Cripes. What gives? What are they doing wrong, even as competitors Us Weekly and In Touch blow more and more air into the celeb-azine bubble (growing circ 24% and 50%, respectively, during the first half)?
Desmond's American OK, a spin-off of his hugely profitable British OK, is a particular bewilderment, because the launch has been so well capitalized and further bolstered (at least in theory) by his willingness to pay celebrities for access. Over at American Media, CEO David Pecker has been attempting to chalk his losses up to a restructuring: the ongoing conversion of Star, under Editorial Director Bonnie Fuller, to a glossy, and a revamp at The Enquirer, where this spring he installed former U.K. Sun editor Paul Field and some two dozen fellow British tabloid-ists (only to see newsstand sales crater).
To try to diagnose these tabs' ills, I decided to do a little intrepid reporting: I flipped through them. Here's a bit of what I found:
"Happy Birthday, Kimberly! Rod Stewart may be 60, but he proved that he can still party with the best of them at the birthday bash of his daughter, Kimberly Stewart. By the end of the night, legendary crooner Rod looked stylishly disheveled with his necktie sexily loosened, but he was still giving the young whippersnappers a run for their money ..." -- OK, Sept. 5.
Upon its launch, Advertising Age Executive Editor Jonah Bloom called OK "simpering." Four issues later, I'm willing to go even further: OK is being produced by really, really stupid people. The packaging, starting with that Rod Stewart pr job, is invariably tone-deaf, and includes such lame wonders as "CANDICE BERGEN: The actress dines with her lovely daughter" (with shots of them eating biscuits). And its Pamela Anderson "WORLD EXCLUSIVE" gets this coverline: "HEARTWARMING INTERVIEW & PICS." Pamela Anderson ... heartwarming?
Meanwhile, check this out:
"The bandage on Jennifer's toe [a paparazzi shot of Jennifer Garner's toe is shown] covers a cor -- an area of hard, dead skin caused by ill-fitting shoes which put too much pressure on the toe. If she continues wearing the same shoes the corn can become inflamed ... Try: Duane Reade Corn Remover, $2.89 ..." -- from "CELEBRITY FOOT PATROL," The National Enquirer, Sept. 5.
Pecker reportedly spent $2.5 million to give The Enquirer its lavish makeover, and yet its editors have yet to figure out that even the most down-market American readers are insatiably aspirational. And don't even get me started on columnist Anna Nicole Smith, who breaks news about her dog's recent spaz attack ("IT WAS A SCARY NIGHT FOR ME AND SUGARPIE").
Unlike, say, the staff at Janice Min's Us Weekly -- smart people who are semi-cleverly covering stupid stuff -- the earnest editors and writers at OK and The Enquirer appear to actually be way dumber than their subjects. It's taken Us Weekly and In Touch and especially Star a while to perfect their particular form of cheerful stalker-ishness, but I suppose they've made it look a little too effortless.
One irony is that the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report shows a 21% growth in total circulation for Star. Still, it's clear that just as Bonnie Fuller was getting her sea legs with Star, Pecker decided to try to undercut her power as editorial director by installing the British invaders at The Enquirer. He was trying to make her feel expendable; instead, he's going to need her more than ever.
Now, I'm not saying that Desmond and Pecker are stupid men. But they are proud men, and what they're probably too stubborn to admit is that they've made some stupid recent hires, and those stupid hires have made more stupid hires, and now a stupidity domino effect threatens to mess everything the hell up.
But at these dastardly, cutthroat media companies, at which the imperious CEOs basically are the companies, who's going to tell the bosses they royally screwed up?
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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org