Media: All about ... BBC Magazines

Selling off the division is unlikely to be plain sailing, Alasdair Reid writes.

As unreserved fans of Peter Phippen, the BBC Magazines managing director, we were naturally drawn to his e-mail to staff last week. Commenting on news that the BBC Trust has decided to allow BBC Worldwide to sell off his division, he made a resounding prediction. "It is inevitable that speculation about a potential deal will continue for many months ... and some of it will be inaccurate," he stated.

There is, we can't help feeling, a talent for comedy lurking somewhere here. We, for our part, would hate to disappoint. Carefully ignoring any feeling that we're being bluffed into submission, we are almost duty-bound to revel in our fundamentally flawed role as speculators. While, of course, sympathising not so much with Phippen but with those toiling down on the poop deck. Clearly one of Phippen's main aims with this e-mail was to buoy up morale as BBC Magazines enters a particularly surreal phase.

Because staffers (like most of the rest of us) need to be reminded now and then of the Through The Looking-Glass nature of BBC Worldwide - a global multimedia corporation that is, we are asked to believe, merely a quaint little annexe to the People's Palace that is the UK's non-commercial public-service broadcasting institution.

The inherently paradoxical status of BBC Magazines is going to make its sale at best rather ticklish, at the very least rather long-winded - and at worst absolutely impossible. Because the division's strongest propositions (the likes, for instance, of TopGear magazine) derive a large part of their strength from their close relationships with the BBC television programmes that originally spawned them.

Weaken those ties and you undermine the value of the very assets that you're trying to sell. BBC Worldwide has, according to some sources, acknowledged this - and is making noises about seeking to retain some form of editorial or management control.

This is a notion that grown-up publishers in the commercial sector will view with extreme scepticism. They'll want to know, naturally enough, exactly what it is they're being asked to buy.

They'll only hope that, when and if they do enter talks, they find themselves dealing with a BBC that's not entirely in a speculatively inaccurate state of mind.

1. The history of BBC Magazines can be traced back to the division set up in 1923 to publish Radio Times - but it came into its own as a division of the corporation's increasingly aggressive, ambitious and single-minded commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, during the 90s. It has reined in some of that ambition (not least because of political pressures) during the past decade - selling, for instance, its women's glossy monthly, Eve (now sadly defunct), in 2005.

2. But it still has a portfolio of more than 30 titles across a number of lifestyle and special-interest sectors. The jewel in the crown is Radio Times, with a circulation of 947,131 (January-July 2010 ABC); and its strongest masthead title, with a clear link to a BBC programme, is TopGear, with a circulation of 190,375. Other notable properties include Good Food, Gardener's World, Lonely Planet, Match Of The Day and Doctor Who Adventures.

3. Total BBC Magazines revenue (including coverprice revenues and advertising) for the year to 31 March 2010 was £168.3 million, down £2.3 million year on year. But profitability improved: £18.4 million versus £16.2 million the previous year. Applying suitable adjustments to the headline Nielsen figures, agencies estimate that total BBC Magazines ad revenues for the calendar year 2009 were £46 million, with Radio Times the clear leader on £20 million.

4. BBC Worldwide is seeking in the first instance to sell the whole portfolio to a single buyer - the notion being that this will simplify the management structures needed to maintain relationships between the magazines and their relevant BBC programming-making partners. But this notion rather narrows the field to Bauer, The National Magazine Company and Hachette Filipacchi. The UK's market-leading consumer magazine company, IPC, is currently divesting itself of titles and is not thought to be a prospective buyer.

5. BBC Television no longer gives promotional airtime to BBC Magazine brands. It ceased this practice voluntarily in 2004. BBC sources say it is "unlikely" that the practice could ever be revived.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

PUBLISHERS

- Commercial media owners will note the contradictory signals the BBC is sending as regards the motivations underlying this proposed sale.

- There are whispers, for instance, that it could be part of a vague determination to downsize the BBC's commercial ambitions.

Other whispers maintain quite the opposite - and suggest that BBC Worldwide is seeking to build a war chest to fund sexier expansion opportunities in the digital domain.

- Meanwhile, publishers may suspect that there's no real appetite to sell at all. This move, they might feel, smacks of political posturing designed to appease a potentially hostile government - and the corporation will prolong rumours of negotiations just long enough for it to appear as if it meant business. The supposed £100 million price tag is hardly a serious start point, for instance.

- After all, with the best will in the world, it will be fiendishly difficult to draw up watertight agreements giving prospective purchasers absolute guarantees of access to BBC television planners, producers and on-screen talent.

ADVERTISERS

- Advertisers tend to like BBC magazines and often value the halo effect that TV is perceived to give many of these titles. So they'd be unimpressed at any outcome that threatens that added value.

- There will be particular interest in the fate of Radio Times. As Neil Allen, the press trading director at Starcom MediaVest Group, puts it: "It still delivers an attractive audience in a competitive listings market - and you could argue that it's the one title that could quite happily prosper without continuing BBC input."

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