Competition in the TV listings sector is fierce and with the rise of
cable and satellite, titles must stand out in the crowd.
Five years ago, the television listings market in the UK was
deregulated. After three decades of domination by the BBC’s Radio Times
and IPC’s TV Times, the publishing industry won the right to launch
competitive listings magazines.
At the time, it was na•vely supposed there would be a rush of rival
launches. In reality, the price of success was too high for all but the
most well-resourced companies. One pretender, TV Plus, was crushed after
only three issues while the successful players have had to pump millions
into marketing support.
Despite these factors, the TV listings sector represents a classic study
in publishing strategy which cuts across a number of different
In the conventional weekly listings market, IPC sought to protect its
market share by launching two new titles, What’s On TV and,
subsequently, TV & Satellite Week. In contrast, the BBC chose to push
for the demographic high ground with Radio Times. Bauer, the German
publishing house, decided to tackle the established players head on and
launched TV Quick on the back of a ruthless price promotion.
The reverberations of deregulation were also felt in the national press.
For a short time it was anticipated that initiatives by daily newspapers
could strangle the listings sector. Instead, free listings sections
simply came to represent a passing phase in the extraordinary battle to
offer readers the best value-for-money package. One example is The
Guardian’s weekly arts and TV listings section The Guide, which is about
to be rivalled by The Independent’s new guide called The Eye.
That was not the end of the story, however. Satellite and cable TV
operators, aware of the need to promote their services, have launched
their own listings vehicles.
With fragmentation of the broadcast medium gathering pace, the next
issue will undoubtedly be the response of print publishers to the threat
of comprehensive electronic listings.
If one thing underpins all of these developments, it is the recognition
that programme listings have become an editorial commodity. Although
listings information must be accurate and easy to use, titles must also
establish a unique position in the market.
Nicholas Brett, editor of Radio Times during deregulation, last month
stepped up to become the title’s publishing director. He recalls that
‘our deregulation strategy was quite simple. We had to do listings
better than anyone else, but we also needed to wrap them in an
irresistible editorial package. It was important to be a distinctive
Brett methodically set out to attract a higher ABC1 readership with an
even split between the sexes. He has achieved this through targeted
However, he is the first to admit that there is still a job to be done
in terms of shifting perceptions among the younger audience.
‘A lot of people have outdated views about what Radio Times is,’ says
Brett, who is overseeing a pounds 1.5m promotion centred on the
strapline ‘It’s not what you think’. A key element of the campaign will
be a direct marketing drive, which is expected to introduce the magazine
to around 200,000 new homes.
IPC took a different route to the BBC. Conscious of its sluggish
response to the German invasion of the women’s weekly market, the
ministry of magazines attacked the deregulated market aggressively with
What’s On TV. This was followed in 1993 with the launch of TV &
Instead of focusing on its flagship brand TV Times, ‘we set out to
maintain majority market share and we’ve done that’, says the publishing
director for the TV Weeklies Group, Kathy Day. ‘Our combined circulation
is 56.4% of the paid-for market.’
Day believes that TV Times has done ‘pretty well since deregulation. We
knew it couldn’t sustain circulation in the face of a Bauer launch and
free listings in the newspapers, but it has now reached stability’.
Each of the three IPC title performs a distinct role in the market, says
Day. TV Times ‘is a family listings title for people whose hobby is
What’s On TV, which is now the UK’s biggest selling title with 1.692m
copy sales per week, ‘was launched to soak up newspaper readers who
bought papers specifically for television. It is concise, with quick,
easy-to-read features,’ says Day. At a cost of 45p, it also undercuts
the market significantly on price.
Asked whether it has cannibalised TV Times purchasers, Day says it
probably has but stresses, ‘the key thing is that it has kept
circulation in the family’. Circulation success has been matched by a
fivefold increase in ad revenue since 1991. TV Times by contrast saw its
ad revenue nose-dive after deregulation. However, it stabilised between
1994 and 1995.
The final IPC title, TV & Satellite Week, targets the more obsessive end
of cable and satellite viewing, in which male readers predominate. Its
comprehensive listings format is the key selling point and it commands a
premium price of 70p.
Day foresees a lot of growth potential as the television market expands.
She is not perturbed by the vast penetration of free titles such as Sky
TV guide and Cable Guide. She believes ‘they do a workman-like job, but
the monthlies tend to have scheduling inaccuracies towards the end of
their life cycle’.
Although IPC can rightly claim to have a majority of the paid-for
circulation, the picture is not so clear cut in terms of revenue. In
1992, it controlled 52% of total ad revenue received by the BBC, IPC and
Bauer. It has seen that drop to 44.4%. Likewise, circulation revenue has
fallen slightly from 51.1% to 50.3%. Hidden in that figure is the cost
of producing and promoting three titles rather than one.
That said, all three titles seem set on a steady growth pattern - and
IPC has its supporters. Neil Jones, director of TMD Carat says, ‘IPC is
very shrewd. TV Times was a tired brand with no clear focus but that’s
not the case now. The company has launched titles which have worked
Although Brett from Radio Times believes TV Times has ‘rushed headlong
down-market’, he acknowledges that the IPC ploy of launching new titles
could be the way to go.
‘The listings market is quite stable but there is room for new
entrants,’ he says. ‘Most publishers in mainland Europe have two or
three titles and we are continuing to look at new opportunities.’
Evidence of how tough it has been to dislodge the two established
players comes in the shape of Bauer, which has found the listings market
a more problematic proposition than the general women’s weekly market,
in which Bella and Take a Break have performed particularly well.
