More and more I’m noticing my cable lineup looks like a magazine rack. Used to be, television was a scarce resource. As late as five years ago, it was still being programmed for large audiences – at least a million, if not more. If folks wanted well-produced niche content, they had to go to magazines. Now they can go to the internet as well, but until recently, I thought magazines could still compete for a smaller audience’s attention if they stood out as a voice for a particular community.
But I now believe magazines as we understand them are eroding, succumbing to the twin tides of niche cable and what might be called the second wave of Internet publishing.
First, TV. Cable seems to have finally realized that in a 500-channel universe, not every channel can garner a 20 rating. Hence a willingness to do focused, niche content that aspires to just several hundred thousand viewers at a time. This strategy can produce breakout mini-hits like Trading Spaces and Queer Eye, but in general, it seems cable has figured out how to make money selling audience sizes based on metrics quite similar to those of magazines. Thumbing up and down my cable menu, I feel like I’m at the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble – there’s 25 different sports titles, scores of shelter books (that’s the home/hearth category for you non-magazine folk out there), plenty of music/pop culture plays, even programmatic equivalents of “Guns&Ammo.” None of these shows, save perhaps the pop culture stuff, do more than 500K in audience on any given day. In other words, TV has managed to segment audiences into the same demographic/psychographic buckets that once were the sole purchase of magazine land. PVRs only accelerate this trend, adding the convenience of search and storage to the magazine rack concept. Add in the fact that the average cable bill in the US is more than $40, and you have a subscription+ad model, just like magazines. I should also note that the advertising business has shifted in kind: production costs have been driven down by technology, and buyers now understand how to buy spot and niche cable. End game: TV wins head to head against print. Just ask the publishers of Life.
Now, the Internet. I’ve always thought you could create great magazines if you stayed away from competing solely on audience demographics/psychographics, and focused on the ineffable quality of publishing that might be called community. Because they serve deep and subtle content, magazines can create and/or declare community, a badge that folks wear proudly, a club in which they claim membership. Well, while it’s quite difficult for a cable show to hold this rather ephemeral quality, the Internet has it in spades. Strike two.
If my beloved magazine readers are getting their high-bandwidth niche experience from cable, and their community succor from the web, what is left for magazines to do? Is Battelle saying magazines are dead?
Well, yes and no. We have to rethink what a magazine is. Again. After all, I teach magazine development, for goodness sake, so I can’t very well believe magazines are a dying breed. There are exciting things to be done with the idea of magazines, if we can reinterpret them. For one, make them for smaller audiences, and compete on that point, rather than be ashamed of it. Two, figure out how to make magazines sing in the online world (nearly all attempts to date are awful). And three, figure out a way to get around traditional approaches to the twin evils of circulation marketing and distribution. I’ll post more on my thoughts as to how at a later date, but I wanted to get that cable TV-as-magazine-rack meme out there, and see what you all thought.