Flagging mags reflect public's celeb fatigue

Introduction: Popped culture?

The celebrity culture may have reached its saturation point.

An unprecedented number of celebrity mags, Hollywood-driven news shows and Internet portals, all offering up-to-the-second gossip, are competing for the same viewers, readers and dollars.

The fever-pitch coverage has led to a broadening of what constitutes celebrity news. “Entertainment Tonight” has morphed into a show that bids for the rights to Mary Kay Letourneau’s wedding and features scoops on the maladies of Ed McMahon’s wife and the secret affair of Elizabeth Montgomery, the “Bewitched” star who died some 11 years ago.

US, In Touch and other celeb titles have supplemented their strategy of Angie & Brad, all the time, with what seems like a dizzying amount of coverage of handbags, often photographed better than the stars themselves. Online, Gawker and Defamer cover studio execs and agents with the same fascination as Jessica Simpson.

Some pundits are predicting that the obsession with celebrity has reached its peak. But that may be wishful thinking. Many predicted celeb watching would fall out of fashion after 9/11; instead, the business boomed like never before. As the past has proven, the reinvigorization of the genre is just one Hollywood mega-scandal away.

It’s the media story the principals don’t want you to know: Despite a runaway appetite for all things Brangelina, celebrity print journalism is ailing.

Say it ain’t so, Bonnie Fuller.

A shakeout is rumbling through the celebrity-mag world. Failing titles, ruthless price wars and a crowded mishmash at the newsstand — it’s enough to send anyone into rehab.

It’s been a rocky five years for all magazine publishers. But until recently, the celebrity category was rock-solid. Ad pages and newsstand sales skyrocketed at such a precipitous rate that even the grandmother of the genre, People, was forced to tip its format further into sensational celebrity coverage.

The celeb books also almost single-handedly killed off the teen mag genre. Last week, ElleGirl became the latest casualty of a phenomenon that has had teens switching over to the celeb titles aimed at their mothers and older sisters.

If celeb magazines were gospel, Fuller, currently editorial director of the Star and other American Media pubs, was its prophet. A colorful, sometimes abrasive personality, Fuller took a media backwater and reinvented it as a powerful Hollywood tool — and billion-dollar biz. With her overhaul of Wenner Media’s US Weekly, even critics admit she created a zeitgeist and lured millions of new readers.

While many now-defunct magazines, like Cargo and even Variety‘s own V Life, offered a mix of lifestyle and products, US and its ilk heated up the newsstand by relentlessly focusing on celebs’ romances and peccadilloes.

By elevating the celebrity life in general but exposing the foibles of certain stars in particular, the magazines created a glossy faux democracy that readers couldn’t get enough of.

But Fuller’s legacy may also turn out to be that of architect of a media bubble.

Last week, American Media closed Celebrity Living after an unremarkable run. That brought to three the number of doomed pubs, following the shuttering late last year of TV Guide’s Inside TV and the aborted launch of Star spinoff Star Shop.

Meanwhile, Time Inc.’s People has been trying to get its median age down from the early 40s. (When the new competitors first came along, panicky execs are said to have memorably declared “flat is the new up” at a strategy meeting.)

American Media may be in the biggest pickle, as exec David Pecker suddenly finds himself in an unusually defensive position. At a board meeting two weeks ago, Pecker reportedly caved to creditors on management issues. He didn’t have much choice: The company is carrying about $1 billion in debt.

Ad revenue at the company has reportedly been flat despite the pricey Fuller hire. She remade the magazine to look like US, but newsstand sales at Star slid 8% in the most recent quarter, according to media trade Women’s Wear Daily.

Pecker also was forced to scuttle plans for a Gotham-based edition of the National Enquirer; last week he axed editor Paul Field and said he’d move the title back to Florida as part of AMI’s bid to save money.

At the more successful end of the spectrum, the news is better — but only slightly. Industry titan US Weekly grew pages a respectable 10% last year, but that figure is still lower than those of titles like Texas Monthly and the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine. And the forecast for this year is rougher.

