Faltering Sister act

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Behind the newfound glitz and star power of next spring's relaunch of Rosie's McCall's by Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing and talk-show hostess Rosie O'Donnell's KidRo Productions lies a much less appealing reality for the grand old gals of the newsstand.

In advertisers' eyes, Rosie's McCall's and the other so-called Seven Sisters of women's publishing-Meredith Corp.'s Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal; Hearst Magazines' Redbook and Good Housekeeping; Hachette Filipacchi Magazines' Woman's Day; and G&J's Family Circle-face increasing irrelevance as mass-market titles in a niche-media universe.

In the first 10 months of the year, five of the seven titles lagged the industry with flat or falling ad pages-the exceptions being Good Housekeeping (up 8.9%) and the repositioned Redbook (up 18.8%). And next year's ad forecast is cloudy.

The Seven Sisters "are OK if you have a huge unlimited budget, but that's not what's happening," said Ruby Gottlieb, a media buyer with Horizon Media, New York. "Why go with them when there's so much waste?"

LIFE BECOMING `VERY DIFFICULT'

"They've been kept alive by undifferentiated package-goods marketers-all the folks who sell parity products to the mass market," said Gene DeWitt, CEO of Optimedia International, New York.

The high cost of TV advertising is "making life very difficult for media that may be lacking in vitality," he added, since most mass marketers spend the bulk of their budgets on TV. In fact, Procter & Gamble Co. sought to significantly reduce its print schedules in Gruner & Jahr titles for next year, said an executive at the publisher.

Executives linked to the Seven Sisters titles not surprisingly dismiss assertions of a disappearing raison d'etre. But Redbook's attempts to distance itself from the other siblings and the dramatic attempt to save McCall's lend credence to advertiser concerns.

Gruner & Jahr CEO Dan Brewster said the Seven Sisters probably record the highest aggregate profits for any magazine category each year. But in an earlier interview, he admitted the crowded pack of titles resembles "seven gas stations on four corners." In other words, there are more of them than anyone needs.

Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies' Home Journal and More, a spinoff title aimed at upscale, boomer women, said the mass vs. niche argument duplicates criticisms leveled at the leading broadcast TV networks in the age of cable TV and fragmented media outlets. "And they're still here," she said of the broadcasters.

But mass magazine titles frequently compete with the broadcast networks, and may prove less attractive to mass marketers in that competition.

"One size no longer fits all," said one longtime industry executive. "Even the newsweeklies have responded with demographic editions and advertiser editions."

TOTAL CIRC TOPS 31 MIL

The seven women's titles currently have a combined circulation of more than 31 million. Six of the seven deliver circulations that exceed 4 million. The largest, Better Homes & Gardens, has a circulation that tops 7.6 million.

Buzz-capturing titles such as O the Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart Living and InStyle skew younger and more affluent than the Seven Sisters and have circulations ranging from 1.3 million to 2.2 million. But Ms. Blyth charged that the niche titles rely on editorial formulas borrowed from traditional women's service titles: "It's old wine in new bottles."

Madelyn Alpert Roberts, publisher of Rosie's McCall's, said the title will cut its rate base in late 2001 to around 3.5 million, from its existing 4.2 million. Within a few years, she said, the goal is to reduce the median age of a Rosie's McCall's reader from 46 to between 40 and 41. "We plan to do away, as much as possible, with older readers by raising newsstand and subscription prices," Ms. Roberts said.

`MCCALL'S' AD RATE TO DROP

Responding to advertiser concerns, Ms. Roberts said McCall's current color ad page rate of $159,650 will drop by an unspecified amount for the spring relaunch. McCall's ad pages fell 10.8% through October of this year.

In July 1999, Hearst Magazines' Redbook dropped its rate base to 2.25 million from 2.8 million and aimed its editorial at a younger reader. The Seven Sisters "have not kept up with the needs of a contemporary woman," said Jayne Jamison, VP-publisher, Redbook. Redbook's median reader age of 41.6 makes it the youngest Sister.

At her news conference last week announcing the joint venture, Ms. O'Donnell (who had to double-check her editorial director title with Family Circle Editor in Chief Susan Ungaro) promised a magazine that would "talk a lot about social issues the Seven Sisters don't address as deeply." She also said the new magazine will be "less spiritual than O and more real-crafty" than Martha Stewart Living, "with lots of my annoying Democratic politics in the middle."

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