By turning one of the magazine world's most high-profile launches into one of its most successful, Oprah Winfrey made the road more daunting for those magazines that must endure the average launch growing pains: the editorial refocusings, redesigns and staff turnover.
The typical launch fails. Eighty percent of new titles fail over the long term, according to magazine analysts, and half don't live to celebrate their first birthdays. In 1999 alone there were 894 magazine births, according to University of Mississippi journalism professor Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, and at the turn of 2000 nearly 6,000 titles crowded the nation's newsstands.
WANTED: FAT WALLETS
Introducing a new magazine isn't for those with weak hearts -- or thin wallets. Companies must be willing to shell out anywhere from $20 million to $100 million before they see a profit; and that likely won't happen until a new title's fifth year. Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly took six years before it began to throw off cash.
Add to the equation difficulties even big players must face: The decline of cheap subscriptions via stamp sheets, and the squeeze magazine wholesalers and retailers exert on publishing houses to make ends meet. Retailers now demand that a title's sell-through -- the percentage of copies sold at newsstand -- meet a certain level to retain newsstand positions. Miss the target and your title winds up at "mop level."
A new title's performance "in the first three years, minimum, means nothing about the eventual success of the magazine," one longtime magazine executive said.
That comment came just before Conde Nast Publications pulled the plug on Women's Sports & Fitness shy of that magazine's third anniversary.
With the closing last month of that much-hyped title, attention turned to six high-profile consumer magazine launches from the last 12 months. Each of those titles has a few issues out, and none is more than a few days past its first anniversary. Hearst Magazines was especially busy with launches this past year -- backing four of these profiled titles, three through joint ventures.
Advertising Age evaluates the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of the launches on a one to four star scale.
Talk polarizes reaction as few other titles do.
"It's done fabulously from where it started, and all the heat it took," said Terry McGrath, president of PGR Media, Providence, R.I.
"It didn't work, and it's not working. I won't buy it," said another media buyer who, like many critics of Tina Brown, insisted on anonymity.
Despite well-publicized design tweaks, Talk's feel remains European, which, some claim, makes it culturally a tough fit with U.S. readers.
Ms. Brown, the British chairman and editor in chief of Talk, dismisses such talk. "It's a solidly American magazine, and will look even more so when we go to perfect binding and glossy paper in September," she said.
And don't tell Ron Galotti, the voluble president of Talk Media, that buzz on Talk has waned. "From January to June 28, we have had, in print, 1,384,287,000 gross impressions," he said, referring to a cumulative number of impressions for media stories mentioning the magazine, "and in broadcast we have had 1,155,238,000. . . . How much more talk would you like?"
Both Ms. Brown and Mr. Galotti blame Talk's backtalk on its competitors. "A lot of people have a lot to lose if Talk is successful," Ms. Brown said.
On the ad side, Mr. Galotti said that in its first year (September 1999 to August 2000) Talk will post 829 ad pages. Another much-hyped launch, In Style, in its first year notched 378.3 ad pages and was deemed an instant hit.
Still, Talk's ad pages for August total 25.3, not including a few pages of Talk- or co-owner Miramax Film Corp.-related ads. (In Style's July issue, by contrast, carried 128.5 ad pages.) Talk's September launch issue tallied 127.3 ad pages, and advertisers that bought the issue had to commit to the first four. The fifth issue, in February, showed a decline to 48.6 ad pages.
Miramax guaranteed the launch $50 million. While Mr. Galotti declined to discuss specifics on levels of investment, he said Hearst "was a 50-50 partner in every way conceivable." Hearst also came in later with backing in the form of production, distribution and subscription marketing muscle. Industry scuttlebutt reports Talk has already burned through $30 million, a figure Mr. Galotti derided. He said Talk took in $33.5 million in ad revenue this year.
"The fourth quarter is make or break," said Gene DeWitt, CEO of Optimedia International. "Either they show significant ad and circulation growth or they don't."
The magazine will guarantee advertisers a circulation rate base of 600,000 beginning with the August issue -- the magazine launched guaranteeing 500,000 -- but single-copy sales now look soft. Newsstand sell-through figures have declined to the low to mid-30% range, according to wholesalers and executives familiar with magazine distribution. The launch issue prompted a second press run of 300,000 when 1 million copies sent to newsstands sold out.
Mr. Galotti did not confirm or deny the sell-through estimate, but said he is "very pleased with our sell-through," adding subscriptions make up about 70% of Talk's circulation.
O, the Oprah Magazine
No one's sure how to classify O, the Oprah Magazine, but no one doubts that it has hit big.
"It's clearly early days with Oprah," said David Verklin, CEO of Carat North America, "but the performance is staggering."