Main competitor In Touch Weekly, owned by maverick German firm Bauer, has grown circ to more than a million. But with the newsstand accounting for 97% of sales, the mag lives hand-to-mouth, dependent on the echoes of the latest celebrity scandal.

For an industry with such a recent track record of success, the mood feels strangely morose. “Another one died today,” a publicist at a large celeb mag sighed last week when Celebrity Living confirmed it would close.

Even the healthy players admit they’re getting more than they bargained for. “The bottom line is that despite consumers’ preoccupation with celebrity, we’re finding this is no easy task,” says US Weekly publisher Vicci Lasdon Rose.

So how does an industry founded on the most panting celebrity culture in history suffer a recession?

In some ways it’s the same story as that of CGI pics and other Hollywood trends. Appetites expand so quickly the market seems capable of tolerating every conceivable knockoff. Then it contracts.

But it’s more than over-supply that’s to blame: It’s success itself.

The proliferation of titles has sparked a fierce price war. In Touch Weekly goes for $1.99. That has allowed it to grow circulation by the fistful, but not to make much money doing it. (Total revenue in 2005 was only about $60 million, less than one-quarter that of an established mag like Glamour, even with half the circulation.)

OK! has nearly doubled its flagging readership since it temporarily slashed prices from $3.29 to $1.99. But now execs think they may not be able to afford to go back to the higher price — and may not be able to afford to keep it where it is.

Meanwhile, other racks are turning up the heat. The newsweeklies have increased celebrity coverage by more than 50% since 2000, according to a study by Journalism.org. Pubs like Entertainment Weekly now have In Touch-y pages like “Style,” and even mags with clear brands shoehorn in celeb packages like Cosmo’s “Informer” section.

With the titles’ success, the cost of paparazzi photos has escalated into six and seven figures. That forces mags into a hard choice: Pay through both nostrils or disappoint readers.

Says Bob Davidowitz, publisher of the cost-minded In Touch Weekly and Life & Style: “I’ve never seen a set of million-dollar pictures that make business sense.” Maybe so, but readers craving sensationalism aren’t thinking business.

One wonders if the magazines are being drawn into a situation where they must promise too much. How much patience will readers continue to have for an email teaser like the one Life & Style offered last week, that “Tom Leaves Katie” (for a couple days to go to a premiere in Germany). Or Star’s blaring cover exclusive that “Angie Walks Out on Brad” (for four hours).

“I think last year was the peak of celebrity journalism,” says former People editor Kyle Smith, now a film critic for the New York Post. If both reader expectation and the price of photos continue to spike, he says, “You’ll have what happened in the car industry: We’ll go from 12 companies to just a few.”

British import OK! tried an end-run around the whole pic game by working so closely with celebs that the mag practically let them write the captions. But until OK! slashed prices, newsstand sales wallowed at 250,000.

There are some bright signs, like the continued success of celebrity TV shows and the assurance that just when the scandal well seems to have dried up, new controversies appear. Total readership is still creeping up. And semi-robust ad sales will continue to help pubs with subscription models, like People and US, but may not really give much of a boost to more newsstand-driven titles like Bauer’s books.

When it comes to editorial formats, celebrity mags increasingly aim for a semblance of journalistic credibility. There’s a longstanding fact-checking system at People; and Life & Style recently published an interview with CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien (her dining room table is custom-made stainless steel!).

“The celeb weekly news market is very vital,” Fuller says when asked about the sector’s travails. While she says it’s “hard to have a reaction” at this point to the closure of Celebrity Living and other pubs, she notes that “there’s tremendous fascination with celebrities.”

But there are some gloomier indicators. The mags often find themselves in the business of constant renewal. Not only do they need to uncover new celebs — “defining celebrity down,” as Kurt Andersen dubbed it in a recent New York column on the subject — but the influx of younger readers means newer mags must worry about retaining auds in a way the older-skewing People doesn’t.

And the Web presence of these titles is remarkably threadbare; most of them use their homepages as glorified billboards.

US Weekly is finally re-launching its site this summer, likely to great fanfare. If it works, we could see the second-coming of celeb mags. But if the shakeout continues, celebs looking to advertise a new romance — or movie — may need to find another outlet.

Hey, there’s always Gawker.

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