Special Report: Age no handicap to 'This Old House'

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Time publishing Ventures' This Old House is as much about networking household appliances with personal computers as it is about gutting a 100-year-old New England farmhouse.

The publication has left behind the TV show's focus to offer a broader selection of articles and information relevant to its readers. At 35 to 40 years old, the average reader's home is about as old as the average reader.

AD REVENUE GAINS

Unlike the 22-year-old PBS TV program "This Old House," the 5-year-old print vehicle has no qualms about attracting ad revenue. The program, owned by Boston-based WGBH, also has another life, where its rich library of material is ad-supported on cable in syndication.

"From the level of the [`This Old House'] brand, we've always stood for merging an old-world sense of craftsmanship and attention to detail with the latest-breaking products and technologies," says Editor Donna Sapolin. "When you say `This Old House,' you're not implying that someone is miring themselves in some retro past."

For example, the January/February issue included features on indoor pools and "Revving up a '60s Ranch."

The marketing formula is working for the print vehicle. In fact, ad pages for the 10-times-a-year publication were up 26.5% to 806.53 in 1999, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Ad bookings are up another 42% this year.

This Old House also spins out an annual series that includes three special-interest publications: Kitchen & Bath Guide, Guide to Outdoor Living and Rooms. Six special-interest publications are planned for 2001, though a schedule has not been set.

This Old House advertisers include the expected list of window, paint and garden suppliers such as window marketer Andersen Corp., seed company W. Atlee Burpee Co. for its Web site Burpee.com and wood stain marketer Samuel Cabot Inc., among others. Beyond that, Microsoft Corp. has been advertising in the book for three years, and last year Hewlett-Packard Co. signed on.

AUTOMAKERS BUY IN

The ad categories reflect the publication's effort to blend content on historic renovation with practical home improvement. About 50% of its ad revenue comes from "non-endemic" categories such as personal computing and automotive, says Tom Ott, VP-publisher.

It was the strong brand established by the TV show among its 10 million weekly viewers that attracted Time Ventures Publishing to publish the companion print vehicle five years ago, says Eric Thorkilsen, president of Time Publishing Ventures' This Old House division.

Emergence from the shadow cast by the TV show may be one secret of the title's recent success, which includes a hefty circulation gain along with its increased ad pages. Total circulation increased 25% to 672,754 for the second half of 1999 over the same period in 1998, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"I have to admit that I had some confusion up until not too long ago with the publication and its relationship to the television program," says Dan Binder, VP-director of print investments for Starcom USA, Chicago.

"I thought it [was] more of the same in a print format. In fact, there's a lot of decorating editorial in it. It's not just reconstruction of renovation [projects]. It's edited for people who own homes."

'60S BASE

While the magazine broadly covers all aspects of renovating homes of all ages, it has settled on catering most to the roughly half of its readers whose homes were built in the 1960s or later.

These readers "want not so much a restoration of those homes back to a period of a couple hundred years ago, but rather to imbue in them a sense of the craftsmanship and style and detailing that creates an illusion or feeling of days gone by," Mr. Thorkilsen says. "The fact that [many readers' homes] are of relatively recent vintage and there are so many of them underscores why we think [our] growth will continue."

"I think they're in the market at the right time," Mr. Binder says of the publication, noting the skyrocketing cost of real estate in markets such as Chicago puts a premium on staying put and fixing up homes of any age.

DISPUTE RANKLING

This Old House is still rankled by a dispute that occurred last year. Ironically, the magazine spun off from a PBS-originated TV show ran afoul of the American Society of Managing Editors, which questioned TOH's advertising-editorial independence. The alleged breach stems from a deal required by Time Publishing Ventures' license with WGBH.

ASME cited pull-out posters that feature the logo of Ace Hardware, primary underwriter of the TV show, which satisfy a license requirement that Ace receive special advertising opportunities in the publication.

In contrast to much of the shelter magazine field, TOH rarely mentions or features brand names, Mr. Thorkilsen claims.

"We're not trying to be the bad boys of the industry on this one," he says. "We try to walk a fine line between living by the rules of the magazine world and our commitment under that license. We feel we've done it [and that readers] will not be confused by how we graphically treat the underwriter of the show on public television."

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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