WHOEVER said Time, Newsweek and The Economist have divided the world of global newsweeklies among themselves may now prepare to chew their words. The Indian experience in the newsweekly business demonstrates that the dominant do not always dominate. And the BBC may now provide a global fourth as their former man in India David Loyn sets out to earnestly explore the idea of going global—in print.
The Beeb's chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, believes a new magazine would "increase the BBC's standing and profile on an international scale". There are no plans of an immediate launch; currently the company is figuring out whether its product-in-print can have a market, for which Loyn is conducting a feasibility study over the next six months. At the moment, says Mike Blakemore, spokesman for BBC magazines, "Where this inquiry will land us I do not know. We will not launch it unless we can be sure of a reasonable return." Agrees Loyn: "We are being cautious about the marketplace."
However, given its investment of a hundred thousand pounds just to find out whether the magazine will work, BBC sure means business. The company, says Blackmore, "is looking at several concepts, and there are no plans for an immediate launch." The BBC expects to make that announcement following its research towards the end of this year. In a report, The Sunday Telegraph anticipated the launch would coincide with the new millennium.
The Beeb isn't new to print; it brings out 22 magazines "of outstanding quality", maintains Loyn. These mostly cover lifestyle issues like homes, gardens, cookery, housekeeping, children or motoring. Echoing Loyn, Bland says the BBC has "a very strong track record in magazines." Putting that production expertise together with its international reach, according to Loyn, makes a worldwide magazine seem an "obvious marriage". Which almost begs the question—how come the BBC didn't think of this before?
Because "computer technology has made this a cheaper proposition than it would've been 10 years ago," says Loyn, who adds that he enjoys being a correspondent, but feels "this is a tremendous challenge."
It's an international magazine "down the line" that the Beeb's looking at eventually, but it might well consider a British newsmagazine first along the lines of Outlook, says Loyn. In fact, the first stage might well be something more like Outlook and India Today rather than Time and Newsweek. "We are very aware of the strong tradition of excellent newsmagazines in India such as Outlook and India Today," maintains Loyn. "It's surprising to me that we do not have such a product in Britain." The Economist stands alone among such magazines but "it's a bit highbrow and not all of it is written in the most accessible way". For the BBC, says Loyn, "Outlook would be quite a good model."
Regarding its content, the magazine is expected to be built "around areas where the BBC is particularly strong such as current affairs, politics, science and social behaviour," says Blakemore. As for editorial staff, running a BBC magazine won't be quite as simple as getting broadcasters to double as writers. But as the world's largest news operation on several counts, it will call on its broadcasters to take advantage of their network. However, the outfit will have its own finan-cial arrangements and of course a distinct character that would not clone well-anchored magazines.What the BBC considers saleable is one thing; what sells might be another.
Broadly speaking, the magazine is a product of the growing commercialisation within the BBC whose functioning is normally funded by a licence fee. The latest activity is part of the company's move to generate more business to pay for services its licence fee is insuffi-cient for. And a newsmagazine is only one of the many things the Beeb is looking at to generate revenue.
Launching the venture will be BBC Worldwide, the commercial wing of the company that makes money by selling programmes, publishing books and videos and producing magazines. "In 1997-98 we gave £75 million to the BBC," says Blakemore. "We plan to raise that this year to £200 million." It is looking to earn early profits from a new magazine. The BBC move has competitors sitting up already. "We will be watching very carefully any attempt to launch a new publication from the BBC," said a spokesman for Time-Warner. Is it then time for Time to mark time?