Can Time Out win fight for survival?

Time Out relaunches today in a smaller guise and with a London focus, but it will take more than a new look to overcome the competition

Time Out, the entertainment bible for Londoners, has come a long way since its launch in 1968 as a single, A5 fold-out sheet costing one shilling and with a print run of 5,000 copies. But its position is under threat as competition comes thick and fast from print and other media.

Struggling circulation figures have prompted Time Out to go back to its roots and change its format to a more “portable” size. The new format, measuring 273 mm x 206 mm (not quite as small as the Condé Nast’s Glamour A5 magazine) came out yesterday (27 February 2002) (MW last week).

The magazine, priced £2.20, has a weekly circulation of 84,486 – 37,573 copies less than The Big Issue and 270,818 less than EMAP’s Heat. The latter was initially launched as an entertainment and listings title and not as a celebrity-driven women’s weekly.

The new format will coincide with a new title – Time Out London – in line with branding in other territories, such as Time Out New York. The rebranding will be supported by a poster and radio campaign created by a freelancer and by Radioville respectively. Media buying and planning is through Total Media.

MediaCom group press director Steve Goodman points out that the magazine’s circulation reached a peak in the mid-Nineties, when its top figure reached 110,496 according to the January to June 1995 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABCs), and circulation has been falling ever since. However, he is not sure of the new format and says that the smaller size only means trimming it down slightly for cost savings.

According to the July to December 2001 ABCs, Time Out dipped 2.5 per cent compared with the same period in 2000 and 6.9 per cent year on year. But the magazine is trying hard to stop the slide with various promotions tied in with the smaller format. The March 6 issue will carry a discount card valid for one month, offering readers 50 per cent off a variety of London venues and attractions.

Time Out group marketing director Christine Cort says that given the present conditions of the magazine market, Time Out is holding its own and adds: “The revamp and redesign are wholly geared to increasing sales.”

The magazine has also lost its younger readers in the last couple of years to showbiz-focused titles such as Heat and IPC’s Now. The January to December 1995 to 2001 National Readership Survey shows that, last year, Time Out had only 13.5 per cent of 18to 24-year-olds as its readers, as opposed to 25.2 per cent in 1995.

According to an industry insider: “Time Out is no longer the unique product it was many years ago. And although celeb-driven magazines like Now and Heat do not fall in the same sector as Time Out, these titles have easily cannibalised some bits of what Time Out might cover.”

Press buyers take the view that the magazine’s biggest competition comes from the free listings titles such as The Guide in Saturday’s Guardian and Hot Tickets in the Evening Standard.

In 1999, Associated Newspapers challenged Time Out with the launch of Hot Tickets as a newsstand title. But although Hot Tickets, with a cover price of 85p, undercut Time Out, it was eventually trounced and had to be withdrawn as a standalone title. Competition is also coming from various Internet sites, such as thisislondon.com, nibbling away at Time Out’s territory, while experts warn of further encroachment.

MediaCom’s Goodman says that since the magazine has moved more towards an older market, and has done little to attract a young audience, it will need to be cautious of new launches such as Project Monkey – an EMAP title targeting the “entertainment hungry” teenage market.

Wolff Ollins, a branding consultancy, says that Time Out needs more “attitude”. Last year the consultancy worked with Time Out looking at the brand’s positioning. Wolff Ollins consultant Jules Griffith says: “The Time Out brand has a strong heritage and people trust the brand. But instead of doing the obvious, the title needs to be about discovering secrets of the city. It needs to be more of a cultural insider and the contents must express an idea that resonates with both Londoners and tourists.”

Cort counters this by saying Time Out journalists live and know London and “do not get their information through PA listings like the newspaper free listing guides do.” She adds that the magazine is addressing the issue of attracting younger readers and plans to revamp the nightclub section. The magazine also intends to “streamline” other sections with a greater focus on health, beauty, shopping and property issues.

On the positive side, a media buyer adds that Time Out still lacks a direct rival and says: “Look at Hot Tickets. As a listings product it does not look good at all and when buying space I would rather use Time Out than an alternative, which does not exist anyway. Time Out itself has not been able to milk its strong brand heritage to its advantage.”

Condé Nast managing director Nicholas Coleridge is another self-confessed “admirer” of the magazine. He denies that he has made any formal approaches to buy the group, but adds: “I will be interested if it is ever up for sale.”

The 21st century is exposing consumers to new entertainment and listings channels, and there is no doubt that the listings magazines market will also have to re-invent itself. To survive, Time Out London will have get under the skin of the city and its readers.

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