When Time, Inc. launched People Magazine in 1974, the leading afternoon talk television show, Donahue, brought considered debate about important issues into the nation's living rooms and the leading national daily newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, brought serious news to the nation's doorsteps. People defined the personality-driven style that paved the way for confessional, emotional—often exhibitionistic—television talk shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1980s, and later, the Jerry Springer Show, to lead afternoon ratings. People's reliance on images rather than insightful text anticipated USA Today's visual, less wordy, approach to news in the 1980s and subsequent ascendance to the top position among daily newspapers in the United States. Striving to capture the intimate and everyday lives of celebrities and the occasionally astonishing lives of everyday people, People further disintegrated the line between entertainment and news, bringing the personal into the public space.
Time, Inc. conceived People as a replacement for its weekly magazine Life that had ceased weekly publication in 1972. Life covered the grand sweep of world events and the people causing them or caught up in them. It also reported on everyday people, doing everyday things. Life lavished many pages and many large or full-page, artful photos on a story. A Life story celebrated what made a hero heroic or what made a great event epic—such as coverage of Winston Churchill's funeral or the passing of a U.S. Navy submarine beneath the polar ice cap. It would examine the commonplace with such stories as a detailed account of a day in the life of a small town or what different people in different parts of the country were doing at the exact moment a joke was told on television. This was all reported, sometimes whimsically, but always in a serious journalistic style.
People instead focused on what made public figures seem more like regular people and what made regular people noteworthy. Instead of reporting the great public triumphs of public figures, People would report the common personal problems such as divorce or addiction, that they overcame to attain their oft-reported triumphs. This novel formula was described as "extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things." People's appearance on the media landscape was consistent with changes in the way Americans perceived public figures. Observes Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, "it is not the social order so much as an individual's own emotional problems that are conquered" in the new media spotlight. According to Braudy, the media is now "more likely to stress a victory over alcoholism or personal tragedy than it is to sketch a Lincolnesque rise from poverty."
Years before People, fanzines had been trading in gossip and intimate stories about celebrities, relating their favorite recipes, likes and dislikes, or how they relaxed at home. And tabloids such as the National Enquirer had long reported on celebrity gossip and the freakish events that could happen to everyday people. But fanzines and tabloids were not published by as respected a journalistic institution as Time, Inc. People was designed, graphically and editorially, to look conventional, respectable, and mainstream. While the tabloids and fanzines historically made no pretenses of "respectability," People treated the reporting of intimate information about stars and everyday people as a perfectly legitimate undertaking. People also expanded the boundaries of celebrity beyond the movie, television, and music stars of the fanzines and the freaks of the tabloids to include religious leaders, business people, fashion designers, models, athletes, and politicians.
People drew on the conventions of television, adopting its visual treatment to news and working within strict constraints of space. By the 1970s, news was beginning to be treated more and more as entertainment, as dramatized in the movie Network. This was evidenced by the signing of Barbara Walters as an ABC Nightly News co-anchor for a record setting $1 million, as much for her celebrity status as for her reporting skills. Like television, People treated news as another branch of entertainment, but it also reported celebrity gossip and stories as valid news. Life had already shown that a magazine could be a collection of pictures, narrated by text. However, where traditional print journalism would allow one, or a few, images to sometimes dramatically stand alone to tell a story, People instead adopted television's visual language, displaying a blizzard of many images, none standing dramatically alone.
Financially, People found immediate success, selling over 120 million copies in its first two years. The first national weekly magazine to be launched since Sports Illustrated 20 years earlier, People became profitable within 18 months. The company's flagship weekly publication, Time, had taken three years to become profitable. Sports Illustrated had taken ten. The news establishment was not as receptive as the average consumer. Said William Safire in the New York Times, " People fails on its own tawdry terms." Tom Donnelly of The Washington Post declared "It will tax none but the shortest attention spans and it is so undemanding that it can be read while the TV commercials are on. It is the reading equivalent of those 'convenience foods.' …" People was represented no better in popular culture. To indicate that a character in the movie The Big Chill had completely sold out his 1960s idealism, he is shown lamenting his life as a writer for People, where, he complains, the length of his articles are constrained by the length of time readers spend in the bathroom.
Initially the magazine was not sold by subscription and the cover was crucial in generating copy sales. The staff developed a set of rules for magazine covers based on its experience with sales figures:
Young is better than old.
Pretty is better than ugly.
TV is better than music.
Music is better than movies.
Movies are better than sports.
And anything is better than a politician.
And nothing is better than the celebrity dead.
People's readership was about two-thirds female and experience proved that covers showing women sold more copies than did those with men. In the magazine's first 25 years, Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, (former Duchess) Sarah Ferguson, John Travolta, and Madonna were among the most frequent cover subjects. Best-selling covers included tributes to John Lennon, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Princess Diana, soon after their deaths.
