Tough love for IPC's Easy launch

What’s
On TV editor Colin Tough has launched TV Easy, a cheap, stripped-down
listings magazine for people who think features are just clutter.
Alyson Fixter met him

AT KING’S REACH TOWER in
Waterloo, home of IPC, there’s a top secret floor with two top secret
rooms in it. Editorial director Mike Soutar is permanently holed up
there, working on plans for the future of magazine publishing. It’s so
private, the walls are rumoured to be steel-lined. In these two rooms,
the company ferments all its new launches.

Staff sign agreements promising, on pain of sacking, not to reveal
what’s going on. There are leaks, but never enough for those outside
the company to be really sure what’s on the cards.

To be honest,
it’s usually a nightmare for a humble magazines reporter, but following
the launch of IPC’s latest project, TV Easy, I’ve been invited into
this inner sanctum to interview Colin Tough, the man behind the first
ever compact-size newsstand TV listings title, as well as the long-term
editor of market leader What’s On TV.

As I’m ushered into the
reception, Soutar is in a glass-fronted office on the phone to who
knows who, talking about who knows what. I am unlikely to find out a
second before IPC chiefs want me to. And now I’m finally here in one of
the two top secret rooms, it’s all a bit… disappointing really. Set of
sofas, coffee machine, neutral carpets, bad air conditioning. Tsk.

But
here comes Colin Tough, a man whose name could’ve been chosen just to
make trade press headline writers’ lives easier. Yet he’s one of the
less wellknown editors at the big publishing companies, despite 20
years in magazines, working at IPC, Emap and, for a spell, on new
projects for Sky TV magnate Rupert Murdoch. His lack of media exposure
seems especially unusual because he is editing What’s On TV, the
best-selling magazine in the UK, with an ABC of 1.58m and reportedly
topping 1.8m in recent weeks.

“I’ve been around for a while,”
explains Tough in his Glaswegian accent, “but I tend to keep my head
down and get on with it. I’m not really a networker at all. I just love
my job, I love producing new products.”

And after 16 months
cooped up on the 17th floor with that bad air conditioning, Tough is
obviously delighted to finally have a chance to talk about his new
baby, TV Easy, which launched two weeks ago when 1.5m sampling copies
were given away with sister titles such as Now, Pick Me Up and Woman.

“The
reaction’s been fantastic,” he says. “There were a few rumours in the
trade press before the launch but the main thing is that we managed to
keep the size of it secret.

“It’s amazing that all these journalists kept so quiet about it, especially in the pub at the end of the day.”

But when it comes to the TV listings market, it’s no wonder that there has been so much secrecy.

With
12 titles already in the sector but total sales remaining static at
about 5m for years, the past few months have seen a vicious battle for
dominance between the main listings mag publishers, H Bauer, IPC and
BBC Magazines.

In February, IPC announced it was cutting the
price of What’s On TV from 45p to 35p, which would have made it the
cheapest in the market, had Bauer not then reacted by slashing the
cover price of its rival title, TV Choice, by 10p, to 30p. The BBC
slated both companies for “devaluing” the market as a whole, insisting
its premium-priced title, Radio Times, would not dip its foot in such
murky waters, relying instead on a relaunch and marketing to retain
readers.

But with the announcement of TV Easy last month, IPC’s long-term strategy has become clearer.

With
TV Easy priced at 35p (and early issues being promoted at 30p), What’s
On TV is set to go back up to 40p, in the hope that the publisher will
secure both the bargain end of the market and the readers who are
willing to pay (slightly) more for a bit of a read as well. And if a
read is what they want, they really will have to fork out that extra
5p, because they won’t get that with TV Easy.

“Functional” is a
word Tough uses a lot and, as he himself explains, the magazine is much
like an expanded version of the Sky on-screen programme guide in
magazine form. In the first compact-sized listings magazine (“perfect
for the arm of the sofa”), things like full-page features, letters and
comprehensive film reviews are stripped away to produce a magazine for
people who just want to know what’s on the telly, quickly.

Tough insists this simplicity is what will, in fact, grow the market.

“The
problem has been we’ve had these ‘me-too’ products,” he says,
enthusiastically. “You’re never going to grow a market if all you’re
saying is: ‘Hey, buy us, we’re cheaper.’ But this is so different. We
found a really large audience out there who weren’t interested in a
read at all. They wouldn’t buy What’s On TV if it was 10p because they
see features as clutter.

