Radio Times' renewed purpose at 95: 'As TV gets more complicated, we make it simpler'

David Attenborough fronts the 95th anniversary edition of Radio Times.

Radio Times has celebrated its 95th anniversary with a commemorative issue fronted by David Attenborough. The nonagenarian documentarian has appeared on its cover more times than anyone else and is symbolic of the magazine’s enduring appeal.

The weekly entertainment guide predates TV. It is older than Queen Elizabeth II. When its first issue landed (28 September 1923), Istanbul was still Constantinople, the Hollywood sign had just been erected and the Walt Disney company was being founded.

Now, as it approaches its centenary, the next five years may prove to be the Radio Times’ most vital.

Speaking to The Drum at Magfest in Edinburgh, magazine veteran and Radio Times editorial director Mark Frith (formerly of Heat, Time Out, FHM, Empire, Q, Now and Look) reflects on the challenges and opportunities he faces following an anniversary of his own – one year on the job.

Frith says: “I have only been in the job for a year which in Radio Times terms is nothing. One of the things that I put forward in the interview process is this idea that too many people go around Radio Times to get to TV and radio. We want to have as many of these routes go through our brand as possible.”

With a weekly circulation of 577,087, Radio Times remains the top-selling consumer magazine in the UK according to auditor ABC. It’s a far cry from its circulation peak in 1955 when average sales of 8.8m gave the Radio Times the highest circulation in Europe. But in truth, it has been a long way short of that pinnacle for some time having seen its circulation drop below 1m for the first time in 2009.

Online, however, the story is different. In June 2018, radiotimes.com accumulated 13.8 million visitors, a rise of 48% year on year. Furthermore, PamCo figures say it has the largest cross-platform reach of any weekly magazine at 8.3 million in the UK.

Frith’s task is keeping a still significantly sized print readership happy while innovating the digital product.

Now owned by Immediate Media, the title is a cornerstone of UK entertainment. The assumption would be that its days as a traditional TV guide are numbered. But Frith takes the view that with TV fracturing across the internet, the need for a guide has actually increased. Just consider how our media consumption has been transformed in the Radio Times’ recent history:

August 1997. Eastenders star Martine McCutcheon graces Radio Times. In the soap, she takes a trip to Paris – ‘Oi La La’ pronounces the title in Cockney-French. Meanwhile, there are the stirrings of change in media. An online DVD rental company called Netflix launches. In the years after, it becomes one of the world’s prominent TV producers. Retailer Amazon and a handful of telecom companies now also call the shots. McCutcheon’s splash represents a simpler time.

Now media companies ring-fence original content on first-party platforms – there’s a video subscription service for everything – and Radio Times believes it can offer a “huge reader benefit” by bringing order to this chaos with its guides, opinion and features.

Frith says: “People need help, people need curation, they need a guide. There are not more hours of the day, we've not been gifted an extra two hours. We give our readers the best advice on TV and to know about the full array of shows. They really do rely on us. As TV gets ostensibly more complicated, we have to make it simpler.”

The humble TV listings remain in the magazine. A sign, according to Frith, that it doesn’t need total reinvention for the modern age. “The magazine needs to do certain things, it remains similar across previous decades. We stand for quality journalism, fronted by experts, and we need to lead the PR agenda. We stand for an in-depth look at TV and radio and we will maintain that at all costs.”

The Radio Times website presents an opportunity to do something more radically new. It can link users directly to where they can watch the content. As such, Radio Times has proven its value to broadcasters. By doing this it makes itself part of the TV journey. But it wants to get even closer.

Recently, YouTube Premium dropped the YouTube paywall on the first few episodes of Cobra Kai (its Karate Kid show/sequel). It did so to entice viewers to opt into its Premium subscription package. In the same vein, Sky and Radio Times embarked on a unique media partnership earlier this year around the launch of Emmy nominated Benedict Cumberbatch drama Patrick Melrose (in a marketing campaign developed by Sky Creative Agency).

On Sunday 13 May at 2am, the first episode of the psychological drama was made available to watch on Radio Times for 30 days – before it had been aired on Sky.

“On paper, it was a fanciful idea,” says Frith. “Why, when budgets are increasing, would someone give away their show for free?” He quickly provides an answer. It accumulated 10,000 views that day.

The move was replicated. Radiotimes.com also streamed Sky’s A Discovery of Witches, a supernatural tale starring Teresa Palmer. It has racked up almost 12,000 views in a week.

This partnership pilot has emboldened the Radio Times team to search for more partners keen to debut shows. There are also further talks with Sky in the works.

“It has been bigger than we could ever imagine and we want to do more of it. It is part of a commercial deal, it is big business for us,” says Frith.

It is just one example of how Radio Times is making itself a mandatory stop off in the public’s iPlayer binges and Netflix and chill sessions. On the live events side, there is an eye to touring the title regionally, celebrating local heroes in entertainment at cultural hotspots across the UK. It will help monetise and raise brand awareness of the title outside of London.

Additionally, video on the Radio Times is set to be ramped up. With its on-hand experts, it wants to create its own shows to critique and analyse television vehicles like the Great British Bake Off (GBBO) and Strictly Come Dancing.

Frith lays down the plan for the diverging strategies of print and online. “We're going to keep things pretty much as they are in the magazine. As an editor you're not meant to say that, you're meant to do the whole 'I am going to change it radically' – it's what I did at Heat and Time Out. But with this it is a wholly different thing. Our audience wouldn't like it. Editors often turn everything upside down for ego. Out there we have an audience of 600,000 people who love what we do and the fact they can rely upon it and I do not take that responsibility lightly.”

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