Two years ago, masthead programming – the reincarnation of popular magazines as television shows – was considered to have great potential in the U.K. Publishers were salivating over multimedia potential and broadcasters were rubbing their hands over the prospect of subsidized programming. However, making the concept work turned out to be tougher than anticipated.
For years, publishers in the U.K. lobbied TV regulator, the ITC, to let them produce masthead programs – television shows that use the names of their magazines. In March 1997, they won a partial victory when the ITC lifted its total ban on masthead programs, allowing the production of such shows for cable and satellite. Then in April 1998, the ITC went further, allowing the production of masthead shows on any U.K. commercial channel, including ITV and Channel 4.
The publishers’ enthusiasm to make masthead shows was based on various factors. Firstly, they saw the possibility of extra income through multimedia exploitation of their brands. Secondly, they believed that large TV audiences would be a way to promote their core publishing proposition. Thirdly, and unique to the U.K., they had been falling victim to the BBC’s policy of launching magazines off the back of successful television shows. Over the years, the pubcaster has launched into the motoring, food, kids and homes sectors using its airwaves to promote its titles for free. Publishers, unable to retaliate, were livid.
Unfortunately, the publishers’ desire to get shows on air has not been matched by that of the major terrestrial networks. To date, the only masthead shows to be produced have been for the low-cost cable and satellite environment – where broadcasters saw the opportunity to win viewers by airing well-known program names at a low production price.
So, for example, Carlton Food Network made a 52-week run of Ideal Home Cooks with Ideal Home magazine. GSkyB, meanwhile, made 300 episodes of The Good Housekeeping Show and the Zest Beauty Show with Hearst subsidiary The National Magazine Company.
One pioneer in this field, ITN Factual’s Julian Ware, explains why masthead has not been the gold mine that everyone expected. ‘We did a masthead show with Autocar & Motor [magazine] called Driving Passions [Note: this was before the ITC allowed magazine titles to be used]. It was very enjoyable, but the problem was that we didn’t understand each other’s businesses.’
The first problem, says Ware, lies in the publisher’s expectations. ‘Autocar & Motor is the brand leader in its market. As such, it expects a TV version of its brand to be in ITV primetime, not on a tiny channel with a series shot on Hi-8. I think we made a good series, but I don’t think the publisher was particularly happy with the way it represented their brand.’
The misunderstanding was mutual, he admits. ‘From our point of view, we imagined that there were cost savings to be had by using their editorial know-how and contacts. But the print sector has been downsized in the same way as TV. Their journalists were already run ragged doing their own jobs properly. That meant there was no real slack in their working days to help us on the production of the series.’
In addition to these issues, Ware found planning for TV and print was markedly different. ‘Forward planning is critical in TV because of the high cost of a day’s production. Magazine journalists didn’t understand that because they have a different way of working.’
If there was one positive aspect, says Ware, it was the opportunity to produce a video of road tests. This was direct-marketed to Autocar readers through the pages of the magazine – and managed to turn a small profit.
RDF head of distribution Matthew Frank is not so pessimistic about masthead. His company is currently working with a major publisher on the TV pitch of a masthead concept.
However, Frank acknowledges there are issues which need to be addressed by producers. ‘You have to get used to serving two masters. The network wants the right show and the publisher is keen to protect and promote its brand.’
There is also a rights issue to be weighed up. ‘When you do a masthead program, you are splitting the potential revenue with a publisher. You have to be sure that going the masthead route is a better approach than coming up with your own wholly-owned concept.’
After NatMags’ work with GSkyB, the company pitched a proposal for The Good Housekeeping Show at itv, and saw it rejected. The result is that the company is having second thoughts about masthead TV – despite having been one of its most ardent advocates in the early days.
The big question for publishers is whether the small audiences available on cable and satellite are justified by the cost of producing a series. GSkyB’s James Hunt doesn’t believe that NatMags’ hesitation spells the end for masthead. ‘But I don’t think the opportunity lies in primetime. Instead, I believe there are niches, like angling, where masthead shows would do very well. Advertisers are quick to recognize the value of powerful brands in reaching their target audience.’