingensmith. “There may be some walk-up about his career, but it won’t be about his girlfriend or personal stuff.”
That quote—and others like it—were published in Variety and other trades with the intention of engendering cooperation from studios, publicists, and other Hollywood entities. But as would become clear, Jarvis in particular was excellent at crafting spin to suggest that the magazine would cater to populist sensibilities, even as he empowered his writers to craft a product that would alienate that very audience. Many of the writers and the editors hired in the first years of the magazine were hungry, aching to do the sort of incendiary New Journalism popularized by Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. These were people who saw themselves, first and foremost, as journalists, not cog in larger conglomerate machinery.
This relationship to Hollywood seemed viable. Unlike People and other personality focused publications, EW was not intended to rely on newsstands sales. As such, editors could afford not to to put alluring—famous—faces on the magazine’s cover. Meanwhile, Time Inc. leveraged its existing publishing and newly acquired non-print connections to build a tremendous subscription base. In the months leading up to the launch, Time pushed subscriptions across its print and media holdings; a twelve-page sample edition of EW was included in issues of Time, Sports Illustrated, People, Fortune, and Money, together reaching a readership of 61 million.
The push paid off. EW received 790,000 requests for subscriptions and sample issues before the first issue, setting the rate base at 600,000. The readership profile was exactly what the powers-that-be had desired: a median age of 36.7, split evenly between men and women, and a median household income of $40,300—that’s $72,000 in 2014 dollars.
Out of the gate, EW was going to break the string of Time Inc. failures—and, as the first Time launch following the Time Warner merger, prove what the super-conglomerate could do. As Advertising Age explained, “if the country’s largest entertainment and publishing concern couldn’t successfully produce an entertainment publication, who could?”
Yet Jarvis and Klingensmith both underlined the magazine’s autonomy from conglomerate concerns, declaring “Time Warner entertainment product will find no special favor at EW.” Industry agnosticism, for lack of a better word, was essential: As Variety noted, “any tilt toward Burbank,” the home of Warner, would quickly undermine EW‘s credibility.
The clear contradictions of EW‘s mission took their toll almost immediately. The first issue hit newsstands during the second week of February, 1990, with singer k.d. lang (who wouldn’t come out of the closet for another two years) on the cover—a figure critics labeled “offbeat,” “androgynous,” and “relatively obscure,” all coded language for “maybe gay and not Time Inc.”
The first cover came to represent all that was wrong with EW: The layout was cluttered, the typeface too busy, and the cover subject was unfamiliar to the vast majority of readers. The verdict from advertisers and industry critics was unanimously negative: EW was “elitist” and “snooty,” its tone “shrill” and “gratuitously snide.”
Jarvis had made no qualms about the incisiveness of the magazine—as his introductory Editor’s Note made clear, “this magazine will be a voice for quality in a business that needs one.” But readers, at least according to reports, “hated it.” Advertisers voiced their disappointment en masse: “The quality was not what we had hoped for,” said one ad exec. Worse? “The design makes it difficult to notice the ads.” With features on Lang and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, EW was actually skewed too elite.
And the covers—like “Save CBS” and “The Sad, Slow Death of the Morning Shows”—were simply not selling. EW may have been directed towards subscribers, and built off the back of subscribers to existing titles, but newsstand purchases still counted, not least because magazines attract fresh subscribers through one-off sales. With such a narrow focus, the magazine would never reach the one-to-two million readership expected of a flagship Time Warner publication.
The timing was poor. In April, Time Warner had reported a first quarter loss of $187 million, added atop $10.6 billion in debt incurred as the result of the merger. Corporate morale was low, and the industry was gossiping about skirmishes between the print and film divisions. Time Warner had already spent upwards of $30 million launching EW—a number that would eventually rise to between $50-$60 million. Entertainment Weekly had to to succeed, even if for image purposes alone.
Executives in the magazine division took action almost immediately, turning hands-on in what had theretofore been an autonomous operation. An initial redesign hit newsstands on May 25th, 1990: the cover was de-cluttered, and a new, bolder typeface was coupled with wider columns, bigger photos. Oh, and Tom Cruise was on the cover—a blatant ploy to boost newsstand sales.