People examined anything and everything through the lens of personalities. Every story was anchored to a person or group of people, and generally concerned the more intimate details of their lives. This approach of covering the personality more than the event began to filter into other media properties. This was reflected not only in the rise of "softer" shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and Jerry Springer Show, or the launch of USA Today. It was not even limited to the proliferation of tabloid shows such as A Current Affair or the numerous celebrity gossip shows of the 1980s and 1990s such as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. Beyond mere imitators such as Us, People changed the mainstream, "serious" media. In the 1980s and 1990s, most newspapers developed a "style" or "people" section to report on celebrity news and human interest. These newspapers were more and more likely to report on rumor, stars, and scandal in their news sections. Newsweeklies such as Time and Newsweek increased their coverage of celebrities and personalities. When, in 1997, sportscaster Marv Albert pled guilty to minor sex crimes committed in private, off the job, the respected paper of record, the New York Times reported it on the front page, as news.
The influence of People stretches not merely to the dozens of new outlets for celebrity gossip and intimate confession in its wake, but the legitimization of personality journalism in the mainstream press and the introduction of the intimate and personal into the public realm. People is the emblem of American celebrity culture and its public intimacy.
Braudy, Leo. The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Hamblin, Dora Jane. That was the Life: The Upstairs Downstairs behind-the-Doors Story of America's Favorite Magazine. New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Kessler, Judy. Inside People: The Stories behind the Stories. New York, Villard Books, 1994.
Krajicek, David J. Scooped!: Media Miss Real Story on Crime while Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities. New York, Columbia University Press, 1998.
Schickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. Garden City, Doubleday, 1985.
peo·ple / ˈpēpəl/ • pl. n. 1. human beings in general or considered collectively: the earthquake killed 30,000 people. ∎ (the people) the citizens of a country, esp. when considered in relation to those who govern them: his economic reforms no longer have the support of the people. ∎ (the people) those without special rank or position in society; the populace: he is very much a man of the people. ∎ (one's people) a person's parents or relatives: my people live in West Virginia. ∎ (one's people) the supporters or employees of a person in a position of power or authority: I've had my people watching the house for some time now. ∎ (the People) the state prosecution in a trial: pretrial statements made by the People's witnesses.2. (pl. peo·ples) [treated as sing. or pl.] the men, women, and children of a particular nation, community, or ethnic group: the native peoples of Canada.• v. [tr.] (usu. be peopled) (of a particular group of people) inhabit (an area or place): an arid mountain region peopled by warring clans. ∎ fill or be present in (a place, environment, or domain): the street is peopled with ragamuffined hippies. ∎ fill (an area or place) with a particular group of inhabitants: it was his intention to people the town with English colonists.DERIVATIVES: peo·ple·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n. (sense 2 of the noun ).
Founded in 1974 as part of the Time-Life publishing empire, People magazine, a mass-circulation weekly magazine, helped define the way journalists and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) talk shows covered celebrities and other prominent figures. It has successfully occupied a position above the more sensational gossip tabloids while
maintaining a lively, graphic image that makes ample use of photographs and exclusive interviews. The magazine has sometimes been criticized for blurring the distinction between hard news and entertainment, but it has established itself as one of the most widely read U.S. magazines.
Time, Inc. originally conceived People as a replacement for Life (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), which had ceased weekly publication in 1972. Instead of reporting exclusively on the artistic or political achievements of important public figures, People focused on their triumphs over personal adversities, such as divorce or addiction, a formula its editors described as "extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things." The magazine appeared during the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, at a point in American life when the private lives of public figures were no longer considered off-limits to mainstream journalists. Unlike the scandal sheets, which relied on gossip and sensationalism, People wrote about the weaknesses of celebrities and politicians in a serious, if informal, manner. It also redefined the boundaries of "celebrity" beyond show business to include business people, politicians, athletes, and even religious leaders.
People followed the lead of the TV industry in treating news as another form of entertainment. Since the magazine was initially sold on newsstands only and not by subscription, its editors devoted special attention each week to finding an attractive cover subject, with an emphasis on youth, beauty, power, and glamorous sex appeal. Some of People's best-selling issues depicted cover shots of John Lennon (1940–1980), Princess Grace (Grace Kelly, 1929–1984), and Princess Diana (1961–1997) just after they had died. People is credited with having influenced other mainstream newspapers and magazines to devote more coverage to news items and features about celebrities, and of paving the way for TV shows like A Current Affair and Entertainment Tonight as well as talk shows by Oprah Winfrey (1954–) and Jerry Springer (1944–).
For More Information
Kessler, Judy. Inside People: The Stories Behind the Stories. New York: Villard Books, 1994.
People.com.http://people.aol.com/people/index.html (accessed March 27, 2002).
People of the Book people adhering to a book of divine revelation; in particular, Jews and Christians as regarded by Muslims.
See also opium of the people, tribune of the people, the voice of the people.
So vb. XV. — (O)F. peupler.
The aggregate of the individuals who comprise a state or a nation.
In a more restricted sense, as generally used in constitutional law, the entire body of those citizens of a state or a nation who are invested with political power for political purposes (the qualified voters).