Abi new year for the weeklies

Could Richard Desmond cash in on the market which Nuts and Zoo have created?

Abi Nude Year! Or should that be Happy Nude Year… Not my words, fortunately, seeing as I spent New Year’s Eve halfway up Newcastle’s Bigg Market in the company of hundreds of well built (in the traditional sense) drunk Geordies, but two headlines I bumped across while trying to find a way past the Abi Titmuss Appreciation Society at the newsstand this Christmas. And I’m not talking about the fevered readers I encountered there. So which publications ran those headlines? Was it a) The Sun , b) The Star , c) The Mirror or d) none of the above? If you answered d) then maybe you saw last week’s copies of Nuts and Zoo, in which both headlines appeared, and you will know that these thrusting young bucks share more than a taste for puns with the raddled old red-tops.

In this instance, a love of the ubiquitous Abi Titmuss and all her works (only some of which are available on video). Not to mention the doings of fellow good-time girls Jennifer, Lucy and, indeed, Michelle.

These four -Titmuss, Ellison, Pinder and Marsh respectively -are in many ways the creation of the tabloids, whether as straightforward Page 3 types or as on-going stories. But they have also been-and I don’t think too many people would have predicted this – the biggest cover stars of the hugely successful new men’s weeklies, the publishing success story of 2004, which began the year putting the likes of Beyonce´, Britney, Christine Aguilera, J-Lo, Elisha Cuthbert and Kirsten Dunst on the cover. Both magazines’ circulations are heading north of their current ABCs (290,337 for Nuts and 200,125 for Zoo) and some weeks they pass the half million mark as a combined sale. Which is more than two million copy sales a month, easily more than the whole of the men’s monthly market put together.

In a time of flagging organs, this is impressive stuff. But it’s not only the men’s weekly magazines that stand proud on the newsagents’ shelves.

Their bitchy big sisters, the celebrity weeklies, continue to walk out of the shops in their millions, women’s weeklies are on the march again with the big budget launch of IPC’s Pick Me Up later this month and that sassy sounding creation Grazia , a glossy women’s fashion weekly from Emap, will be slipping on its Manolos in the spring. When it comes to magazines, it seems weekly frequency works wonders for sectors that have seen growth slow to a standstill.

Meanwhile daily newspapers, especially the tabloids, continue to experience a world of pain, crippled by seemingly terminal circulation decline and a palpable uncertainty about what to do next. So how long before tabloid bosses decide to reach out to those happy to buy a cheap and disposable magazine by bringing out big-circulation weeklies aimed at both women and men? They have more than the tools to hand.

In the women’s weeklies the editors of Reveal, Closer, That’s Life and Take A Break , not to mention many of the commissioning editors on these and other titles, are former Fleet Street operators, honed by The News of the World, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, and able to fight for stories, buy them up and break them as exclusives. But forget what a marketing man might call such ‘synergies’ in a sector that newspapers have flirted with before – remember the Mirror’s M magazine? – while chasing those elusive young female readers.

What about the virgin turf that is the men’s sector? The men’s weeklies are surely a newspaperman’s wet dream. They share a modern tabloid’s DNA.

Driven by plenty of shots of girls with improperly fastened bras and bikinis, loads of football (“I don’t think Arsenal fans like me” -Ruud Van Nistelrooy), sex (“Abi’s sex resolutions”), real-life crime, TV comedy (“The Real Brian Potter -Zoo tracks down man who inspired Peter Kay”), crazy pictures (“Speedboat flies through fire”), and outlandish interviews with the stars (“I got so drunk I slept through my mate’s wedding” – Johnny Vegas).All served up on a bed of knockabout “news” (” Nuts girl cheers up Christmas workers”).

Their triumph in 2004 – one of innovation and investment on the part of both IPC and Emap – has blurred the boundaries between the content of magazines and newspapers like never before.

Go back to the covers. The men’s weeklies have completely redefined what counts as a magazine cover star.

Clearly none of this would have happened had the publishers of the weeklies not had the imagination to see an opportunity -just as they did when tapping into the appetite for celebrity six years ago – to harness the internet generation to the men’s sector by stripping down the unwieldy, un-navigable glossy monthlies to weekly size. Oh, and by shrewdly taking out the difficult bits: no long reads, no endless pages of borderline gay fashion, no unwanted wedges of ads.

And while you could say there was little truly innovative about moving on an FHM-trained reader to something more disposable with similar content, the publishers would point to new frequency, format and price, which it has to be said are pretty big levers to pull.

Together with £8 million marketing budgets apiece, Emap and IPC have really created the sense of something happening. You can’t underestimate the excitement of doing something new. Can you think of anything the tabloids have done that has generated similar levels of interest? For the 16-24 year olds buying the new men’s weeklies in their hundreds of thousands, these really are exciting new magazines aimed at them, not their big brothers.

More to the point, they are priced accordingly. Despite a cover price of £1.20 for both, on average one issue in five of Nuts has been discounted to 60p. And Zoo has discounted with similar regularity, sometimes with the price dropping as low as 50p. The result? Inevitable circulation peaks and troughs.

Of course, this has been necessary to create a market but the pattern of promotion shows that there are an awful lot more young men happy to buy a magazine for 60p than £1.20.

Which is much as you might expect for a mag that only someone who left school at Easter would take more than half an hour to read.

But by proving how price sensitive the market is, have the publishers laid a trap for themselves? What’s to stop a newspaper boss sitting on his hands while IPC and Emap spend millions creating a new market before bringing out a cheaper lookalike? Sounds familiar? To anyone who has seen Richard Desmond’s New , a 60p version of IPC’s market leader Now (cover price £1) it should. In fact, Desmond is said to be on the case of the men’s weeklies with his own offering KO, which he registered as a name in the summer. No surprise there then – if the content is to be found close to home, the talent to pull it all together is equally close and in the Daily Star he has a powerful vehicle to promote it.

So who’s really going to have a Happy Nude Year in the weeklies in 2005? Nuts and Zoo, who are way ahead of target, must be sure bets. Abi, if her past performance is anything to go by, is a home banker. But the smart money might go on a tabloid boss or two.

Tom Loxley is a former editor of Maxim 

Next week: Janice Turner

by guest columnist Tom Loxley

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