Get back in your box

With 10 new titles, the BBC is now the UK's third biggest magazine publisher. But will it force its rivals out of business? Philippa Kennedy reports
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The Independent Online

The BBC calls them "trails". Rivals say that they are advertisements. Either way, those little announcements at the end of programmes such as the Antiques Roadshow, slipped in under the guise of public service to let you know that a supporting BBC magazine is available at your local newsagent, give its publisher a big advantage over other publications.There is never any mention by name of competitors, apart from a small note that other magazines of a similar nature are "also available".

Even though restrictions about trails were tightened up two years ago after complaints from other publishers, paying for equivalent airtime on commercial channels would cost thousands of pounds.

BBC Magazines, now the third biggest publisher in the UK behind IPC and Emap, employs 550 staff and publishes 35 titles, usually linked to successful television programmes such as Top Gear and Top of the Pops, and the many lifestyle shows. From next spring there will be 10 more - many unconnected to TV shows. Parenting was launched last week, and a new food magazine, known as Project Olive, a teen title - Project April - and a Songs of Praise magazine are due out in the autumn. Another gardening magazine and a pre-school title are also in the pipeline, along with another secret project, to add to the three children's titles out this summer.

Not surprisingly, there is discontent in the publishing world. IPC's editorial director, Mike Soutar, says: "They use public money to build strong brands on television, and then exploit those brands commercially, by producing magazines against rival publishers that are not able to use public money.

"Top of the Pops magazine, for example, is the market leader because it benefits from 35 years of publicly funded brand-building. I feel that either a company is publicly funded or it is a commercial organisation."

Sally O'Sullivan, editorial director of Highbury Cabal, the publisher of Front and Real Homes, agrees: "The BBC brand is built up on licencees' money. BBC magazines are cashing in on that brand - they are not called 'Bertie Brown' magazines - which is seen as solid, trustworthy and good value, and which won't frighten the children or the goats."

They are not alone in their worries. One area that has been badly hit is gardening magazines. Ian Templeton, MD of Emap Active, publishers of Garden News and Garden Answers, calls it an uneven playing field: "At one stage, there were 26 garden magazines, now there are eight. When Gardeners' World is on TV, we see a dent in our circulations," he says.

Motoring is another area in which publishers complain that the BBC has an unfair advantage, with Top Gear, launched about 10 years ago to complement the TV show. With a circulation of 150,000 it knocked Emap's 20-year-old Car magazine (circulation 115,000) into second place. Phil Taylor, MD of Emap Automotive, says: "We saw a drop-off to a certain extent. Top Gear was a very good launch. Each time the programme is back on air, it gives a fillip to the magazine with which we can't compete."

Some publishers are reluctant to admit that there is a problem, brushing it off as normal competition in a tough market. Stephen Palmer, MD of Emap Pop, believes that talent and bright ideas will win the day. But he does concede that Top of the Pops magazine, a spin-off from the show and now selling 240,000 a month, affected Emap's Smash Hits, which sells 150,000 fortnightly, in terms of ad revenue. "You are irritated by the competition, but that's the name of the game. In the magazine market, building awareness is a difficult, expensive process. And the BBC has a head start."

Indeed, some years ago, when the BBC decided to televise the Smash Hits party, it turned into a nightmare. Palmer remembers "BBC staff running around with duct tape, hiding anything resembling a logo". And Soutar, then at Emap, describes "a screaming match" with Janet Street-Porter (then head of BBC Youth and Entertainment), over the logo 20 minutes before the show was going live.

To many publishers, the BBC seems unreceptive to ideas for programmes linked to rival magazines, a good example being NatMags' Country Living's successful "Farmer Wants a Wife" campaign that was developed into a programme for ITV. "The BBC would have imposed too many restrictions," says NatMags supremo, Terry Mansfield. The former MD, a director of the Hearst Corporation, is concerned that the BBC operates a policy that excludes other publishers sharing opportunities that should be more available in a public corporation. "It's a closed shop as far as ideas go. I don't have a problem with BBC Magazines making money, but the BBC could have a wider relationship with other media owners. I would like the BBC to be one of my options to sell a good programme idea on its own merit, regardless of the fact that I'm a different publishing house."

BBC Magazines is unrepentant about the success of its publishing empire. The head of press, Mike Blakemore, says that the more successful it is, the more money that goes into programme-making. BBC Worldwide made a profit of £123m in 2002/03, contributing the equivalent of £5 towards every licence fee. "The Government has charged the BBC with increasing its money from commercial operations. We play our part in that by running a successful magazine company."

The figures are certainly impressive. BBC Magazines sold 100 million magazines over the year, reaching almost one in five UK adults every month. The division claims an 18 per cent profit improvement, supported by a major efficiency review. Radio Times recently sold its 15 billionth copy, and Eve saw an 11 per cent increase in news-stand sales.

Blakemore points to the guidelines laid down by the BBC's fair-trading complaints committee - publications such as Radio Times and History Magazine don't just cover BBC programmes. He also defends the "unfair advantage" of using the BBC name. "It means that our magazines have to live up to that brand, and hopefully they do. We are proud to be part of the BBC, and that the brand has that sort of association."

But that won't make competitors any happier. The way the BBC uses its resources to crush the opposition has many precedents - witness the way it rushed to air with Breakfast Time shortly after ITV announced plans for its own breakfast show; or the effect that BBC News 24 has had on the profitability of Sky News.

Arguably, the BBC is in a no-win situation - damned if the success of its magazines sees off rivals; damned if its commercial arm doesn't contribute enough money to the corporation's coffers. And although it is true that the unease expressed in the publishing market-place is fuelled by rivalry, the BBC needs to know that anything it does in this area will be scrutinised, and provoke an aggressive response.