Wednesday, July 20, 2011
What little I know about the supermarket rags.
I've been writing The Other Blog for a year and a half now. My idea was that everybody goes to the supermarket, men and women, young and old, rich, poor and in between, and we all see these things, even if we don't buy them. Like the air we breathe, we barely give it a second thought. I decided to publish all the tabloid headlines dealing with celebrities on a blog, which means I could use labels to keep track of information. Here are some things I've learned that hadn't occurred to me before I started this silly experiment.
1. I am not the target market. I kinda knew this already, since I haven't bought one of these things in a very long time. But after eighty weeks of data, I know now I'm not the target market because I am not a woman.
Even though the reality of supermarkets is that everybody uses them to some extent, the business model of the ten magazines at the checkout stands is that women are the people they want to attract. It's old fashioned, but so is their message. Most of the stories are about female celebrities, well over 60%. They may be rich and lovely and (for the most part) young, but do they have real success? In nearly all the magazines, real success is defined as a loving husband and adorable babies.
2. Celebrities screwing up big time are not the main focus. In the past eighteen months, the biggest hot messes in show business have been Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan. Charlie has about twenty weeks when he was on the covers in that time, and Lindsay has about the same. The really popular celebrities, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, BrAngelina (which is really Angelina Jolie first and Brad Pitt second) and Kim Kardashian, average at least one cover story a week. Their stories are about love, marriage and babies, or in most cases, the lack of same.
Angelina Jolie is really the most popular celebrity when you count her solo stories and her stories as part of the World's Most Famous Couple. Most of the stories paint her as the villainess, though not all, and it galls the tabloid press that she has more of the ingredients of a happy life than do the "good girls" Bullock and Aniston, who have both had bad luck with men.
3. Not all supermarket rags are created equal. There is a big split in The Only Ten Magazines That Matter, as I like to call them. Five are owned by American Media Inc (AMI), and in general, these five are more mean spirited than the others. The most vicious, the ones I call the Three Wicked Step Sisters, are printed in tabloid form on newsprint, the National Enquirer, the Globe and the low rent National Examiner. I introduced them in order of importance. Stories first broken in one might be followed up weeks later in another. If there is going to be a prediction of a celebrity death, these three do way more than 90% of those predictions. (They also suck at those predictions, though sometimes they get lucky, as they did with Michael Jackson a few years ago, Gary Coleman last year and Peter Falk this year. Falk was on the cover in a "Brave Last Days" last month for the first time and died the next week.)
AMI also publishes the Sun, a goofy rag that can't stop predicting the end of the world, no matter how many times they get it wrong. The Sun is two silly mags in one, including the Weekly World News, the great old black and white tabloid that gave us the Bat Boy who was found in a cave back in the 1980s.
The fifth magazine in their kennel is the Star, which is not quite as mean as the others, but does go in for exposes of celebrities more than the other five mags on the stand, People, OK!, Us Weekly, Weekly Life & Style and In Touch.
4. If you can't beat up celebrities, who can you beat up? Most of the five magazines not in the AMI kennel try to get access to celebrities, exclusive interviews and the like, so they don't always hit that hard with stories about movie stars and singers. Even the jackals of AMI are a little wary, especially now that Katie Holmes got a front page apology and some undisclosed bundle of cash from Star who had a headline saying she was a drug addict.
Instead, the gods of 21st Century Celebrity created reality television. The makers of these shows want the publicity, so they are more than happy to see the nobodies they plucked off the street ripped to shreds in the supermarket checkout rags week after week. The favorite shows are the permutations of Kardashians on E!, followed by former Hugh Hefner paramour Kendra Wilkinson on the same channel, then MTV's Teen Mom, Bravo's Real Housewives franchise and ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. (Dancing With The Stars is also a big favorite, but the people on that show are actually famous for something else usually, and the dancers have a marketable talent even if the show goes away, so I'm not counting them as useless.)
There are about a jillion reality TV shows. These are the tabloid favorites because they are about the pillars of female happiness: love, marriage and babies, hopefully in that order chronologically.
5. You want sports? Tune into ESPN. There have been a lot of sports scandals in the past two years, but only one has been a big story in the supermarket rags: Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren. It is interesting to them because of love, marriage and babies, and it also helps that as a golfer, Tiger is not a regional star but a national star. No matter how much of a mess Ben Roethlisberger makes of his life, to take just one example, it might sell magazines in Pittsburgh but probably not in Seattle or Mobile.
6. The Brits will not save the business. The British public eat up tabloid stories, both in dailies like the late unlamented News of the World and in weeklies like OK! and Hello. Circulations of five million copies can be sold in a country with only sixty million people. The American tabloids would kill to have that kind of success.
The thing is, American tabloids used to get much better numbers than they do now, but in the 1980s, the public lost the taste for these things in a serious way and the trend has been slowly downhill ever since. The turning point was the lawsuit brought against the Enquirer by Carol Burnett. They printed that she was drunk in public and she sued the socks off of them. Soon after, the Enquirer was no longer the ruler of the roost and the more positive People magazine, which is published by Time-Life and has a higher standard of journalistic integrity, became the number one seller, a position it holds to this day. Several publications have tried bringing in British editors, hoping they will be able to work the same kind of magic on this side of the Atlantic, but so far there have been no miracle cures.
I plan to keep doing the Other Blog for as long as it is fun and as long as people are reading it. About a half million hits were logged from January 2010 through June 2011, and it's possible there could be another half million in the next twelve months. I've been surprised at what I've learned reading the tabloid headlines over the past eighteen months, and who knows that I won't learn more in the months and years ahead.
As my father is fond of saying, you learn something new every day if you are not careful.