But no amount of formal redesign could change the magazine’s critical tone—a tone that Jarvis had cultivated from the start. When EW panned Pretty Woman in March—”slow, earnest, and rhythmless,” wrote Owen Gleiberman, slagging off Julia Roberts on the way—the Time Inc. bosses were livid. Not because Pretty Woman was a Time Warner product in need of protection—the film was from Disney—but because “it was irresponsible not to acknowledge its value as popular entertainment.”
Whatever its artistic merits, people liked this movie, and EW‘s rejection highlighted the magazine’s alienating effect on readers. The Pretty Woman D-rating was no anomaly: Over the first five months, the magazine doled out dozens of Cs, Ds, and Fs, which made it increasingly difficult to leverage favors from industry players.
Here, Time Warner’s purposes for the magazine became clear. Execs might not have expected it to serve as a purely promotional vehicle for Time Warner media products, but they did want it to be populist—celebrating rather than critiquing popular trends in culture—and, in the process, cultivate good will amongst stars, producer, directors, agents, and executives.
Less than a month after the first redesign, Jarvis tendered his resignation. As he later explained, he and his team had developed a subscription-oriented magazine aimed at upper-middle class, educated Americans, and Time Warner wanted a middle-brow publication marketed for the newsstand.
In a different scenario, Time Inc. would’ve most likely dissolved the magazine and cut its losses—the feeling of potential doom was so palpable in the EW offices that writers took bets each week on the issue number that would be the magazine’s last—but the PR fallout from yet another failed national launch, especially so close to the Time Warner merger, outweighed the cost of revitalizing the magazine.
Time Warner replaced Jarvis with a Time Inc. “company man”—James W. Seymore, then serving as executive editor of People and one of the most successful editors in the history of the company. The symbolism of the move was clear: EW was being People-ed, and would thereafter “take a less irreverent approach” and be more “personality-driven.” As several employees on the inside of the move confirmed, “management wants more celebrity coverage and a more mainstream magazine.” Jarvis’ vision for a magazine that would focus on “product, not people” was effectively over. By late 1991, Julia Roberts would be on the cover.
James Seymore was, in many ways, a reluctant king. He reportedly told the entire editorial staff that the reason he had been chosen was because he was the only one not hiding under his desk when the Time Inc. powers-that-be came searching for a replacement for Jarvis. But he was also, by all accounts, an incredibly savvy editor. He may not have fully comprehended or appreciated pop culture, but he knew how, and when, to get out of the way.
Seymore also understood that the only way to get Time Warner to stop hovering was to take pressure off the critics. To do so, Seymore made a simple yet significant change to the magazine’s layout. Before, reviews like Ken Tucker’s take on ABC drama “Daughter of the Streets,” which he gave a “D” and “Rated X (As in Execrable)” set the tone for the magazine as a whole. Seymore moved the reviews to the back half of the magazine, pulling “News and Notes”—which included pieces like “The Latest on Late Night” and Jim Mullen’s “Hot Sheet”—to the front. Incisive reviews—like Tucker’s D+ for “Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After”—could live happily on page 52. Complaints from the Time Life building faded away, replaced by praise for the magazines’ newfound “objectivity.”
Features expanded; photos and images blew up. According to Advertising Age, this new EW had a “friendlier tone,” with features that were “funny and spicy and often hung on a celebrity peg.” For example: the December 11, 1992 issue, “Tom Cruise On Top,” that featured a smiling Tom Cruise on its cover, asking: “Can the star of ‘A Few Good Men’ really be this happy?” (He would return to the cover again. And again.)
Despite Seymore’s assurances that “I don’t want anything bland or formulaic…. I want the magazine to have the snappiest and most interesting reviews anywhere,” the influence of his tenure at People was clear. This was for the masses—albeit the slightly more entertainment-minded and wealthy masses, endowed with a surplus of discretionary income. In this mode, EW slowly worked its way towards profitability. The rate base rose from 650,000 (April 1991) to 800,000 (June 1992), while ad pages rose 17%, despite an 8% decline in the magazine industry as a whole.
Seymore also seemed amenable to cross-promotion. EW announced plans to partner with E! in 1991; the following year, HBO began airing four-minute editions of “Entertainment Weekly‘s News Report” ten times a week, with the 470+ affiliates of the CBS radio network broadcasting a 90-second radio version. Other attempts were less cross-promotion than cooperation: Warner Books, for example, advertised heavily in EW and other Time Warner magazines, but still paid for the space (with a slight reduction in price), while a partnership with Viacom-owned MTV offered increased exposure for the EW brand during the 1992 Music Video Awards.
