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Bertelsmann's plan to buy The New York Times Co. Women's Magazine Group is triggering speculation that the German media giant may try to curtail rate cutting deals.

Under the agreement announced last week, Bertelsmann's Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing unit would pay an estimated $350 million for the magazines, including Family Circle and McCall's. The women's service category has been plagued by rampant discounts of 50% off rate cards.

Also included in the deal are Child, Fitness, American Home-style, Mary Emmerling's Country and Custom Builder.

Gruner & Jahr, which also owns Parents and teen title YM, is known for rate card integrity.

"We're very sensitive to the advertising community. We're not going to try to force something down their throats. But the discount rate offered by the New York Times magazines is higher than we would like it to be," said John Heins, president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr USA.

A competitor agreed with the need for change. "If we could get back to selling quality circulation and editorial value instead of negotiating rate, I think it would be terrific," said Alan Waxenberg, publisher of Good Housekeeping.

But that will be tough to pull off, media buyers warn.

"The big food companies are not going to pay a premium to advertise in the women's service books," said Roberta Garfinkel, senior VP-director of print media at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "They can't get away from rate negotiations in this lifetime."

The sale didn't surprise Charles Townsend, who three months ago jumped from president of the Times women's group to become publisher of Conde Nast's Glamour.

"It's been apparent that the Times Co.'s commitment to magazines has been less than ideal," he said.

Last year, the company paid $1 billion to acquire Affiliated Publications, parent of The Boston Globe. One Times Co. magazine executive speculated the "commodity nature" of the women's service field prompted the sale.

The company's other titles-including Golf Digest and Tennis -fit the upper-income demographics of The New York Times.

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