For O, Barnes & Noble reported a 99% plus sell-through for the debut issue, and the title reprinted 500,000 copies after its 1.1 million initial print run sold out. O claims 600,000 subscription orders since its launch with no direct-mail effort to sell subs. Publisher Alyce Alston said she thought circulation would settle between 2 million and 3 million within three to five years. Ms. Alston also said the third issue, like the first two, sold out its inventory of ad pages.
Hearst and Ms. Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment are committing a total of at least $50 million to the launch.
Editor in Chief Ellen Kunes' resignation in early June after just two issues gave some in the media community pause. Ms. Winfrey "clearly wants to be in charge," said one executive at a non-competing magazine. Ms. Alston tacitly confirmed that, saying, "Oprah has such a clear vision I believe she will find an editor that is in sync with that." On July 10, Amy Gross was appointed the new editor in chief.
Ms. Winfrey's vision that a woman's magazine can be inspirational and soul-feeding while maintaining an environment that advertisers want to join has rung bells like few other new titles. Even one executive at a competing company called it "the new gold standard" for launches.
"Oprah will continue to go gangbusters," said Melissa Pordy, a media buyer with Zenith Media, New York.
Offspring, the quarterly from the SmartMoney folks, bills itself as a different kind of parenting title. But its demographics have yet to demonstrate that much difference from the established titles.
Publishing Director Chris Lambiase said its readership still skews 80% female, despite its emphasis on dad-friendly topics.
"We thought we could offer something that wasn't currently available," Mr. Lambiase said, repeating the title's marketing tagline, "No more baby talk."
The fall issue, focused on education, will feature a perforated gatefold pull-out section ranking the 100 best school districts in America, co-sponsored by luxury carmaker and new-to-Offspring Mercedes-Benz USA. That issue will kick off a new marketing alliance with Schering-Plough Corp.'s allergy remedy Claritin, which will distribute the title to daycare centers.
But Offspring isn't flying off the newsstands. Its sell-through figures hover in the high-30% range, about average for a launch. Mr. Lambiase said, however, that such figures were "really good" for a title in a subscription-driven category.
"Really interesting," is how Paula Brooks, managing partner at Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, New York, described the launch, adding she would "recommend it" to marketers.
More intriguing, perhaps, is how it is off the radar of some media buyers contacted. "I love Offspring," said one media buyer who requested anonymity, even though this buyer didn't see it setting the world on fire just yet. "It's an average launch," but "it's different and inviting." Ad pages in its April-May launch issue totaled 47.3, and rose slightly in the second issue to 52.3. Offspring is costing SmartMoney an estimated $10 million to launch -- less than other titles in this report owing to its quarterly frequency and its piggybacking onto SmartMoney business and, at least for the launch issue, editorial resources.
Like Ms. Winfrey's title, CosmoGirl is cited as an example of the successful leveraging of an existing brand name.
"Love the concept," said Valerie Muller, director of print services for Grey Worldwide, New York. "It hit the nail on the head," said Zenith Media's Ms. Pordy.
Even more remarkable is that it has managed to garner success in a field packed with titles.
With CosmoGirl, execution was tricky in that the product had to be sharp enough to be slightly ahead of teen trends but safe enough not to freak out Mom and Dad, concerned that the Cosmo moniker signifies something more risque than its current "Fun fearless female" tagline.
Still, said Publisher Kristine Welker, "we wanted to take a page from that book and apply it" to teen-age girls.
Newsstand sell-through has hit the mid-60s. One rival magazine veteran familiar with the world of teen girl mags damned CosmoGirl's quick success with faint praise by saying its target audience "indiscriminately" bought anything aimed at them. Ms. Welker said its rate base will be raised 50% to 750,000 for the February 2001 issue.
Later this year, the title will begin a single-copy sales push, purchasing an unspecified number of positions at checkout counters. Currently, CosmoGirl is sold at main newsstand racks in supermarkets and retail outlets.
Ms. Welker also points proudly to CosmoGirl's ad performance. Through June, it had notched 240.4 ad pages, compared to 250 for YM and 275.2 for Teen -- the latter, Ms. Welker noted, produced one more issue than CosmoGirl.
"We are right there with the two established magazines in the category," she said. Teen and YM are both slightly off last year's ad-page tallies, with Teen down 0.2% and YM, 5.6%. Teen People, the Time Inc. powerhouse launched in February 1998, however, has seen its ad pages rocket 39.1% to 486.5.
Though CosmoGirl has yet to have its circulation audited, it's expected to file a report claiming circulation around 600,000. If that figure passes Audit Bureau of Circulations muster, CosmoGirl's numbers would top the current circulation of Fairchild Publications' Jane (541.611), Bauer Publishing's Twist (293,945) and Weider Publications' Jump (426,467) but lag far behind such titles as Primedia's Seventeen, as well as Teen and YM, all of which top 2 million.