While valuable, such partnerships paled in comparison to the dream synergies promised by Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross when courting Time Inc, in which the magazines would serve as promotional vehicles for Warner films, television shows, channels, records, and books. Seymore had made the magazine more accessible and a better fit in the Time Inc. magazine family, yet he still insisted on the magazine’s autonomy under Time Warner. In March 1995, he repeated his declaration of EW‘s independence, avowing that the magazine “shows no favoritism towards Warner products.” Editors were so sensitive about perceived favoritism towards Time Warner products that they axed Warner-themed covers, even when merited. If anything, Warners’ products received less coverage at EW than they deserved.
Despite an increased focus on celebrities, Seymore’s work to protect those below him from those above him resulted in a magazine that, according to industry observers, had managed to mostly maintain its critical voice. In September 1995, for example, an EW feature on blockbusters illuminated the sneaky studio tricks employed to nudge films over the magical $100 million mark, including quotes from an industry analyst suggesting that the studios inflate reported grosses by 2.5 percent.
The year before, EW film critic Owen Gleiberman had given Forrest Gump, the most popular film of 1994, a C, deeming it “dishonest.” Seymore admitted that the grading system had lost the magazine access to certain stars, but stood strong: “We don’t live or die by our access to the stars,” he said. “If we were to shade our reviews in order to curry favor, I think we would be doomed.”
While it’s clear that Seymore dealt with overarching concern from studios and internal Time Warner factions concerning harsh reviews and grades, he labored to insulate critics from top-down pressure. They never saw newsstand sales numbers; they were never made to consider how their grades were affecting circulation as a whole. And, according to a dozen longtime critics and editors of the magazine, no critic was ever asked to change a grade.
The editorial maxim was a simple one: Write the best story. Don’t worry about who owns the product, or even if it’s a popular one—just cover it in a way that’s compelling. That maxim was what gave EW its unique critical voice and, more importantly, its incredibly loyal readership. Over the course of the 90s and early 2000s, protecting that voice engendered more and more conglomerate animosity.
Speaking with EW employees from the time, three very different cover stories were mentioned again and again. Different topics, different reporting tactics—but all three angered conglomerate siblings and underlined the lengths to which EW editorial was willing to go to protect its critical distance.
The first cover, featuring ascendant pop star Jewel, hit newsstands in January, 1999. Jewel was coming off the huge success of her first album, “Pieces of You,” and in heavy promotional mode for her second album, “Spirit,” released by Time Warner-owned Atlantic Records. Jewel’s image was of a folksy, aimable girl who lived in the back of her van in Alaska, but the profile painted a different picture.
She’s having a hard time hiding her fatigue. She shuts her eyes. Burrows into the sofa. Yawns like a 7-Eleven security guard. (”I’m so tired,” she moans. ”How could one girl be so tired?”) Gripes about the press. ”A lot of people come to me and they read the press on me, they don’t listen to the record, and that’s the most annoying thing on the planet,” she says. ”Because you guys are taking copies of copies. You don’t have an original thought in your head.”
According to Jewel, the author was too shallow to understand her poetry. On the set of Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, she was a diva and “spoke to people like trash.” It might not have been flattering, but it wasn’t as if the tone and approach were some sort of newfangled journalistic invention. It wouldn’t look out of place in Rolling Stone—journalist goes to meet artist; talks about experience of meeting artist from first-person perspective—but Rolling Stone wasn’t, and isn’t, owned by a conglomerate that also owns the albums of the artist being interviewed.
The story significantly compromised Jewel’s image, and when Howard Stern read extensive sections of the profile aloud on the air, it only amplified the problem. Atlantic was so furious that it refused to provide advance product or answer fact-checking queries for reviews in the magazine. Forget synergy: the two realms of the Time Warner universe weren’t even speaking.
2. Wild Wild West
That was the music side of things. Over at Warner Bros., relations quickly became just as testy. As the industry geared up for the 1999 summer movie season, all the buzz was about Wild Wild West—the steampunk Western that reunited Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld with star Will Smith. That buzz, however, was all bad: overages, reshoots, bad scripts, the usual bombast. It was a tentpole film, though, and worthy of EW‘s attention—they’d just do it their way. Instead of covering the film itself, they’d cover the buzz as an almost sociological phenomenon: How does it start? Does it endure? And if a film like Titanic can weather horrible buzz and still go on to become one of the most successful films in history, does it even matter?