“What they want is a functional TV
guide, easy to use, simple, that tells them what’s on, tells them about
the programmes, and lets them make the choices quickly.

“We just spent all our time thinking: ‘How can we make this simpler, easier?'”

Tough’s
pleasure in coming up with something new is such that he claims he gets
tempted to jump ship when things run too smoothly, and even goes on a
downer when a new launch finally hits the market.

He’s developed
a reputation for being an innovator at IPC, being the first person to
point out both the potential threat, as well as the opportunities, of
the internet, back in 1994, while editing TV & Satellite Week.

When
he gave a presentation to the IPC board on the subject (“I gave them a
bit of a magic show,” says Tough), he was promptly made multimedia
development manager and went on to be responsible for the launch of the
hugely successful NME.com website, now one of the music weekly’s
greatest assets.

Further back in his career, while working as a
19-year-old sports reporter at The Sunday Post in Glasgow, he was
offered the editorship of two failing local weeklies in the hope that
he could turn them around.

One of his strategies was to bring in
a teenage friend to write a cartoon about a superhero called Captain
Clyde, who spoke in the Glasgow dialect.

Sales improved and the
young artist, Grant Morrison, went on to earn great acclaim for his
graphic novels here and in the United States. He now produces superhero
stories for American publishing giant DC Comics.

On the subject
of the Scottish weeklies, Tough says: “I think they [the management]
thought: ‘Give it to the kid, he’ll either destroy it totally or do
something with it.’

“Grant did a page every week and it was
bloody good. The circulation certainly edged up a bit, and whether that
helped I don’t know, but what it did do was give it that feel that
there was something different there.

“I’d never take a chance
like that now, but being 19 you don’t think like that, you just think:
‘right, this is what we’re going to do’ and that gets more difficult
the older you get.”

Certainly at a multi-million pound operation
like IPC, things are not left to chance in quite the same way. The
company has been heavily focus-grouping its new launches, bringing out
multiple dummies and returning to the groups (held well outside the
capital for greater leak-protection) for ongoing feedback.It’s a method
that certainly worked for Nuts and it is rumoured to have had the
desired effect for January’s launch, Pick Me Up, although some would
claim that truly innovative magazines never come from asking the public
what they want.

Tough agrees with this to a certain extent. “The
trouble with consumers is you can’t say: ‘What would you like?’ because
they don’t know,” he admits.

“I remember the very first research
group I went to [for the launch of TV & Satellite Week in 1993].
Most people then bought monthly magazines, and they were saying: ‘Oh,
we love our monthlies’. I was thinking: ‘There’s absolutely nothing
here.’

“But then, when we showed them the dummies, suddenly there
was a breakthrough. They think they like the magazines they’ve got but
that’s only because they can’t imagine how you could improve them.

And how could they, when they’re not journalists?”

As
editor of What’s On TV, Tough is keenly focused on his readers’ needs,
as well as their quirky dislikes. Like that other market bestseller,
Take A Break, What’s On TV is aimed at the housewife with young
children, who, on average, clocks up more hours of TV viewing in a week
than most people typically work.

“In these households there are more TVs than people,”

says Tough. “It’s always on, like a companion.

“You
want to get the readers excited about the programmes, but at the same
time you have to be really careful. We did a story about Janine from
EastEnders headed ‘The bitch is back’, and the number of women who said
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t have that on it’ was huge.

“People are
still very conservative. These same women are probably reading Chat and
laughing at the sex stories, but What’s On TV is on the coffee table
and their kids are around.”

Tough’s elder brother Ian is part of
husband-andwife comedy duo the Krankies, and his sibling’s
thencelebrity status contributed to his decision to apply for his first
magazine job at TV Times, he says.

“I think it might have helped me get the job because I was already part of that world,” he adds.

“But
my job now isn’t really that glamorous. I probably could make it more
glamorous but I’m too old now to be going to celebrity parties.”

Having
paid VIP visits to the sets of Coronation Street, EastEnders and
Emmerdale, in addition to judging the British Soap Awards for three
years running, Tough has the opportunity to meet celebrities his
readers would probably kill to spend time with. But his most treasured
celebrity moment is one most probably wouldn’t really appreciate.

“I met Jim Irwin, the first man to drive a car on the moon!” he tells me earnestly.

“That
was when I was most impressed. I mean, there’s plenty of soap stars and
ex-prime ministers around, but how many people have actually driven a
car on the moon?”

Maybe this is a pointer towards the direction of IPC’s next new launch: the first zero-gravity glossy.

You heard it here first.

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