New Approach at TV Guide : Split With Murdoch Over Content Sends Latest Editor Packing

Times Staff Writer

David Sendler, for many years the editor most responsible for the journalistic content of TV Guide, resigned Thursday after what insiders described as a dramatic change in the direction of the magazine since it was acquired last year by Rupert Murdoch.

Publicly, Murdoch had made assurances that he would not change TV Guide when he bought it and parent Triangle Publications last November for $3 billion.

But on the day he took over, according to insiders, Murdoch privately told management that he thought TV Guide was “too cerebral” and set out to change that.

He installed a shadow editor above Sendler, Roger Wood, the former editor of the sensational New York Post under Murdoch. Wood’s name does not appear in the magazine’s staff masthead.

Since then, Murdoch and Wood have added an astrology column, a soap opera column, food features and more celebrity covers--including a controversial cover recently that put Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann-Margret’s body.


“It was not David Sendler’s idea that TV Guide needed an astrologer,” said John Weisman, the magazine’s former Washington bureau chief, who resigned in July.

“It just became obvious to both Roger Wood and Dave that they were on such different paths that it didn’t make sense to continue,” said Bob Smith, the former managing editor of the magazine, who resigned in May.

“Dave was struggling for a long time to hold the line . . . against the diminution or eradication of standards or editorial integrity” said one TV Guide staff member who asked for anonymity, “and he lost.”

Sendler declined to comment beyond a prepared statement that read: “We have had differences, but I have the highest respect for the professionalism of the Murdoch Magazines people and wish them all the best in their efforts for TV Guide.”

Wood was unavailable for comment, as were all other TV Guide executives. In a prepared statement, magazine President Joseph Wm. Cece praised Sendler’s tenure and noted that he would remain associated with the magazine as “consulting editor.”

Cece also said the search for a new editor would begin immediately.

Sendler, who in his 13 years at the magazine held various top editing positions, is widely credited with transforming TV Guide in the late 1970s and early 1980s into a serious journalistic enterprise. Before that, said former TV Guide writer Roderick Townley, it was largely “a fan magazine.”

Sendler started assigning writers to cover TV as a social phenomenon, recruiting such authors as William Styron to write stories and sending staff reporters to places such as Lebanon to write about how American television covered the Palestinians.

An expose in TV Guide revealed that CBS News had violated its own standards of ethics in the production of a documentary about Vietnam, which ultimately led to the unsuccessful libel suit by retired Gen. William Westmoreland against the network.

“Overall, the philosophy had been some kind of balance between the lighter celebrity profiles and the serious journalism about the TV industry,” said former managing editor Smith.

“Ever since the Murdochians took over in November,” Smith said, “it became clear that this balance was no longer really desirable.”

Wood, the editorial director of Murdoch’s magazine division, has referred to the more serious pieces as “editorials,” suggesting something dull and preachy, staff members said, and instructed staff that he didn’t want them.

Instead, Wood has told staff members, he wants the magazine “to be fun,” and he wanted to have fun putting it out.

Since then, a story appeared about Geraldo Rivera’s tattoos. Elvis Presley appeared on one cover. The magazine ran a feature about foods to eat while watching your favorite TV shows, including one called “Koppel’s cocoa.”

Staffers also cited two specific incidents that they said have hurt morale.

One was the hiring as associate editor of Joanna Elm, who is the wife of one of the magazine’s circulation directors, Joseph F. Elm. According to Smith, she is paid for out of separate funds, and Sendler had no say in her hiring.

“She just wasn’t the kind of person we would have dreamed of hiring,” Smith said. “That was a big clue to me that we weren’t running the magazine except when they wanted us to.”

Another event that caused ripples was when an editor from the Star, a Murdoch-owned supermarket tabloid, was brought in and took over the editing of a story about the love life of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.

Murdoch has made other editorial changes as well, which even longtime staff members have praised, including greatly shortening the time between the magazine’s closing and its actual publication. Murdoch and Wood also have added more pictures to the magazine.

Yet Murdoch has not done the one thing most critics worried about, insiders said. He has not used TV Guide to give any favor to his fledgling TV enterprise, the Fox network.