Women's weeklies have always existed on a spectrum whose extremities are, on one hand, a vicarious fantasy world inhabited by the rich and famous, and, on the other, what is charmingly called real life.
There's no doubt about the direction in which Real People, launched last week by APC-NatMag, intends to swing. If it proves anything, it's that what goes around comes around - but when it does, it will be twice as garish. Real People features more synapse-scorching varieties of lurid orange than you can shake a Pantone book at - but then it's hardly the only women's magazine glowing incandescently these days.
Real People is about, well, real people. Real problems, triumphs over tragedy, not a celebrity in sight, money-off grocery coupons at the front of the book.
So, in truth, this is a magazine in a venerable tradition, once wholly owned by IPC and then reinvented by the German publishers that shook up the weekly market when they arrived on these shores in 1985. And after all, ACP-NatMag is the direct inheritor of this tradition, having acquired the UK assets of Gruner & Jahr in 2000.
Over the past ten years, all the noise in this market has been about the rise of titles at the entertainment and celebrity end of the spectrum - so perhaps Real People is further evidence that the pendulum is swinging back. The celebrity sector has become so mature that it has had its first cover-price war. Meanwhile, the launch of Closer in 2002 might now be seen as a harbinger of attempts to do celebrity and real life in one title.
There now seems to be a title offering just about every conceivable mix of the basic ingredients. Not bad for a sector that some thought would be squeezed out of business by newspaper supplements years ago. The weekly market has now become so attractive that at least one newspaper publisher is poised to muscle in - last week, News International hired the former New Woman publisher Augusta Barnes to run Love It!, a real-life weekly that will launch in February.
1. The women's weekly market was once owned almost entirely by IPC, whose big three titles, Woman, Woman's Own and Woman's Weekly, sold a combined total of more than three million copies in the mid-80s. IPC got the shock of its life when H Bauer launched Bella and G&J arrived with Best in 1985. IPC eventually hit back with Chat, but its hold on the market had been irreversibly weakened.
2. The boom in celebrity titles arguably began as far back as 1988, with the launch of Hello!, a UK version of the hugely successful Hola! - though the subject matter at this point was the trashy end of European royalty rather than the trashy end of the entertainment industry.
3. The market cranked up in 1996 when Northern & Shell relaunched OK! as a weekly in head-to-head competition with Hello!. IPC responded immediately with Now and Emap steered things more firmly in the direction of the entertainment world when it introduced Heat in 1999.
4. The National Magazine Company entered the weekly market when it acquired Best and Prima from G&J in 2000. With weeklies now firmly back in vogue, it consolidated its position in 2004 first by forming a joint venture with Australian Consolidated Press - ACP-NatMag - which took over management of the existing weeklies, then by embarking on the high-profile, big-budget launch of its first celebrity title, Reveal.
5. Despite the clutch of celebrity titles, the market is still dominated by titles that tend to the real-life end of the spectrum. Bauer's Take A Break is still the market leader, with a circulation figure of 1,222,774. The top celebrity title is IPC's Now, on 629,186. The weekly sector as a whole sells around nine million copies a week - within that total, clearly defined celebrity titles account for around two million.
6. The weekly market is still growing. In the most recent ABC figures, the sector's total circulation was up around 8 per cent year on year. Taking a longer view, copy sales in the sector have grown by 9 per cent since 1990 - but the growth in cover-price revenues has been spread thinly. The ad market position is even less encouraging - across that same period, adjusted for inflation, ad revenues in the weekly market grew by only 1 per cent.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- This is a ferociously competitive market and there seems to be room these days for an infinite variety of takes on the basic celebrity and real-life ingredients. Not so long ago, observers believed that this sector would soon be owned by the newer entrants such as Emap and Northern & Shell.
- But the continuing sound performance of IPC shows there is money to be made right across the spectrum and this latest launch from ACP-NatMag shows there is still life in older editorial formats.
- The imminent arrival of News International in the weekly market will be focusing minds. On the face of it, it's not going to be an immediate threat. The rumours are that it has a budget of only £15 million to launch seven new titles - a drop in the ocean where this market is concerned.
- But, as Mark Gallagher, the press director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, puts it: "When it sets its mind on something, News International tends to do what it takes. 2006 is going to be an exciting year for this market."
- In a market where competition is as intense as it is here, advertisers love the fact that there is a great deal of choice - and in negotiation terms, this tends to deliver something of a buyer's market. The downside, audience fragmentation, is something they can live with.