MEDIA FORUM: Is our love affair with celebrity coming to an end?

The celebrity weekly market seems to be in fine fettle, according to the latest ABCs. But could the bubble be about to burst? Alasdair Reid reports.

Michael Douglas. Catherine Zeta Jones. Wedding photos. Want some more of that? No? Oh well. It's probably the way we tell them. Media Forum, with immaculate but predictably unfortunate timing, is looking at the celebrity-driven weekly market at precisely the moment when celebrity, according to leading-edge commentators, may well be on the way out. They've spotted what they think may well be a cusp - and it looks ugly.

In fact, it looked a lot like Michael Douglas in the witness box during last week's courtroom squabble about whether Hello! magazine's paparazzi had gatecrashed his wedding, thus spoiling a perfectly good £1 million exclusive deal negotiated with its rival title OK!. But dahling, who cares? Celebrity has clearly entered a zone where the coverage is all about the coverage itself. A practice also known as disappearing up your own fundament.

That isn't the only negative marker. In recent days and weeks, the feedback from some advertiser focus groups is that people are fed up with celebrity TV and its faux fame spin-off, talent-show TV. Big Brother 3 was the worst Big Brother so far (according even to the genre's biggest fans), Celebrity Big Brother ran right out of the will to live about half-way through its last incarnation and Popstars: The Rivals was a real turn-off. Or at least, that's what people say - whether they still tune in is a different issue altogether.

Of course, the celebrity bubble may have burst in exactly the same way as the house market has just crashed. Just look at the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, for instance. The celeb titles are going like a train - Heat: up 56 per cent year on year, OK!: 30 per cent, Now: 14 per cent.

Jane Ennis, the editor of Now, admits she is pleased with the figures - the magazine has retained its market leadership in pure newsstand sales terms. The sector, too, looks absolutely buoyant, selling a total of just under two million copies a week, which adds to a total yearly retail value of £154 million. But even Ennis admits there are niggling little warning signs beginning to appear. "The celebrity market as a whole seems to be positioned well but is it growing?" she ponders. "It doesn't seem as if Closer (launched by Emap and not yet included in the ABCs, but rumoured to be doing around 200,000) has grown the market. We're reaching the point where someone will bring something out that really will cannibalise the market."

Which is, of course, a barely veiled reference to a new celebrity title, called Wow!, planned for launch this week from Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell. There are basically two types of weekly in this sector: the older Hello! and OK! format, which buys its way into the homes and lives of the stars, and the newsier sort which packages up a week's worth of news and gossip titbits. Wow! is in the latter camp.

"It will be the third title in this area and as far as we can see, it will bring nothing new," Ennis insists. "It's disheartening when you've invented a sector and taken six years to fine-tune it, because it takes someone only two minutes to copy it. When people come into a market and execute the format badly, then it taints it for everyone else. When people have cheating cover lines, old stories, rip off ideas and run blatantly untrue things, then we all suffer."

Strong stuff. Many people believe it's TV that's scoring the most conspicuous own goals. Celebrity Driving School, for instance, will mark a new low.

There's too much dross out there and people are getting bored. It's not just TV and magazines, either - it's papers at the red-top end of the market and websites such as popbitch.com.

But Gerry Boyle, a managing partner of ZenithOptimedia, suggests this sector is far more robust than it appears. He states: "Fascination with celebrity is nothing new but the public's appetite for celebrity is probably stronger than ever. They make news, we lap it up."

Is the bubble in any danger of bursting? "Not completely," Boyle responds.

"Our appetite for celebrity ebbs and flows with broader trends. This year, concerns over security and economic uncertainty probably mean that the celebrity star will burn bright and remain high. A world without celebrity would be a dull one indeed."

The social commentator and consultant Peter York tends to agree. He believes the notion of celebrity is now woven into the fundamental fabric of society.

But it's not a 30s deferential conception of celebrity where stars are worshipped as superior beings. He states: "It's all about instant gossip, in the literal sense of having something to talk about, and schadenfreude. In that sense, it is about instruction and learning how to live your life because often what's in these magazines is about people's lives going wrong and they are, by and large, undeferential magazines. That instruction thing is a fundamental need, so there will always be an appetite for it. People treat the celebrities themselves almost as canapes. They'll try one here and one there and go: 'Yes, I like that,' or: 'Oh no, don't like that,' and spit it out.

"You might wonder whether there's enough news to go around. But it has gone Warholian (as in that everybody would be famous for 15 minutes) and it's getting bigger and bigger. There used to be a much smaller pantheon of stars - and they seemed to last longer. Now they have to be changed very fast.

And, ultimately, it's linked to the fact that everything is about public relations these days - every organisation employing more than two people now has a PR. So, yes, I think there probably is room for more."

In the meantime, though, this is surely a hot area for advertisers. Actually, perhaps not. Some advertisers aren't exactly turned on, Simon Jenkins, a senior planner/buyer at Media Planning Group, reveals. And he can certainly see the market heading towards saturation. He states: "Look at the Daily Star on Sunday, for instance. It is using celebrity to try to pull in the female readership. Meanwhile, in the magazine market, there is increasingly less differentiation. They're all getting more and more like each other so you can basically get everything from one product. And it's true that it's a perfect environment for some advertisers but others regard the celebrity weeklies with caution. It's not necessarily a quality environment.

They might see it as a bit tacky, a bit grubby. Do they necessarily want to be seen alongside celebrity cellulite, drunk celebrities stumbling out of parties or messy divorces?"

So what's the answer? Will celebrity inevitably eat itself? Ennis says it's possible. "There's too much around, some of which is badly done.

Sometimes bubbles do burst and then you've got to find another way of dong things, another way of reaching people. You've got to move on," she concludes.

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