By Sheila Gibbons
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
Hearst's switch from Victoria to Lifetime exposes the conflict when publishers promise to reach "real women" with magazines that must also serve as advertising vehicles aimed at the coveted 18-34 female market.
The company has just turned off the lights at Victoria and turned them on at Lifetime magazine, a brand extension of Lifetime Television, a joint venture of The Hearst Corporation and The Walt Disney Company.
It might seem an odd move in an industry pinched by low advertising revenues, but Hearst seems to believe its newest magazine title will make up for Victoria's lackluster performance as an advertising vehicle. Hearst said that despite Victoria's loyal readership (its circulation was a none-too-shabby 970,000), "strong advertising support has been unachievable." Advertising pays the lion's share of publishing costs, and without it, a magazine just can't make it. Clearly, Hearst--which says its magazines are read by more U.S. adult women than those of any other monthly magazine publisher--and its partner, Disney, are optimistic about Lifetime, subtitled "real life, real women."
The launch of Lifetime isn't editorial altruism on the part of Hearst. Women's magazines exist to deliver desirable demographics to advertisers in an appealing editorial environment compatible with the advertisers' marketing goals. When, in the advertisers' view, the editorial environment becomes dated or wears out or is outclassed by newer competition, as Victoria's seemed to be, advertiser interest wanes. The fact that hundreds of thousands of readers remain loyal to the magazine doesn't count.
Linking a magazine to a successful television channel, which provides both with cross-promotional opportunities, is a smart business move that benefits advertisers in search of the coveted 18-34 female market. The question for me is how well these readers will be served? Will Lifetime avoid perpetuating stereotypes, as so many women's magazines have? How much risk is the staff willing take to produce content about "real life, real women?"
A scan of Lifetime's first issue (April-May) and Victoria's last (June) shows interesting contrasts between the new creation and its dowager sister. The "real life, real women" concept that Lifetime espouses may represent the core idea that caused Victoria's demise after 16 years. Victoria was a little dreamy, a little precious and heavy on nostalgia. Ultimately, its content probably spoke less and less to the younger women courted by advertisers.
Victoria offered a world of painted teacups, old roses and what one early reader once called "the gentleness of spirit and attention to the details of living." This reader wrote that "after working eight or more hours a day with corporate men and women who look like robots, it's so refreshing to relax with a cup of herbal tea, play some classical music, and read Victoria from cover to cover again. I dress in suits, my home is contemporary and sparsely furnished, but I am Victoria at heart."
Romance, escape, photographs of ethereal, tenderly decorated homes and lush gardens--Victoria's content seemed to open lace curtains at an exquisite country cottage. It was pleasant, visually appealing, but not very compelling. Victoria, for all its charm, lacked soul.
That's not to say that Lifetime will revolutionize the women's section of your local newsstand. It takes real guts to break away from the newsstand rack pack and innovate for women's magazine readers when advertisers, while they are enticed by "new" opportunities, also keep the pressure on editors to keep the traditional features--around which they build marketing pitches.
Consequently, Lifetime retains the menu of many women's magazines: silly horoscopes, the diet du jour, adoring profiles of celebrities (the premiere issue featured the recording artist Faith Hill on the cover, dressed casually but in a pose echoing another Hearst title, Cosmo). It also has a feature called "Dream Decoder," in which a Ph.D. explains why that hot dream about the actor Matt Damon could mean that you crave more sexual attention from your man. This is the sort of adolescent drivel I'd expect to see in Teen or some other magazine directed to the youth market, but not in one that says it's about "real life, real women." There are also retread health items, a poll about sex lives and a quiz to determine the reader's emotional age. It's all standard women's magazine fare, with the usual message that women need fixing.
The self-congratulatory welcome note from the editors says that Lifetime Television "gets women: Lifetime knows we love to laugh, sure, but sometimes we need a good cry even more." The note continues that "Like a best friend, the network always delivers, and its emotional menu is pitch-perfect. We think ours is, too!"
With this hypothesis, the magazine naturally builds on the cable channel's personality in an attempt to be the reader's new best media friend.
Even with these shortcomings, Lifetime deserves points for well-reported and well-written articles. One I've torn out and shared with friends was "Bent Out of Shape," telling of the writer's search for the elusive right bra. The article, sometimes hilarious, is essentially an expose of undergarment manufacturing and marketing, with interviews of women who don't aspire to look like Wonderbra vixens.
Another is "Mom Gave Birth to My Twins," an account of a daughter's gratitude to her mother, who acted as her surrogate. The bravery of switching mother-daughter roles remained on my mind long after I had put the magazine down.
"How I Changed My Life: From Welfare Mom to Legal Eagle," is a frank story of desperate struggle that ended in success, well told but not a weeper (and of course, capitalizing on the sisterly relationship with television, this concludes with a box directing the reader to a Lifetime movie with a similar theme, "Homeless to Harvard").
"My Best Friend Saved My Life" persuaded me it would be very handy to have a caring physician for a personal friend. Other features about women making contributions to professions and communities were enjoyable and gratifying.
The thing to watch will be how the magazine's content evolves. Lifetime's editors say they're eager to hear from readers willing to offer their personal stories. The premiere issue solicits letters, comments and suggestions and deep dark secrets:
"Feel like your life's been pulled from the script of a juicy Lifetime movie? Got a secret so steamy you'd only dare share it with a stranger? Have a good friend who's helped you through a rough patch? Send your tales of triumph, desire and inspiration to Your Story, Lifetime," followed by the snail and e-mail addresses. Sound like a Harlequin romance, or Nancy Friday's first ads, to you? It sure does to me. And there's the rub.
Victoria looked back, and found itself being retired. Lifetime has an opportunity to look forward and give us less of the recycled self-esteem quizzes, weight-loss tips and voyeuristic treatments of love, sex and celebrity, and more of what its "real life, real women" tag line promises--but only if it's willing to get off the fence its first issue straddles.
The editors aren't pitch-perfect, as they contend, but they're off to a decent start. The "real women" in their audience should urge them to provide more of what's real and less of the tired, traditional and trite.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc.
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