Strange case of the RTÉ Guide

Media&Marketing: State broadcaster set to sell listing magazine that defies all the odds

The 2018 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures show a weekly circulation for the RTÉ Guide of 43,195. The last Christmas edition sold 300,000 copies.

The 2018 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures show a weekly circulation for the RTÉ Guide of 43,195. The last Christmas edition sold 300,000 copies.

 

With RTÉ posting losses for yet another year – €13 million for 2018 – and the broadcaster engaged in a cost-cutting, sell-off, licence-fee lobbying programme, reports that it is considering selling the RTÉ Guide are not surprising.

Not that such a sale has a hope of realising anywhere near the €107.5 million it grossed when it sold off land on its Montrose campus to Cairn Homes in 2017.

By comparison, the sale of the magazine title would be coins down the back of the sofa stuff – but a move to sell would reflect an organisation attempting to slim down and refocus on its core operations.

Although, given the station’s perilous financial situation, cutting the publication from its long list of services does represent a delicate pruning rather than a savage cutback.

Reports that RTÉ had engaged KPMG to examine the viability of the RTÉ Guide’s sale appeared in the Sunday Times in May with the broadcaster issuing a terse statement that no decisions have been made and that it had no further comment to make.

Having a TV listing magazine made sense in 1961 when the guide was launched – a trusted old medium, print, supporting the new medium of TV. In its heyday and for many decades, it promoted the RTÉ brand and delivered significant revenues for the station but a broadcaster with a publishing wing is now a mismatch.

Indeed, the industry term “publisher-broadcaster” typically refers to stations such as Channel 4 where the “publisher” part describes a slim and nimble broadcast model where a tightly staffed organisation commissions the independent sector for the bulk of its programming.

Teasing out how much the RTÉ Guide delivers in terms of revenue is difficult as the figures have for several years been bundled in with other revenue streams. But a line in a very lengthy response to the public accounts committee inquiring about RTÉ’s finances last year does give some insight.

It said that “commercial revenues from the RTÉ Guide (advertising and circulation income) are forecast to fall from €4.9 million in 2012 to €4 million by 2016”. In media terms, 2012 is a long time ago and the actual haemorrhaging of advertising revenue from the print sector combined with the sharp fall-off in sales would suggest a much greater dip in revenue than forecast.

Whatever it is, it’s a tiny fraction of the broadcaster’s overall revenue – commercial income for 2018 amounted to €150 million (out of total revenue of €339.1 million).

Bumper issue

Any sales pitch for the guide would undoubtedly headline the figure 300,000. That’s how many copies the bumper Christmas edition sold last December – a staggering number given the size of the market, and delivering a readership well in excess of one million.

No other single Irish newsstand publication delivers anywhere close to those figures. The Christmas RTÉ Guide is the Irish magazine equivalent of the TV rating behemoth that is the Late Late Toy Show. But just as that show is an outlier in terms of audience delivery, the seasonal magazine is even more so.

The 2018 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures show a weekly circulation for the RTÉ Guide of 43,195 and the numbers for Ireland’s best-selling weekly magazine are in steady decline. Even the Christmas figures are showing signs of stress – just five years ago the Christmas edition sold 420,000 copies.

In 2002, in the face of steadily falling sales, RTÉ noted that the newspaper weekend supplements with TV listings were eating into the guide’s circulation figures, the weekly sales having then dropped to 130,327.

Under editor Catherine Lee, the publication is as much a lifestyle magazine as a listing guide, with interviews (typically, but not exclusively, RTÉ-related), features on fashion, food, books and interiors. But in the face of sharply falling reader numbers, RTÉ Commercial Enterprises hasn’t done what every other print media intent on survival has – invest in digital.

The magazine doesn’t even have a separate website – instead a single page on the main RTÉ site shows in bare detail that week’s features content highlights, while TV and radio listings are elsewhere on the site.

A significant investment in digital will be another headline figure for a prospective suitor to weigh.

Resilient

But TV guides have proven resilient against a background assumption that a digital solution would have made them redundant.

In the UK, the Radio Times, published in-house by the BBC until 2011 and now owned by Intermediate Media, is the top-selling consumer magazine with a weekly circulation of 577,087.

Its watershed moment was in 2009 when circulation dropped below one million for the first time. But investment in its digital offering, radiotimes.com, has paid off, delivering year-on-year rises to an accumulated 13.8 million visitors.

Furthermore, the Publishers Audience Measurement Company (PAMCo) says the Radio Times has the largest cross-platform reach of any UK weekly magazine at 8.3 million.

And digital delivery isn’t the only change – the Radio Times is driving up its paid subscriptions. In 2018, it had 253,504 subscribers, second only in the market to the Economist with 800,727. In the US and Europe, paid subscription with home delivery is the most popular distribution mode for TV listings magazines.

Speaking to industry magazine the Drum last year, the Radio Times editorial director Mark Frith, reflecting on the enduring popularity of TV guides, said that “As TV gets more complicated, we make it simpler.”

That’s another line bean counters assessing the RTÉ Guide’s potential sales value could slip into the presentation to potential suitors

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