Lean times ahead for listings titles

It’s difficult to believe that the Radio Times/TV Times duopoly existed just seven years ago.

But in that short time the TV listings magazine market has effectively reached saturation point and even some of the better-known titles were either stagnant or struggling in the last ABC figures published in January.

Consumers can now choose from four paid-for weekly TV listings magazines in the UK, as well as additional fortnightly and monthly titles. And, if they don’t want to invest in a dedicated title, they get one free anyway with their Saturday papers.

However, the spectre of digital TV looms and is bound to make additional waves in an already troubled market. Electronic programme guides (EPGs) will give viewers exhaustive and interactive access to programme information across both digital and analogue systems.

“There is a big problem with TV listings titles,” says Mediacom’s business development director Jane Ratcliffe. “If you are operating in the weeklies market which is in decline, you have to ask what do you do with it? You’ve got to offer readers another reason to buy.”

IPC, which publishes three TV listings titles, is bullish about the sector, despite the fact that TV Times took a ten per cent dive in the last ABCs for July to December 1997 and despite the demise of its Film and TV Week last March. The company’s seven-year-old celebrity-led What’s On TV magazine bucked the trend and saw a circulation rise of 1.1 per cent.

IPC says that it is looking at a number of launches in the TV weeklies sector and it has also revealed that it is planning to use an advertising agency to promote TV Times and other titles in its TV weeklies stable.

So how does a major player such as TV Times set about reversing the decline?

“I think the logic for these publications is to stop thinking of themselves as listings magazines and to start thinking of themselves as entertainment titles,” says one source close to IPC. “In some ways they are in a strong position. TV listings magazines are seen as specialist and less sensationalist than the tabloids. The consumer perceives them as official titles because they have access to TV stations, which gives them more credibility than the tabloids and a greater depth of coverage.”

The only women’s weekly titles to retain their shine in the last ABCs were the glossy photo weeklies such as Hello! and OK!. This growth market is one publishers such as IPC must be eyeing with envy. Adapting the idea of a celebrity, photo-led format must be appealing.

Ratcliffe endorses the celebrity route as a key to success. “If you look at the circulation figures for OK!, Hello! and Now magazine, these titles are certainly nowhere near saturation point. Publishers have got to understand how the consumer is changing and there could be room for a celebrity-led (TV listings) title,” says Ratcliffe.

IPC admits that it has put more emphasis on celebrity. “TV Times embarked on a major redevelopment programme in September,” says Sly Grice, managing director for TV Weeklies at IPC. “We have improved the listings pages and made them easier to read. We have also put more of a focus on news and exclusive stories. And, yes, we have put a strong emphasis on celebrity stories.”

Reinvention is one of the priorities for TV listings magazines. The other is digital and the launch of electronic programme guides.

Grice claims the advent of digital will be a major opportunity for established titles. Far from taking away from their market, buyers and publishers argue that an electronic-based programming guide will be another way of building the brand. And IPC is not the only company looking at ways to exploit electronic programming guides.

With so many channels to choose from, consumers will be looking for guidance from an authoritative source either in the form of a magazine or guide or both, a view echoed by Jackie Almeida, director at the media agency CIA Medianetwork.

“I think digital is going to be the biggest thing to hit the market since the deregulation of TV listings in 1991 and I see this as a fantastic opportunity for companies which are pro-active,” says Almeida. “What I’d like to see is more brand extensions so that titles can harness the convergence of different media.

“With the multitude of channels on offer, consumers are going to be asking which title is best placed to guide them through the maze.”

However, whether the guides that will be launched will have an immediate impact on the market remains to be seen. Ratcliffe is sceptical over the short term.

“People are just not that technologically aware – just think of the Internet and how many people actually use it. I really think it’s been talked up and Mr and Mrs Bloggs are not going to be converted overnight.”

However, the consensus is that a saturated market and the advent of a new medium to supply listings will, in the long-term, produce casualties in the listings market.

The titles that successfully reinvent themselves and grasp the opportunity of digital are likely to be the only survivors.

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