Although TV Quick, now selling for 57p, has clawed its way up to a
circulation of 809,000, it has had to fight IPC all the way. In 1995,
circulation revenue accounted for more than 80% of its pounds 25m
Perhaps Bauer’s most shrewd decision has been the orientation of the
magazine as a hybrid concept.
TV Quick ad director Joy Rosen says: ‘We see ourselves as a women’s
weekly with TV listings at the back. Listings can be got anywhere now,
but with TV Quick women pick it up on Tuesdays and the listings start on
Saturday. Our regular fashion, cookery and real life stories give us
some protection in the market place.’
Although editorial distinction has become key to the strategic direction
of the market, it is clear that there is still some way to go.
‘For advertisers, volume of readership is the key issue,’ says Jones.
‘There is a marginal difference between all titles except Radio Times,
which is differentiated by the quality of its editorial.’
The emphasis on editorial distinction will become critical, however, as
electronic publishing takes over the role of comprehensive programme
listing. The perceived wisdom is that titles will have to de-select
information that is not relevant to their readership and emphasise their
role as trusted guides.
‘We’ve had to consider what role listings play in Radio Times,’ says
Brett, ‘and have introduced a format to help a busy readership slash
through the broadcasting jungle. We’re still pretty comprehensive, but
the future will be about dovetailing the printed magazine with new media
The future’s electronic
Neither Brett nor Day are intimidated by the prospect of electronic
‘Electronic programme guides are coming and will be an extension of what
we already do,’ says Day. ‘But the printed medium will be driven by the
portability of magazines and their value as planning aids.’
Of all developments since deregulation, perhaps the greatest surprise
has been the failure of the national press to make inroads. Brett thinks
they reacted slowly, while Day recalls that ‘all the logic said free
guides would kill the market place’.
Instead the market has prospered. ‘At the time of deregulation I would
have said the paid-for listings market would be half the size it is
now,’ admits Jones. ‘But the listings market has been a phenomenal
success and I’ve come to believe that if papers stopped printing
listings supplements tomorrow it wouldn’t affect their circulations.’
Cable and satellite guides
The development of cable and satellite television takes the market for
TV-related publications in a number of new directions. Not only does it
raise the problem of how to provide a comprehensive listings service but
it redefines the relationship between television and magazines.
This has been most clearly underlined by the launch of Cable Guide and
Sky TV guide, which first and foremost is a promotional tool designed to
build awareness of the channels available.
Sky TV guide, which is published by Redwood, was launched in September
1994 and is distributed to all BSkyB subscribers. Its circulation, which
will come under the auspices of the ABC from next year, mirrors the
growth of satellite subscriptions and currently stands at 3.2 million.
The most recent readership figures show the title reaches 5.84 million
For advertisers one of the key advantages of these titles is their low
duplication with readership on conventional listings titles. In the case of Sky TV guide this is underpinned by its appeal to a predominantly
young male readership as opposed to the female bias among most paid-for
According to Sky TV guide ad sales controller Julian Downing, the net
effect is that the magazine sits between Radio Times’s 68% ABC1s and
The four main advertising targets for Sky TV guide are young men,
housewives, mail order and the satellite and cable channels themselves.
According to Downing, recent research at the guide has identified nine
factors which influence the effectiveness of communication with readers.
These are the means of distribution, frequency of publication,
demographics of the readership, feature and listings formats, brand
heritage, daily viewing patterns, access to satellite and cable and the
share of viewing in satellite and cable homes.
Downing does not feel threatened by electronic listings. He expects
print and electronic listings to work hand-in-hand. ‘Formats will evolve
with the market,’ he says. ‘The titles that will keep ahead are the ones
that change with the market.’
The magazine has made headway in its ability to exploit TV and press
alongside one another. Cross-promotional opportunities have been taken
up by Sky TV sponsors such as Strongbow.
Although TMD Carat’s Neil Jones says the satellite and cable titles are
still at the fringe of advertisers’ schedules, Downing believes
satellite homes have different viewing planning strategies from
terrestrial homes. He says advertisers should be alert to the fact that
they rely on a mix of newspaper listings and free guides.
The other key player is the fast growing Cable Guide. Its circulation
rose by 74% year-on-year to 625,000. Ninety five percent of the
circulation is supplied via cable operators, with the remainder sold on
news-stands. Cable Guide is distinct in that it is the only title to
provide comprehensive cable listings. Like Sky TV guide it boasts a
young readership - indicative of demographic trends within multi-channel
March 1991: TV listings market deregulates. Daily Mirror, The Sun and
Hello! magazine launch weekly television listings sections.
January/February 1992: Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Today, The
Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times all launch full listings.
January 1993: The People newspaper launches TV First. The Daily
Telegraph revamps its listings as an A5 review section.
February 1993: TV & Satellite Week launched
September 1993: The Guardian launches The Guide. The Daily Express
launches weekend and TV Review which incorporates listings.
October 1993: Daily Mail listings revamped and relaunched as part of
April 1994: The Guardian redesigns The Guide.
September 1994: Daily Express launches This Week. Sky TV guide and Cable
Guide launched as monthly magazines.
November 1994: Satellite Guide closes.
November 1995: Today newspaper closes.
Title Publisher Circulation
Sky TV guide Redwood 3,241,325
What’s On TV IPC 1,692,070
Radio Times BBC 1,406,417
TV Times IPC 982,007
TV Quick Bauer 809,000
Cable Guide Cable Guide 625,019
TV & Satellite Week IPC 200,061