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Adventures in Magazineland : As a Publisher, Disney Excels at Marketing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of Walt Disney Co. and theme parks, and Mickey Mouse and box office hits come to mind. But the Burbank-based entertainment powerhouse is also a budding magazine publisher, and though the odds against new publications are long, Disney is using its marketing savvy and financial muscle to expand its 4-year-old magazine group.

In two start-up publications, Disney has tapped themes it knows how to exploit perhaps better than anyone: children and families. Its first magazine, the digest-sized, youth-oriented Disney Adventures, made its debut in 1990, and its circulation has soared to nearly 1 million. Family Fun, acquired by Disney in 1991, has 615,000 readers, mostly baby boomer parents. The company’s third magazine, Discover, is a slick science publication acquired in 1991 from now-defunct Family Media Inc.; it has a circulation of 1.03 million.

Now Disney is planning a fourth publication, Family PC, in a joint venture with New York-based Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., a major publisher of computer magazines.

Magazines are still a minuscule part of Disney’s $8.5 billion in revenue. The company doesn’t publicize revenue and profit figures for the 130-employee division, but based on total circulation added to subscription and advertising rates, annual magazine revenue probably doesn’t exceed $90 million. That’s about as much as one hit movie from Disney might reap in domestic ticket sales.

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“In terms of Disney, we’re a gnat,” said John Skipper, former publisher of US magazine and president of Spin magazine, who was recruited in 1990 as a Disney vice president and head of the magazine group.

“Actually,” he added with a laugh, “we might be a fly by now.”

Gnat or fly, it’s becoming clear that Disney has found in magazines yet another way to cash in on its franchise. The monthly Disney Adventures unabashedly plugs Disney movies and TV shows, and one cover was themed around Disney’s NHL hockey team, the Mighty Ducks. Family Fun runs ads for Disney resorts next to features on hiking in Glacier National Park and other family getaways.

Such self-promotion has provoked harsh words from critics--but even they acknowledge that Disney does it no more blatantly than some others in the cutthroat magazine business.

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Disney Adventures “a little bit crosses the line” because it’s hard to distinguish editorial from ads, said Samir Husni, head of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi and publisher of the Guide to New Consumer Magazines.

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But it doesn’t go as far as magazines based on GI Joe and Barbie dolls, and Disney Adventures also mixes education with the entertainment, Husni said.

Disney doesn’t view its magazines as mere promotional tools. It aims to make profits.

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After Disney acquired Discover from Family Media for an undisclosed price, Skipper overhauled its design, hired a new business staff, banned tobacco advertising and limited direct-mail ads--previously Discover’s mainstay. The result: Discover now attracts big national advertisers such as computer chip maker Intel Corp., Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. The magazine’s 1993 ad revenue zoomed 42% to $13.1 million, from $9.2 million in 1992, according to Publishers Information Bureau Inc. in New York.

More problematic in terms of ads is Disney Adventures. Skipper said he’s still having a hard time convincing potential advertisers that they can reach children through a medium other than television. Nonetheless, he expects the magazine to be in the black this year, which would be a rare feat for such a young publication.

Disney Adventures was conceived more than four years ago when Michael Lynton, then director of business development for Disney’s consumer products division, took note of Topolino, a children’s magazine in Italy.

Topolino (Italy’s translation of “Mickey Mouse”) consisted mostly of comics and was a raging success. It had been put out by an Italian publisher for many years under license from Disney, and Disney had just taken the license back.

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Lynton proposed starting a similar publication here but with fewer comics and more features. At first, it was seen as a way to promote the Disney Channel’s afternoon cable TV programming.

But the concept quickly broadened to encompass sports, celebrities and films--even those from other movie studios. Similar to strategies employed at Sports Illustrated for Kids and the new Nickelodeon magazine, Lynton’s bet was that children would forsake video games and pick up a magazine if it had ready-made brand identification and didn’t read like a textbook.

The editor of Disney Adventures, Tommi Lewis, said she stays in touch with her young readers by “talking” to some of them on the America Online computer network.

Family Fun, published 10 times a year by Disney, is also expected to become profitable later this year and is “our best ad success,” Skipper said. Some issues have had an impressive 100 pages and more of ads from companies such as Quaker Oats, consumer products maker Procter & Gamble and Apple Computer.

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Started by former U.S. News & World Report executive Jake Winebaum and sold to Disney after its second issue, Family Fun veers from the old formula of articles for new mothers by emphasizing activities for families with children ages 3 to 12.

“That magazine talks to me in a way that publications like Parenting and Parents do not,” said Tony Silber, executive editor at Folio, a Stamford, Conn.-based magazine for the magazine industry.

Still, survival is no easy task. With so many magazines competing in a soft ad market, publishers must increasingly rely on subscriptions and newsstand sales. To try to boost the latter, Skipper said, Disney pays a premium to place Disney Adventures in the “expensive real estate” of magazine racks next to supermarket checkout counters.

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Lynton, now head of the Disney publishing division, which also includes books and art publishing, argued that most new magazines fail because they are “underfinanced, not terribly well thought out, or don’t build on an existing franchise. With Disney, we had those things pretty well licked.”

Disney has “a good circulation story,” said Jacqueline Leo, editor in chief of Family Circle magazine, published by New York Times Co. “The question is always renewals. It takes about five years to see if they’ve really got something there.”

In the meantime, Disney is forging ahead with plans to start Family PC in September. The new magazine, with Winebaum as publisher, will be aimed at the 15 million families with both children and home computers. Skipper said the idea is generating interest from potential advertisers, including computer and software firms.


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