MEDIA: Style over substance

Competition in the TV listings sector is fierce and with the rise of cable and satellite, titles must stand out in the crowd.

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

competitive sectors.

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.

Making waves

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

editorial investments.

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.

Launch strategy

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 &

Satellite Week.

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.

Combined forces

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

female-biased titles.

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


Key dates

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

Weekend section.

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 fight


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

Sources: ABC/Bauer/BSkyB



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