Media pundits saw the recent closure of venerable satirical title Punch as the swansong of a certain strand of cerebral British humour.
Punch, which had a reputation for being radically republican, represented a form of lampoonery which came of age in the Sixties, popularised on television by Oxbridge graduates such as Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.
Punch was relaunched by Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed in 1996. However, no injection of resources could save the circulation of the 161-year-old title from falling below 10,000, from a peak of 175,000 in the Forties.
But, as Punch’s obituaries were drying on the broadsheets’ pages, publisher Speak Easy Media launched a new satirical title, The Poke (MW last week). The A3-format Poke has an initial print run of 50,000 and a launch price of &£1.
However observers are not sure whether the timing is right for a launch in a sector that has seen little growth in recent years, despite the success of satirical TV programmes such as Have I Got News for You and Brass Eye. The name of the title has not grabbed most media buyers either.
The Poke’s commercial director, Adam Stanhope, says: “There is a huge market for satirical titles. The Poke fills the gap in the market between the boardroom, which is catered for by Private Eye, and the bedsit, where consumers read Viz. We are not about breaking news stories, but are about pure satire.”
Zenith Media press director Stuart Mays says: “I feel that there is a genuine gap in the satirical magazines sector – a gap for a cerebral title. I am not too sure about The Poke, though I haven’t seen the product. I do not like the name and the format seems to have very little to inspire advertisers.
Universal McCann press buyer Dan Pimm questions the timing of the launch: “It is strange that at a time when revenues are hard to come by for most publishers The Poke is being launched. It is too niche a market to earn revenues.”
Only a handful of UK titles are devoted purely to satire and humour. Private Eye, whose newspaper-grade paper reflects its Sixties anti-establishment origins, is still very much viewed as the market leader. Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures for June to December 2001 showed an increase in the Eye’s circulation of 6.9 per cent period on period – and 7.7 per cent year on year – to 188,081.
In the same period, Viz, an I Feel Good title which is regarded as an adult comic rather than a serious read, saw its circulation fall by 11 per cent year on year to 178,745 – although this was a rise of 1.4 per cent on the previous six months. This is a far cry from the title’s million-selling heyday, a decade ago.
Occupying another niche is The Oldie, which targets the grey market and is mainly supported by subscriptions. It was launched ten years ago by former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams as a fortnightly, but was forced to go monthly and last year it was bought out by oil tycoon Sir Paul Getty. It is now published by John Brown Citrus Publishing and posted an ABC circulation figure – its first – of 22,190 for June to December 2001.
MediaCom head of press Steve Goodman says that the problem with satirical magazines is a lack of promotion to readers or advertisers: “These titles do not lend themselves to the advertisers’ way of working. For instance, their paper quality is not something that will get advertisers excited. Paradoxically, the readers of these titles are ones that branded luxury goods companies would love to target. I also think that a market for the sort of sophisticated political satire that Punch catered for has not died, though Punch has had its day.”
The Oldie seems actively to be cultivating buyers. According to industry insiders, the title’s marketing is now fully in the hands of its contract publisher, which aims to turn it into a profit-making business.
The Oldie’s advertising manager, Tom Glenister, says: “In the past six to seven months, monthly revenue has increased by more than 20 per cent. We are targeting not only advertisers who sell surgical and medical products, but also luxury goods and holidays.”
He feels, however, that because the circulations of satirical magazines will always be smaller than those of traditional heavyweight sectors, such as TV listings, the titles will to an extent always be overlooked by both media buyers and advertisers.
Media buyers do see potential in the sector and say that satirical magazines should do more to exploit the popularity of shows such as Have I Got News for You. They certainly expect titles such as Private Eye to grow consistently.
There can be a heavy cost attached to publishing satire, in terms of libel actions and the threat of punitive damages. This may rein in editorial risk-taking at some magazines, making them less attractive to readers. However, Private Eye – which often pushes the legal boundaries – says that it is not insured for libel actions, because usually it can defuse the ire of complainants before they call for the barrister. A spokeswoman for the title says: “The frequency with which these actions land us in court is less than once a year.”
Whether The Poke’s tabloid parody style will allow it to survive remains to be seen. If it can last even a fraction of Punch’s reign, its founders will be laughing for a long while yet.