Cosmopolitan Group certainly has the money to throw behind CosmoGirl, and is estimated to be spending $15 million to $20 million to launch it.
Next up: Conde Nast's Teen Vogue in the fall.
Us Weekly is battling it out with Real Simple to be the launch most likely to be dumped on.
In truth, Us Weekly's slow start, as with the other titles listed herein, occurs within a timeframe too short to determine long-range success. That is, unless Wenner Media Chairman Jann Wenner loses patience with the money he admits "pours out" when you launch a weekly. Already Mr. Wenner revised the launch budget, first slated at $50 million. While he refused to say how much more he would spend, industry observers suggest he would need to spend at least $100 million to get Us Weekly to the profit point.
Perhaps reflecting the power wielded in the marketplace by Time Inc. juggernaut People, ad buyers largely give a thumbs-up to Us, which went weekly in mid-March. "I think it's going to do well," said one ad buyer who requested anonymity.
But the title is not exactly bursting with ads -- there were 24.6 in its last issue, down from 63 at launch. In late June, its rate base was cut from 1 million to 800,000. And newsstand sales have been sluggish to the point that Mr. Wenner has set the goalposts for sell-through at a mere 25%, in addition to cutting back on checkout positions and reducing draw, or the number of issues sent to newsstands. The initial yearend goal of 700,000 single copy readers has shrunk to 300,000.
Such news "could be the death of the magazine," said Optimedia's Mr. DeWitt.
Even Mr. Wenner conceded that the terrain is tough: "The waiting game is extremely expensive" for the relaunch, he said. "You're not putting out one monthly, you're putting out a couple million every goddamn week and paying for all those racks."
Those with knowledge of Mr. Wenner and his past history with big expenditures suspect he could eventually balk at a river of red ink and give up his weekly dreams. But the publishing bad boy insists he's in for the long haul.
Us Weekly Publisher Larry Burstein touted new advertisers -- such as the National Fluid Milk Processors Board, brewer Heineken USA's Amstel Light and Great Brands of Europe's Dannon spring water -- and said entertainment advertisers have increased schedules. He also said ad pages this year are expected to break a thousand -- which, for a title publishing since mid-March, doesn't quite commensurately increase the monthly Us' 530 pages for '99 when you factor in the change in frequency.
Still, Mr. Burstein said "the launch has gone extremely well."
"I don't have to beat People to win; I just have to carve out my place" said Us Weekly Editor in Chief Terry McDonell. "If our focus groups are telling the truth, people getting [Us Weekly] in their hands really like it, especially those between 28 and 35."
The question remaining is just how many will get the magazine in their hands. "Our initial calculation was wrong," shrugged Mr. Wenner. "You cannot sell in a week as many as you were selling in a month."
If you shelve all the bad press since its April launch and the rapid disappearance of its founding editor, Susan Wyland, one key fact remains about Real Simple, the latest Time Inc. title to come out of the People Group: So far, it has done rather well with readers.
Single-copy sell-through has been around 60% for its first two issues. And, according to Publisher Alexander Sareyan, subscription response is nothing to sneeze at, either. Subscription orders totaled about 780,000 at the end of June, though he conceded "it's a little too early to know" what the paid total will be.
Mr. Sareyan promised a "substantial" increase in Real Simple's rate base to "somewhere in the 600,000 or 700,000 range," which will be announced for 2001.
That said, it's hard to underestimate how strongly a sizable chunk of ad buyers dislike the magazine.
"I thought that it was a bad idea from the start," said Optimedia's Mr. DeWitt, who's unimpressed by Real Simple's strong newsstand performance so far. "Can they sustain it? I just doubt it."
Even some of its supporters sound wary. "I pray for it," said Margeotes/Ferttita's Ms. Brooks. "I really do."
With Ms. Wyland gone, the tweaked vision is to stay true to the idea that Real Simple can make women's lives easier. "Our readers can't really live totally simple lives," Mr. Sareyan said. "We know that and they know that."
Of the magazine's austere look, he said, "a magazine called Real Simple had to be a little more intuitive and easier to read" than it had been. The design originally was brainstormed by New York-based Valentine Group, which was replaced by Roland Bello, now creative director, for the third issue. Currently the magazine's acting managing editor is Carrie Tuhy, formerly of In Style, and overseen by Time Inc. Corporate Editor Isolda Motley.
Ad page counts remain healthy, beginning with 108 in the debut and 74.5 in the third issues. Time Inc. is spending an estimated $40 million to launch Real Simple.
"I think they will fix it," said one media buyer, if only "because within the year they will see [readership] start to fall off if they don't."
Well, they can't blame Oprah if that happens.
Contributing: Ben Healy.