Until now, publishers have been restricted from developing their titles as TV programmes by ITC rules on programme sponsorship. A publisher producing a programme using the theme - and title - of one of its magazines would unduly promote that title within the programme, the Commission ruled.
Publishers were not amused. Broadcasters have long enjoyed an unfair advantage, they claim. Able to spin magazines out of programmes, TV companies can win readers by exploiting established broadcast brands and plugging their magazine titles on air.
Case in point: the BBC's successful magazines such as Top Gear (latest circulation: 160,370) and the Good Food Magazine (401,180). Then in June, Sky TV signed a deal with Haymarket Magazines to publish a range of consumer sports titles. Meanwhile Scottish Television, which recently acquired Caledonian Newspapers, launched a title based on the TV series The Home Show. At least seven new TV-themed launches are expected in the new year.
In the face of all this competition, publishers - along with a number of channels eager for new, innovative and more cost-effective programmes - lobbied the ITC to think again. Their efforts paid off: in September, the commission published a consultation paper proposing a number of measures, including ending the ban on publisher-programmes for cable, satellite and future digital TV services. "Inevitably, programmes of this kind would have and be intended to have a strong and direct promotional effect for sales of the parent publication," the commission claims. That poses a particular problem with mainstream channels ITV and Channel 4: "It would not be consistent with the rules which apply to other categories of sponsor or advertiser supplier." But on cable, where special-interest channels ensure greater choice of similarly themed output, an exception will now be made.
Non-terrestrial broadcasters welcome the move. "As a result of the ITC's consultation document, there is not a single broadcaster I know of who is not now in conversations with a magazine publisher," says Meirion Alcock, head of sponsorship at Flextech Television, backers of 13 pay-TV channels including UK Gold, Family and Playboy. "There is significant mutual benefit to publisher and broadcaster: the potential to marry a magazine's subscription base with a cable subscribers database. And it adds value to the reader and viewer."
It's more than about merely adapting a magazine for TV. Advertisers will be able to develop cross-media campaigns, linking ads in the magazine to those appearing round the televisual equivalent. It will bring broadcasters closer to the advertiser's creative process, others claim: they may even start producing the ads themselves, as some publishers already do. Meanwhile, there's the opportunity to pool skills, share editorial skills and save costs. Broadcasters are quick to insist, however, on one proviso: the programme must be good. "Otherwise, there's little point," says Mark Wood, Sky Sales' commercial director.
National Magazine Company is an eager advocate, says Terry Mansfield, managing director. "A number of [our] titles offer great potential for programmes and our initial development work has been very encouraging. Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, with their enormously strong brand identities, would seem the most appropriate place to start. We will now be in a position to begin talking seriously to the many broadcasters who have approached us in the past."
There will be another likely benefit: the introduction to TV of stronger programme brands.Most of us care little which channel we watch; we are loyal to our favourite programmes. So, while ratings data confirms the popularity of Kavanagh QC and Inspector Morse, research shows that many of us believe we saw them on BBC1 instead of their true home, ITV. "Few broadcasters, apart from Sky, are truly brands in their own right," says Anthony Jones, head of MediaLab, part of media specialist CIA. "It's chiefly the programmes, not the channels, people tune into." Which is why strong programmes have become the televisual Holy Grail.
"A good-quality programme from an existing publication can provide a broadcaster with a clear market differentiation," says IPC Magazines' director of business development, Colin Reeves-Smith. It's already working elsewhere: in Australia, a TV version of Murdoch Magazines' title Better Homes & Gardens topped the ratings when it was launched earlier this year. Small wonder, then, if broadcasters are eager to develop strong and appealing programme brands. And what better source than to tie up with mainstream consumer titles already read by hundreds of thousands of potential viewers? Last week, CIA published research showing that 53 per cent of adults would be particularly keen to see Good Housekeeping on TV. The Economist secured 26 per cent; Cosmopolitan and Hello! 25 per cent each and Loaded 15 per cent.
"Good ideas can work in both media," observes one C5 insider who, like many publishers, expresses "disappointment" at the ITC's overly cautious approach to terrestrial TV. "Let's face it," he adds. "It's hardly as radical a move as Sainsbury getting into banking - or Branson and his PEPs"nReuse content