BPA's president and one key publishing executive said the McGraw-Hill Cos. business title's decision could kick off a broader migration of consumer magazines to BPA, known more for audits of controlled-circulation and business-to-business titles.
The rhetoric is heating up in the normally genteel backwater of circulation measurement because virtually all parties involved are under increased pressure, and decisions involving billions of dollars in ad budgets are at stake. Audit Bureau of Circulations, long the first choice for consumer-magazine-circulation measurement, has had a difficult run recently, thanks to a series of circulation scandals that have challenged the veracity of key magazines and newspapers, as well as its auditing skills.
Business Week President Bill Kupper said the magazine will continue to have its circulation audited by ABC, but added: "We are holding ourselves to two standards of audits. ... There is a huge need in this circulation marketplace for consumer magazine [audits] to speed up."
ABC's audits of what publishers report as their circulation took well over a year until recently. Now, as the bureau points out, is completes many in less than a year-but even this is derided by publishers and media buyers as being too slow.
One of BPA's key selling points is, as President Glenn Hansen said, over 90% of its circulation audits are completed in six months. Mr. Hansen also said that he expected more consumer magazines to sign on with BPA.
"I think forward-looking publishers are increasingly going to be looking at complements and alternatives to ABC," said John Loughlin, president of TV Guide's publishing unit and a longtime circulation executive. "As we contemplate launching some new products in the next year, we see BPA as a preferred option." Mr. Loughlin serves on the board of BPA, but his flagship TV Guide has long been audited by ABC.
`speed over accuracy'
"They complete the bulk of their audits within six months," said Mr. Loughlin, "while the alternative takes considerably longer." He called Business Week's move "a stamp of endorsement."
Michael Lavery, ABC's president-managing director, strongly objected to these notions, saying that the issue of "speed over accuracy" was a concern in broad-gauge audits.
"Paid-circulation audits," he said, especially those of large publications, are far more complex" than those of controlled-circulation publications, which make up a significant chunk of BPA's audits. He also pointed out that BPA audits are only released in the event significant variances are found with publishers' claimed numbers-which, he said, led him to believe "their audit completion rates are self-declarations."
Mr. Lavery pointed out that all of the key circulation scandals in recent months came to light because ABC audits caught publishers' incorrect numbers. But he also conceded that in the latest egregious example of publisher overstatement-at Tribune Co.'s Newsday and Hoy newspapers, in which the latter daily was found to have claimed twice the paid circulation it actually had-initial ABC audits failed to discover the forged numbers.
ABC must negotiate changes to its processes while satisfying constituencies of advertisers and publishers that have, often, wholly different aims, and the unsurprising slowness of this process has frustrated parties on both sides of the table.
"It does seem like ABC has lost some credibility in being able to catch these things fast enough," said a publishing executive familiar with the inner workings of ABC.