The author interviewed Sonnenfeld specifically about buzz and rumors, and was frank about the story’s angle. But when the piece hit, Warner Bros., and Sonnenfeld in particular, were so angry that the piece’s author was banned from all Warner lots for the next year. Warner Bros. called a meeting with Time Inc.’s Norman Pearlstine, surely expecting heads to roll. Instead, Pearlstine not only defended the journalistic integrity of EW‘s overarching mission, but countered with a veiled threat of his own: it’s not smart, people were told he said, to threaten people who buy ink by the barrel-full.
3. Harry Potter
Warner Bros. didn’t threaten EW, but it did give it the cold shoulder. In spring of 2001, production was ramping up on the Warner Bros. adaptation of the first Harry Potter book. EW wanted to peg an issue, if not more, to its release. Warner publicity had already promised exclusive access to EW‘s rival, Premiere.
Warner Bros. reticence might have been logical, but that didn’t mean that EW was about to let itself be scooped on one of the biggest stories of the year. Thus, a write-around. Warner had agreed to a brief interview for EW‘s Summer Preview Issue. EW made that into the foundation for the cover story. They then sent a writer to the UK to cobble together information about the production, meeting with people who happened to have a few pages of the script leftover from production, and arranging a long interview with Robbie Coltrane (who played Hagrid) ostensibly about another project, with some questions about his Harry Potter work on the side. The result was a cover story, but one obtained almost entirely outside the purview of the Warner Bros. publicity machine.
When Warner Bros. got word of the cover—which had a newsstand date of September 14th, 2001, so it really didn’t matter anyway—they were, yet again, livid. But the flare-ups over the Jewel, Wild Wild West, and Potter covers were more than just internal scuffles. Together, they illuminated how little progress had been made in turning Time Warner into a truly integrated outfit. Since the merger, the company line at Warner was “we’re all family,” usually employed to encourage Time to wield their magazines as promotional vehicles. Time Inc.’s counter was “we’re all journalists.” EW was only family when Warners needed something.
EW might have been burning bridges internally, but those were the golden age of the magazine: Reviews were long and substantial, and writers regularly took risks featuring shows, like “The X-Files” (first cover March, 1995) or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (first cover March, 1998) that were at the time lost in the primetime shuffle. The annual “Power Issue” was the very best sort of inside baseball, and in the days before “teaser trailers” and Twitpics on-set, the seasonal movie previews read like real insider revelations.
As a teen, I loved the magazine’s willingness to forcefully like and dislike things, a quality I rarely saw in media coverage that made its way to backwater Idaho. I liked that books received almost as much coverage as any other medium, and I loved parsing the differences between Video Rentals and Sales and feeling smart for doing so. EW might not have been doing exactly what Time Warner needed or wanted it to do. Fine: Let Disney trumpet their perfect synergies.
But these were also the halcyon days of the media industries at large, when the Internet was still a slow, usually dial-up force that even some middle-class EW subscribers did without. In late 2001, only half of American households had computers and Internet connections at home, after all. Things would never be the same, or as good, again.
The rise of digital technologies might not have “changed everything,” but it did highlight who had the agility and foresight to to change gears, and who’d be left playing catch-up.
Starting in 1994, Time Warner had begun making content from its magazines available online via its new portal, Pathfinder. Apart from a smattering of reader’s polls, chat rooms, and links to the websites of other Time Warner properties, these sites simply reproduced content already available in the magazine. The “internet people,” as writers at the magazine referred to them, hid in a corner of the offices and had no interaction with editorial—an afterthought, little more.
In an ill-advised attempt at unifying the conglomerate brand, Time Warner refused to allow products to have a non-Pathfinder domain name. To reach EW, for example, users had to visit http://www.pathfinder.com/ew—and this was before the discovery dominance of search engines and social media.
