'Us' rate base grows

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In January, Us Weekly-the title owned by a 50-50 partnership of Wenner Media and the Walt Disney Co.-will bump its rate base up to 950,000 from 850,000.

Cynics will note that puts it almost at the one million rate base-the circulation guaranteed to advertisers-it launched with in March 2000. To Kent Brownridge, the general manager of Wenner Media, the jump means its rate base rose 17.5% since its debut-the title had to cut its rate base to 800,000 in August of that year, and could only charge advertisers for that circulation level after it went weekly in March 2000.

So has the title turned around, in a tough economy, after a battering in the media and ad worlds and Wenner's life-raft sale of half the magazine for $35 million of Disney's money?

Maybe.

September was the title's first profitable month, Mr. Brownridge said. The operation is extraordinarily tight, which helps-there are just 87 full-timers putting out the title, down from 100 in June. And staffers can no longer expense lunches, or even magazine purchases.

The ad side is hardly a slam-dunk. Its ad page figures this year-in the months April through September-show a decline of 5.6% to 510.2, according to Publishers Information Bureau. That's less than the average declines reported by titles throughout the year, but, unlike the industry, Us Weekly wasn't associated with an electrifying ad performance in '00.

"That's just seasonal fluctuation," Mr. Brownridge said. "We will end up with the same number [as '00]. That's not great, but it's not terrible." (Disney executives did not respond to calls for comment.)

The point, Mr. Brownridge said, is newsstand-which is good, because, as a former Wenner executive puts it, "There's no new advertising in there. None. Very, very little."

For the first half of 2000 the title averaged 311,691 in newsstand, a little more than a third of its overall 918,750 circulation. Mr. Brownridge said the average issue of Us now sells around 330,000 on newsstand. Sell-through, or percentage of newsstand copies sold, has doubled, to the mid-30s-the industry average-thanks to cutbacks on the 200,000 pocket positions the company originally invested in. A survey of some retailers testifies to a small uptick in sales around the middle of this year, said a person on newsstand-side. (Independent figures were not available.)

An extra 20,000 in newsstand sales per week means about another $1.5 million a year in profit. (Wenner has invested around $30 million in the title, said an insider.) Advertisers still don't sound thrilled with the title. "The 18-to 34-year old woman [target] is a very crowded category," said George Janson, senior VP, WPP Group's Media Edge, New York.

Mr. Brownridge said Us makes more money from the newsstand than from ads. "People use [wholesaler consolidation] as an excuse their magazine isn't selling. But how many have told you, `my magazine doesn't sell because it sucks?'

"I want to tell you," Mr. Brownridge concluded, "based on the newsstand results, [Us] doesn't suck."

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