Times Not Attuned to Video Magazines : Media: Foreseen just a few years ago as the next rave, they continue to struggle as consumers put their VCRs to other uses.


All week long, you've waited for your favorite magazine to arrive, and there it is in the mailbox. So you run to the VCR, pop it in and kick back to watch the latest. . . .

Wait a minute: Someone hit the pause button. Did he say watch a magazine on a VCR? Yes, that's right. Actually, it's hard to find more than a few to read, er, watch, simply because there aren't that many video magazines in circulation.

Predicted just three years ago to be the next rave, video magazines--about sports and recreation, music or personalities--have yet to gain wide acceptance from consumers and advertisers. There's no available estimate on how many video magazines exist, and a few have already flopped.

At first glance, this might seem surprising when considering the proliferation of VCRs. About 70% of all U.S. households are believed to have VCRs, according to the Magazine Publishers Assn.

But most magazine readers appear unwilling to scan a screen instead of flipping pages. Advertisers, therefore, think the audience is too small to warrant their support, which would result in more investment and more titles.

"The main factor you have to overcome is tradition and habit," explained Keith Kelly, executive editor of MagazineWeek, an industry publication. "The information is being repackaged in a style that readers aren't used to."

That's because this nascent medium is often mistaken as just another means of delivering special-interest videos--or one-shot episodes concerning an event or some topic that actually supplements an existing publication.

Video publishers, of course, disagree. They maintain that video magazines are new, competitive titles with high-quality production values and strong content that should attract audiences and persuade advertisers to pay for time slots.

"We're trying to add to the quality of information," said Jim Watt, publisher of Fly Fishing video magazine, a bimonthly with 1,000 subscribers, which features different fishing spots in each issue. "As good as many writers are, it's very difficult to beat video."

A favorite selling point is that, through sight and sound, videos can offer a more satisfying experience than the printed page--what a good fishing spot looks like, the inside story on a musician, the dazzle of a new computer.

Another argument: Viewers get custom-tailored material not found on television. And it's not just small, independent companies trying to develop this market. Two different divisions of ABC Television are publishing videos about golf and flying.

Nonetheless, there are several obstacles. Producing a high-quality magazine is expensive. And that means the average issue might cost $15, making annual subscriptions more costly than most traditional magazines.

High production costs not only make it more difficult to attract a wide audience but also mean that advertisers have to be charged higher rates. And that's a major stumbling block to securing advertisers, who can reach more consumers through established print and television vehicles.

"The cost of reaching every thousand viewers is too high. We wouldn't recommend on that basis," said Ann Meschery, executive vice president with the ad agency Backer Spielvogel Bates Inc., which recently concluded a study that found magazine delivery via computer has a brighter future.

"The bottom line is these things are still primitive," she continued. "I don't see advertisers responding for some time."

This view is bolstered by the growing amount of narrowly focused programing being produced by broadcast and cable television, which can be viewed more regularly than a monthly video magazine and at a lower cost.

Then there's the problem of getting stocked in video stores, which might seem to be a logical venue. But publishers report that retailers so far haven't shown much interest in making valuable shelf space available. So subscribers are attracted through direct mail, which can be expensive.

"The video market is rental-oriented and leans strongly toward theatrical titles," said Jim Scoutten, one of a few former television journeymen who are publishing Inside Country Music from Music Row in Nashville. "It's a tough market."

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