Even though publishers and beach readers say it ain't so, there are suddenly several reasons to believe that the giants of gossip -- which have led magazine-industry growth for so long that the previous magazine craze, the laddie-book explosion, seems as distant a memory as Brad and Jen's wedding -- are maxing out.
Star cuts guaranteed circ
Consider: On July 1, Star will become the first of its kind to cut its guaranteed circulation since Us Weekly, then under Bonnie Fuller, lit the whole category on fire in 2002. OK, a powerhouse outside the U.S., has missed its rate base here on 10 out of 11 issues this year, according to the most recent data available. The growth rate at Us, Star and In Touch Weekly is slowing; all three posted double-digit growth in 2005, the year of the Brad-Jen-Angelina news "tsunami," yet none grew more than 7% in 2006.
And don't forget the awesome rise of TMZ.com, AOL's most conspicuous success in years. Publishers call it complementary, another venue that maintains consumer interest in stars. But there has to be a saturation point somewhere. How many different venues can people use to study Ms. Spears, er, exposed? According to Hall's Magazine Reports, entertainment or celebrity consumed 16.7% of all editorial pages in 2005, more than any other topic.
Such devotion paid big dividends for publishers. The sector -- not including its heavyweight champ, Time Inc.'s People -- has gone from snaring $150 million in 2003 to $560 million in advertising in 2006, according to figures from the Publisher's Information Bureau.
Cool-off was inevitable
A cool-off had to come sooner or later. Observers have certainly been claiming to spot one, on and off, for a few years now. But these obnoxious, fun and, hey, often accurate magazines have consistently outperformed everyone's expectations -- until, it seems, right now.
Of course, there are still some who protest this is just a blip. Different executives in the business offered various explanations for each data point in the set, including cover-price hikes at Star and Us Weekly in 2005, but always left room for more customers to come.
"In 2002, the total rate base for the category was 6.1 million," said Tom Morrissy, OK publisher and Entertainment Weekly veteran. "In 2006 it was 9.5 million. That's a 50% increase. No other segment has seen these kinds of numbers."
|Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations|
"I don't think that kind of growth is sustainable," Mr. Morrissy said. "But people ask me, 'Is it overcrowded?' I say it is competitive, for sure, but not overcrowded. I think there is still more room on the consumer side."
OK's struggle to meet its circulation guarantees just reflects its December cover-price increase to $2.99 from $1.99, Mr. Morrissy added. "There was an expected dip in newsstand sales," he said. "We are confident that we will overdeliver on our rate base by the end of the year and on average."
Star's circulation reduction, a 10% cut to 1.35 million from 1.5 million, was attributed by an executive at its publisher, American Media, to postal-rate hikes. But President-Chief Operating Officer John J. Miller also allowed that the category is being "affected" by $1.99 magazines such as In Touch.
Glut of low-priced titles
"The key in the celebrity market is there are so many low-priced products," Mr. Miller said. "Our product we think is worth $3.49. We look at our subscriptions and say, 'Let's eliminate some of these unprofitable subscriptions and keep some of our newsstand pricing and distribution the same.'"
A competing executive in the category also pegged Star's cut to subscription and distribution economics, arguing that celebrity weeklies have lots of upside left. "There's only a certain amount you're going to be able to grow," the executive said. "I still think we're growing. The state of the union for us is still a good one."
With just a little more remove, however, the view looks different. "Any business has a cycle," said Ken Sunshine, whose PR firm represents actors including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck.
Mr. Sunshine has famously criticized the weeklies when he's thought they've gone overboard, but said he has nothing against them. "I don't hate these magazines," he said. "We work with them all the time. But this insane growth and the proliferation of very similar magazines never made sense from a long-term business perspective. I may be a relic when it comes to this, but some of the saturation of silly and often made-up stories has had to backfire on some level."
Maybe, maybe not. Maybe postal rates and price wars really are sapping circulation growth, more than any change in American tastes or the overexposure of the same few stars. But the long-anticipated downshift for celebrity weeklies seems, finally, real.