At Entertainment Weekly, editors were also attempting to keep readers up to speed with digital developments. Starting in 1998, an EW supplement dubbed “EW Internet” began providing “a guide to Web-surfing and samplings of cool hardware.” EW readers were clearly using and buying new media technology, and “dot.com” advertising in the magazine exploded from $500,000 to $10 million between 1998 and 1999. Yet EW and Time Warner clearly misunderstood the online market: A digital insert might cater to readers who were using tech, but it failed to expand the EW brand. Instead of using the web as an opportunity for convergence, building a unique web presence that would simultaneously funnel traffic to Time Warner sites and increase readership, Time Warner was essentially offering a hyperlinked version of the print magazine. By 1999, Pathfinder had proven an expensive failure, draining $8 million a year from Time Warner’s bottom line.
Time Warner’s miscalculaion with EW.com was by no means unique. In the mid- and late -90s, only the most visionary of executives were advocating for web content that served a convergent and profitable purpose. Yet the E! Network—once owned by Time Warner, but ceded to Comcast and Disney in a complex arrangement—had been cultivating a unique, complementary web presence for the channel since January 1996, when the channel had joined with CNET to create E! Online.
The site went live in August of 1996, before Comcast and Disney took control. Under the new management, E! head Rich Frank championed the online component when few other networks, programs or publications were developing original online content, encouraging the channel to buy out CNET’s 50% in June 1997. (Update: Rich Frank actually came on two years after the site launch; Jarl Mohn, now head of NPR, teamed with CNET for the launch.) Six months later, monthly ad billings had increased from $25,000 to $160,000—a figure that would rise exponentially with the spread of the Internet.
E!’s prescience in the online arena cannot be underestimated: When People, US, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” Entertainment Weekly and a host of other entertainment news providers were content with rudimentary home pages, E! understood that an online component could not simply recycle material available to viewers, and E! Online offered 90% new material.
Time Warner needed a big move, the type of move that only a massive conglomerate could pull off. The problem, however, was their big move was way too late: in January of 2000, Time Warner bought AOL for $164 billion. It was, at the time, the leading internet service provider in the real world. Time Inc. had already declined to buy AOL, in late 1993. The price then had been $300 million. Still, the move, again, seemed primed to provide the type of web-based synergy and convergence that had thus far eluded the conglomerate.
It was what New York Times media columnist David Carr would later call “the worst merger in business history.” As the dot.com bubble burst, hopes for AOL Time Warner as a multimedia behemoth quickly disintegrated. Animosity was widespread, especially as across the board cuts forced layoffs, decimated employee stock options, and, as the Times pointed out, the end of free Snapple in the Time Inc. office.
At the same time, The WB Network was languishing in sixth place, and the most profitable Warner Bros. film of the year, The Perfect Storm, lacked franchise or ancillary potential. Along with music and cable ad sales, ratings for “Friends,” a Warner Bros Television production, were down, and People, the most profitable of the magazine group, was about to face a formidable threat in the form of a newly redesigned US Weekly, reinvigorated by a cash infusion from Disney. At the beginning of a new decade, AOL Time Warner was at war on all fronts.
The solution: more forced synergy, both at EW and across the conglomerate line, as well as a dramatic change in Time Inc. culture, with significant effect on the look, feel, and future of Entertainment Weekly. When John Huey was named the Time Inc. Editorial Director in 2001, he did more than suggest a few additional synergies: He gradually but forcefully altered the way the magazine group had run for the last eighty years.
When Henry R. Luce founded Time in 1923, he established a culture in which educated white men (most, at least originally, from Princeton) collaborated to produce magazines for people who looked and thought much like them. Once you were in the Time Inc. family, you could stay for life, gradually making your way up the editorial chain in a model David Carr likened to “an editorial civil service.”
Huey, however, disrupted all of that. Two years into his tenure as editorial director, Sports Illustrated, People, InStyle, Business 2.0, People en Espanol, Real Simple, and Teen People would all have new leadership. But it was his hiring decision at Entertainment Weekly that truly made waves. In July 2002, rumors of James Seymore’s exit began to circulate. He’d guided EW to significant success over his dozen years at the head of the magazine, but he was an aging boomer and, as Mediaweek put it, the magazine had grown “somewhat predictable.” Yet when it came time to choose a successor, Huey passed over four obvious choices within the EW editorial staff, preferring his longtime protege and Fortune deputy managing editor Rick Tetzeli, who had reportedly penned an epic memo, circulated amongst higher-ups, articulating his vision for the magazine.
