Challenges Ahead For Variety’s New Owner: How Much Is Brand Recognition Really Worth?

When news broke on Tuesday that the entertainment trade magazine Variety has been purchased by Penske Media Group, the owner of Deadline.com, speculation about what direction the magazine and its accompanying website might take flooded the blogosphere from all angles.

The transaction was worth a reported $25 million, about half of what Variety’s longtime owner, Reed Elsevier, was hoping to get for the publication. The New York Times’ Brooke Barnes called the deal a “fire sale,” noting that Reed had turned down offers of $300,000 during the magazine’s Peter Bart heyday. 

But times change, or so the story goes. The 107-year-old publication built its reputation as a must-read entertainment bible for everyone from studio heads to interns, but the Internet has long since decentralized the exclusive information it once provided. What’s worse, the magazine’s bread and butter -- those glossy “For your Consideration” Oscar ads -- are not nearly as plentiful as they once were, while the legacy costs associated with producing its two print versions are scarcely validated by its estimated its 28,000 daily and 30,000 weekly circulation.     

All of which raises the question of why Penske Media wants to add a creaky old trade magazine to its portfolio of entertainment and gossip blogs. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jay Penske provided a telling clue into his motivation.   

“Anyone who knows me, knows I have a great reverence for things that stand the test of time,” he told the Times. “Variety is a brand that the entire PMC organization respects, and a publishing business that I have admired for most of my life.”

Indeed, nearly every report about the sale cited the storied history of the Variety brand, and many of those close to the situation have voiced their eagerness to begin anew with the iconic name. “It's a proud moment for Jay Penske and myself,” Deadline's editor, Nikki Finke, posted on Tuesday.  

And yet, in the world of media, the question of what brand recognition is worth is not an easy one to answer. Readers may know the name Variety, but do they care about it? Consider the late tycoon Sidney Harman, who believed wholeheartedly in Newsweek’s brand when he took the money-losing magazine from the reins of the Washington Post in 2010. Two years later, the Newsweek’s online presence has been all but absorbed by the far more exciting Daily Beast. With Tina Brown’s help, the magazine makes occasional waves with its purposely antagonistic covers but that didn’t rescue it from estimated losses of $30 million last year.

Prometheus Global Media has achieved similarly mixed results since Dec. 2009 when it purchased a stable of trade magazines -- including Variety’s archrival, the Hollywood Reporter -- from Nielsen Business Media. At the time, the company said it planned to invest heavily in its print brands, but that strategy has since been revised. Three of those print brands -- Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek -- have folded into one publication, while Prometheus sold off the actors’ trade paper Backstage. On the positive side, though, Prometheus has managed to reinvigorate the Hollywood Reporter as a glossy monthly, and its companion website is now the most-trafficked entertainment industry site on the Web, attracting upwards of 5.1 million unique viewers per month.

Variety, with much of its content locked behind a paywall, attracts about 400,000 by comparison, but that may soon change. Penske has said that one of its main goals for Variety is to expand its online presence, and general consensus suggests that Variety’s paywall will soon come down.          

Of course, chief among the questions about Variety’s future is what role -- if any -- Nikki Finke will play in its new incarnation. Finke’s website, along with scoop-heavy entertainment blogs such as TheWrap, has been cited as the primary impetus in Variety’s declining influence. But whether or not her snarky,  attitude-heavy reporting style would help or hurt Variety’s charming but decidedly old-fashioned “Variety speak” is subject to debate.  

For now, Penske Media is saying that Variety and Deadline will remain separate and distinct entities. In his interview with the L.A. Times, Jay Penske made it clear that “this is very different than the Daily Beast-Newsweek arrangement.”

Just in case you were wondering.

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