Contrary to popular opinion, Primedia's made the right move

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If I were assigning a story on the current era in media and marketing, my working title would likely read "It's the niche, stupid." The subject would probably be Primedia. Cobbled together by financier Henry Kravis and his colleagues from myriad acquisitions and known in its infancy as K-III, Primedia may be the poster child for the media business future.

This is a contrarian view. Primedia has taken its hits in the business press, mostly because of questions about its acquisitions (full or partial) of the Internet portal and Brill Media Holdings. Partly as a result, its stock is lagging. In focusing on these inconsequentialities, the naysayers miss a larger point, evident in this year's dreadful broadcast TV upfront market-indeed, in the frightening ad spending slowdown generally: Big, branded media may have reached the limits of their effectiveness.

With audiences atomizing in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business realms, and with technology increasingly capable of reaching, understanding and measuring them efficiently, media companies such as Primedia may be positioned best. They have the content and the delivery mechanisms to access the nooks and crannies of the culture.

I'm willing to swim against the tide because I saw it applied at NBC. When Robert Wright became head of the TV network in the early `80s, he braved internal opposition and external ridicule by driving it into alternative distribution. He created the cable networks CNBC and (in a joint venture with Microsoft) MSNBC, bought into other branded cable networks, and then dealt his way into the Internet. Many of these projects were brought to life by trading NBC's name and ad time- insiders called them "peacock dollars"-for stakes in startups. While some of the Internet ventures came to naught, NBC was less exposed than other companies that used cash and expensive shares to buy their way in. And, needless to say, some of these deals proved to be strokes of profitable genius. I mention this history because one of the architects of NBC's strategy was Tom Rogers, the first president of NBC's cable division and the man currently sitting atop Primedia, where a similar strategy is playing itself out.

Average media junkies know Primedia for its mainstream magazines like New York and Seventeen. But the strategic rollup, as serial acquisitions are called, that created it gave Primedia a staggering array of magazines aimed at some of the narrowest enthusiasms imaginable (such as Canoe & Kayak and Civil War Times in the business-to-consumer space and Lighting Dimensions and Fleet Owner in the b-to-b space). With its recent acquisition of enthusiast publisher Emap, Primedia's presence in niche media is unrivaled.

Enthusiast publications may not be recession-proof but they seem to weather economic storms better than the average mainstream monthly. Endemic advertising, often with only a single channel to market, holds up better than generic brand advertising, which can readily cut back from, say, three magazines to two. And passionate hobbyists and competitive businesspeople alike are usually loathe to eliminate their one, true media lifeline. (I subscribe to Primedia's monthly Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater; I'd sooner lose an arm than miss my dose of HDTV hardware reviews.)

Finally-and perhaps most importantly-fervent consumers are more likely to move with you across media platforms, seeking your content and expertise wherever it is and wherever they are. Owning as much niche content as Primedia does puts it on good footing to profit from the fragmentation of TV, which (as faithful readers of this column know) is inevitable as TiVo-like personal video record-ers find their way into set-top boxes. Although known primarily as a print company, Primedia sits on thousands of hours of niche TV content already.

Turning a thousand enthusiasms into a thriving business is hard work, naturally. Debt needs to be brought down, efficiencies achieved and scale opportunities uncovered. But, as average folks increasingly seek to satisfy their personal manias, which media would you bet on-the mass brands of the 20th century or the niche brands of the 21st? Think about that the next time you pluck a Horticulture or Paper, Film & Foil Converter from the shelf.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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