The EW staff was at once surprised and angry. Tetzeli had done well at Fortune, but he didn’t understand or even seem to particularly like pop culture. Unlike Seymore, who’d cultivated a lively culture of debate amongst staffers, Tetzeli sparred with those who disagreed with him, and women in particular, resulting in a high turnover rate. Just before his arrival, over the summer of 2002, EW had undergone a subtle rebranding—including a massive ad campaign that trumpeted the magazine as “Film Lovers. Not Ass Kissers”— with the explicit and ambitious goal of upping its 26th place ranking in ad pages to the top ten.
But by December 2002, Time Warner corporate laid down the law: It was time to get serious about synergy. No more complaining about AOL; no more uppity resistance in the name of journalistic integrity. Don Logan, head of the Time Inc. magazine division, and Jeff Bewkes, head of HBO—both of whom had been outspokenly critical of forced attempts at synergy after the AOL merger—were now explicitly tasked with implementing widespread synergy across their divisions. AOL creative director Mark Golin was put “on loan” to Time Inc. with a mandate to create “genuine and immediate cooperation between the divisions.”
At EW, this, ironically, meant moving away from features on a specific events, like movie releases, and towards “general interest” pieces. No more covers on a movie, like Hulk, that provided little to no promotion for AOL Time Warner products. In their place came flashy covers like “Britney Spears: Nobody’s Angel” (Rolling Stone-esque tour journalism), “Springsteen Talks,” and “The Dixie Chicks Come Clean.”
Tetzeli also simplified and streamlined the cover, aiming for a layout that provided an “easier, sexier read”—coded language for fewer words, more images, and less content. He revamped the monthly music supplement to include tech, comics, and video games, broadening the magazine’s synergistic potential.
And slowly, synergies did begin to materialize: In May 2003, 500,000 of EW‘s “most loyal” readers received a bound Lord of the Rings collectors issue to promote the franchise, produced by Time Warner-owned New Line. Later that year, a four-minute EW-produced “5 to Watch” began airing on AOL’s Television section. But other high-profile collaborations did nothing for the Time Warner bottom line: In 2005, editors collaborated with Rainbow Media-owned AMC for one-hour EW-branded specials (like “20: Entertainment Weekly’s Scariest Movies”). In 2006, Viacom-owned VH1 began airing “The World Series of Pop Culture.”
What do all these new products have in common? That you’ve never heard of them. Maybe that’s because watching them felt like watching the “entertainment news” that airs before the previews at the movie theater: You hate yourself for even finding it moderately interesting. You’ll tolerate it, but you’ll never actively seek it out.
From 2003 to 2008, EW went through five publishers in five years, an internal reflection of the magazine’s floundering attempts to remain relevant as the means of producing, distributing, and consuming the media that EW covered shifted dramatically.
And every blow to the entertainment industry at large—the television writer’s strike in 2007 and 2008, the rapid decline in DVD sales—bruised EW as well. If EW‘s overarching purpose was to inform readers as to the best in television, for example, the complete lack of new television made that a problem.
By 2008, EW—along with the majority of Time Inc. magazines—had been suffering for years. In the first quarter of 2009, Entertainment Weekly had almost exactly half as many ads as it did in the first quarter of 2007. (Half of Time Inc.’s revenue now is from advertising; one-third of its revenue is from subscription and newsstand. Notably, 19% of all Time Inc. revenues flow from People magazine.)
And Time Inc. wasn’t bolstering growth, but hindering it. Time Warner executives thus made a drastic move: In addition to cutting 6% of the Time Inc. workforce (over 600 positions), Time Inc. would undergo a massive reorganization meant to bolster its flagship publications (Sports Illustrated, People, Time, Fortune), especially online. Before, each magazine staff operated somewhat autonomously; from then on, magazines would be grouped under one of three divisions, sharing writers and resources.
It could have been EW‘s death knell. Coverage of the layoffs noted that the magazine had “suffered a severe downturn” and was likely to be “whittled down” under the newly devised structure. The magazine limped on.
New publisher Scott Donaton, a transplant from Advertising Age, worked to recenter the publication, reproducing much of the rhetoric used by Jarvis at the time of the magazine’s launch: “We’re a category of one,” he explained. “We’re not a celebrity magazine; we’re an entertainment magazine”—a brand that promised to “help you make the most of your entertainment time,” not show you that celebrities are “just like us.”
