Translating print magazine content to television programming is notoriously tricky, but VH1 and other networks are signing an array of popular titles for cross-branded specials and series.
Among VH1’s magazine projects in development, the basic cable network is partnering with InStyle magazine to produce a special on weddings, the network confirmed. VH1 is also planning a follow-up to its successful “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs … Ever” special, which was co-produced with Blender magazine.
The news comes on the heels of NBC greenlighting a new reality series co-produced with Sports Illustrated called “The Sports Illustrated Fresh Faces Competition,” in which models compete for a lucrative contract. And Fine Living is readying a show for fall with Dwell magazine titled “Dwell Television.”
Typically, network attempts to launch a series with a print magazine’s identity have resulted in landfill for the pilot graveyard. Last year, Us Weekly tried to launch a show, reportedly for E! Networks, without success. In 2000, MGM Television launched the syndicated effort “National Enquirer’s Uncovered,” which lasted one season.
“Virtually every major magazine you can think of has toyed with the idea of doing a show or shot a pilot,” said cable programming consultant Ray Solley. “On paper it looks great, but then the creative process kicks in and it becomes a difficult marriage. What you’re really getting out of it is cross-promotion.”
Cathy Rasenberger, another consultant with experience selling magazine-based shows, agreed.
“It seems like a natural combination because it’s a concept with a proven audience. But what I have found is it’s not an easy translation,” Ms. Rasenberger said. “Content in magazines does not translate well into television, and their advertising base doesn’t transfer either.”
Mr. Solley said one problem is that a magazine staff typically does not have the time or experience to provide compelling content for a television show. And if a separate outfit runs the television version, there often are territorial disputes over content. But that hasn’t stopped Discovery from teaming with The New York Times for the Discovery Times Channel or TV Guide from launching TV Guide Channel.
Michael Hirschorn, VH1’s executive VP of production and programming and a former Esquire magazine editor, says his network has discovered an effective tactic for magazine/ television relationships: do specials, then series. VH1 has produced specials with Rolling Stone, Maxim and Us Weekly. Specials with Self Magazine eventually evolved into the series “From Flab to Fab.”
“It’s a matter of starting with specials and learning if you can play nicely together, and then lauching off to do more,” he said. “Getting to series is more difficult. It tends not to be useful to have the actual content of the magazine on TV. But Blender, Maxim and VH1 all tend to do a lot of lists, so doing a list show works.”
American Media is also seeking television production opportunities for titles such as Star and Men’s Fitness.
“What television provides is a way to create new revenue streams for magazine brands and a new means for connecting with an audience,” said Tom Rogers, a former NBC Cable president and Primedia chairman who’s now advising American Media. “It’s a way of accelerating growth through the use of TV for a very challenged part of the media industry.”
In the past Mr. Rogers helped give niche magazines a cable connection with projects such as “Hot Rod TV” (on Speedvision and then on the Speed Channel) and “In-Fisherman” (on TNN, then on The Outdoor Channel). Such narrow-focus concepts are the easiest to translate to the television medium, he said. Mainstream titles are tricky.
“Sometimes people try to be too literal in their translation, and that doesn’t work. And other times only the brand name is used and it has very little connection to the magazine content, and that doesn’t work either,” he said. “The real trick to doing this well is finding the guts and spirit of a magazine and create a television sensibility that creates the same kind of enthusiasm and passion for the same content.”
One example is CNN’s “People in the News,” which is produced in conjunction with People magazine and has been a solid ratings performer for the network since its 2001 launch.
“People in the News” Managing Editor Bud Bultman said the series has succeeded by sticking to the tried-and-true format of celebrity profiles and maintaining a separate editorial staff.
“I think the reason it’s worked is that we respect they’re print and they respect that we’re TV,” Mr. Bultman said. “It’s a good symbiotic relationship.”
Both the magazine and the show will separately pursue content and if the print version nabs a high-profile interview, the CNN show waits for the issue to hit the stands before moving forward with its own version.
CNN hasn’t always been so fortunate in its cross-breeding attempts. In 1998 the network launched “NewsStand,” which featured titles from sister company Time Warner, including Fortune, Time and Entertainment Weekly.
Though their titles still regularly collaborate, CNN and Time Warner’s relationship was fractured after both CNN and Time magazine ran an erroneous report, “Operation Tailwind,” which alleged U.S. soldiers used nerve gas during the Vietnam War. The show was canceled in 2000.