Reader's Digest jackpot for PBS No odd couple: Magazine company, TV programmer say demographics and common goals could make $75 million investment just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

November 07, 1995|By Lawrie Mifflin | Lawrie Mifflin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Reader's Digest, the magazine of the middlebrow, and the Public Broadcasting Service, often considered the television programmer to the elite, announced yesterday that they were joining forces to produce, acquire and distribute new television programs throughout the world.

With a $75 million investment from the Reader's Digest Association Inc. over five years, programs will be developed based on material from the company's magazines and books, as well as from the ideas of independent producers or public television stations.

The programs will in turn be adapted to books, videotapes, audio books, CD-ROMs and other new media products, the two companies said, and will be distributed through Reader's Digest's worldwide publishing and direct-mail marketing network.

"It's like a blind date that worked instantly," James P. Schadt, chairman and chief executive officer of Reader's Digest, said of the alliance. "We have a strategy to take our print franchise and get visual, and they have a strategy to find people who will produce wonderful programs for PBS and pay for them."

Ervin S. Duggan, the president and chief executive officer of PBS, said that although the two may seem an odd couple, they in fact complement each other well.

"They have an aging demographic," he said of Reader's Digest, "and we do tremendous amounts of children's programming and have the esteem of young families.

"We do not have a global distribution stream; they do, and it is enormous."

Reader's Digest had overall revenue of $3 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, the company said, and of that, $218.7 million came from video sales.

And none of those videos appeared first on television.

PBS started PBS Home Video last year, selling videos of programs like "Baseball" or "The Civil War" directly to homes through a catalog, and in retail stores through a partnership with Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

The two executives said the programs they develop would include such topics as health, food, gardening or other consumer concerns, as well as anthology-type collections of history, literature or humor such as those Reader's Digest compiles in books and home videos already.

First time around

The blind date is a moderately expensive one for Reader's Digest, which is investing in its first television production deal and its largest video production deal.

"But I hope we'll spend more than $75 million," said Mr. Schadt, who took over as chief executive at Reader's Digest a little over four years ago, after a career in international marketing with soft-drink companies, and has been trying to attract younger customers to the company's products.

The magazine, which the company says is seen by more than 100 million people a month worldwide, is its best-known product.

But Mr. Schadt said it represents only 25 percent of the company's revenue.

The rest comes from sales of books and home entertainment products.

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