No more People-like photo spreads of actors on the Red Carpet. All photography would be “character- and performance-based”—think photoshoots of the “Lost” cast, or James Gandolfini in character as Tony Soprano. Donaton and Tetzeli’s goal, however, was different than Jarvis’s: By refocusing the magazine on performances—instead of of personalities—he was also tethering it to tangible products. And the more Time Warner-affiliated they were, the better.
2008 was also the year of what one staffer called the “fatal” redesign, which eliminated “running type” and divided each page into pre-set boxes.
Before a review ran as long as it needed to be; now, they were chopped to fit. Suddenly the editorial was being modified to accommodate the art, not the other way around, resulting in a wholesale dumbing down of the magazine at large.
Mid-recession, EW looked likely to get the axe. But again, EW pulled through. Jess Cagle replaced Tetzeli in 2009 and is widely credited with “perking up” the magazine, likely even saving it from a planned death. In practice, “perking up” meant less analysis, more lists, and fewer pages overall—going, as one long-time subscriber described it, from a “robust magazine to an interesting pamphlet.” The magazine had to cover mega-franchises, naturally, which were only growing in Hollywood power, and so Twilight covers, which sold like crazy on the newsstand, begat more Twilight covers. This well-served one audience while alienating another. Instead of helping to create reader taste, coverage of the huge franchises was chasing taste. For every Melissa McCarthy cover or humor piece penned by Ryan Reynolds, there was Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Breaking Dawn.
Some would suggest it wasn’t the content, but the delivery system: Who wants to pay for a magazine, delivered once a week, when you can find deeper, more visual, more immediate content online and for free?
But that’s too simple of an explanation of EW‘s slow decline. Much of print has suffered over the last twenty years, but other publications—The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Us Weekly, among others— have figured out how to turn things about. Also, all three of those publications are outside of conglomerate control: The New Yorker and Vanity Fair serve Condé Nast, but apart from a few in-kind advertisements and packaged sales, the editorial aim of The New Yorker is to sell The New Yorker, not other Condé Nast properties. Same with the Wenner Media-owned Us Weekly: When Disney bought a 50% interest in 2001, it provided a much-needed cash infusion, but it also caused endless fights over editorial content, so, in 2006, Wenner bought out Disney’s interest and continued its decade-plus battle with People. In an interesting sidebar, during Janice Min’s reign at Us Weekly from 2002 to 2009, her adversary was People; now, as co-president of The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, one of her most obvious targets is Entertainment Weekly.
Nine EW Covers That Should Never Have Existed
From the beginning, Time Warner wanted Entertainment Weekly to serve a utilitarian purpose: Like an entertainment news program, it would provide the glue that kept the conglomerate artifice together. But no journalist wants to be glue—and it was the tension between Warner and AOL’s push towards seamless all-encompassing integration and Time Inc’s journalistic maxims that troubled the magazine from the start.
Disney makes synergy work because they swallow their acquisitions whole: There has never been, and never will be, a hyphen after Disney’s name. But Time has merged, and merged again—and struggled, and struggled again. The dream of a fully synergistic conglomerate remains a beautiful capitalistic theory that sputters in practice.
Over the last five years, Viacom, Newscorp, and Time Warner have all spun off media properties once believed fundamental to conglomerate visions of perfect synergy. And as ironic as it might be to spin-off the organization whose name makes up half of the conglomerate brand, it shouldn’t come as a surprise: Revenues at Time Inc. were down 32 percent between 2008 and 2012, while revenue from Time Warner’s other lucrative properties, including its cable service and cable channels, has soared. At the same time, companies like Time Warner deal with income downturns by slashing away at the very staff that helps make the product viable, creating a downward spiral of trying to do more with less, keeping the staff permanently terrorized between waves of layoffs.
Once foundational, foundational no more—and without the support of the rest of the conglomerate to prop up continued losses, “it’s sort of put up or shut up time,” at least in the words of Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who framed the spin-off as an opportunity to “really test the hypothesis that people will pay for great content and great journalism.”
Perhaps. Since news of the spin-off, new CEO Joseph Ripp also announced plans to further “decentralize” editorial operations, meaning every individual magazine editor will now report to the president of their respective “groups” (Style & Entertainment, Lifestyle, and News and Sports). With this mandate, Time Inc. editor-in-chief Martha Nelson—creator of InStyle and responsible for the resurgence of People in the early 2000s—announced her resignation. What’s more, the years of cuts under Time Warner have left most titles—and Entertainment Weekly in particular—shells of their former selves. The month before the spin-off announcement, longtime columnist Lisa Schwarzbaum took a buy-out, and Ken Tucker was laid off. Schwarzbaum had been with EW for 22 years, Ken Tucker for 23.
And then, amidst rumors of Jess Cagle’s imminent firing, a curveball: Cagle would not be fired, which relieved staffers, but he would replace People‘s top editor Larry Hackett, while also maintaining a role as EW‘s editorial director. A cost-cutting move? An attempt to facilitate communications and brand management? Or the beginning of the end—for EW in particular and Time Inc., at least in its print iteration, in general? The editorship of EW was a hard role to fill, but this February, a candidate was selected: Matt Bean, the former managing editor of Sports Illustrated’s website.
In April, as Bean settled in, more layoffs and buyouts took place, including Owen Gleiberman, executive editor Jason Adams, who took a buyout, and deputy managing editor Jeff Giles, leaving the existing team even more demoralized. Its sprawling Manhattan office, once overflowing, can feel like a ghost town. For a magazine with a rate base of 1.725 million readers, the actual number of people making the magazine was growing thin.
And some answers were presented about the future. Just before they got rid of Owen Gleiberman, EW trumpeted the launch of “The Community,” a blog “featuring superfans with passion and unique voices” recruited from the blog’s readership. In other words: a way for EW to exploit the labor of fans, students, and other aspiring bloggers who’ll write for free, a model made notorious by The Bleacher Report. The Bleacher Report was, incidentally, purchased two years ago by Turner Broadcasting System, a division of Time Warner which also has owned The Smoking Gun, for about $200 million.
The Community model will create editorial “content” for the magazine’s website, but it also deeply compromises the editorial standards of the magazine and, as The Week‘s Scott Meslow wrote, sets a “deeply troubling” precedent for the future of media journalism. The idea of working for free for Time Inc., which had $3.35 billion in gross revenue, and $337 million in pre-tax operating income, in 2013, seems beyond absurd. The magazine online, it seems, is becoming a well-disguised version of a user-generated blog, with incisive reviews, in-depth profiles, and industry commentary either supplemented or supplanted by fan service.
The formula that made the original EW great was, in truth, incredibly simple: Take the stuff usually relegated to the trades—the industry gossip, the frank reviews, the insider access, everything—and put it in a package that people outside of the industry would want to read and, in the process, make even a teenager from Idaho feel not only like she was a fan, but invested and knowledgeable about the industry at large. Today, that appealing package remains, but only to cloak content that’s not only toothless, but sometimes insulting in its superficiality.
And then, in one of its first acts as an independent company, Time Inc. promised to somehow cut 25% more of its editorial costs. The company already incurred $63 million in “restructuring and severance” costs in 2013. Expect more of the same this year—much more: at least $150 million, and that’s just in the first half of 2014.
There’s no simple or singular means of explaining why publications thrive or die. Entertainment Weekly rose and declined with larger waves affecting the entertainment and publishing industries at large, but its story is more than just that of print media at the turn of the century. That might be the environment, but the larger narrative is that of widespread deregulation in terms of media ownership and the resultant flurry of mergers, acquisitions, and conglomerate masterplanning.
The easier it is to acquire, the story went, and the bigger a conglomerate could become, the better it’d be—both in terms of product and earning potential. EW was born of that philosophy, but it’ll likely also die with it, rendered obsolete by the rise of lean, independent publications and those, like Grantland, which has, solely by the effect of its star editor, inoculated itself from conglomerate-mandated synergy-minded oversight, while actually benefitting in both readership and revenue from being attached to a larger publication.
If I were a teen in Idaho today, I wouldn’t need Entertainment Weekly. I’d have Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and BitTorrent to provide me with all the content, criticism and community I needed. Faced with that highly-personalized, completely free, wholly participatory form of entertainment “news,” ideas like “synergy” become increasingly meaningless. The inability to understand that, more than any sort of mismanagement or interior squabbling or decrease in quality content, is what afflicted Entertainment Weekly, crippled Time Inc., and destroyed the dream of an all-dominating Time Warner.
Anne Helen Petersen has an actual Ph.D. in celebrity gossip and writes longform pieces for BuzzFeed. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin in September.