NatMag and Hachette tipped as early contenders for BBC Magazines

It's official - BBC Magazines and its portfolio of 35 titles are up for sale, or as the BBC prefer to think of it, "looking for a partner", but who would buy a group of magazines today?

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The BBC Trust officially rubber-stamped the move in principle last week, ending months of speculation.

The sales process is likely to be complicated by the BBC's desire to retain some control over magazine brands directly linked to its programme brands, such as 'Top Gear' and 'Doctor Who'.

A vast array of traditional publishing houses and media partners are already believed to be jostling for position, but two names are top of mind among industry specialists: National Magazine Company and Hachette Filipacchi.

Vanessa Clifford, head of press at Mindshare, is in no doubt that NatMag is a serious contender. The publisher of titles ranging from Good Housekeeping to Harper’s Bazaar and Men’s Health, has the experience and, being owned by US giant Hearst, perhaps the capital.

Clifford said: "NatMag probably has the best portfolio fit with BBC Magazines. It would complement and add to the current portfolio, rather than compete with it.

"Although it wouldn’t clash with the BBC Magazines stock, Bauer’s portfolio, which is celebrity and music orientated, wouldn’t fit naturally alongside it."

The BBC Magazines’ portfolio includes the 87-year-old stalwart Radio Times, international car sensation Top Gear, BBC Food, Gardener’s World magazines, as well as BBC Wildlife and History magazines, and a range of Cbeebies-inspired titles.

A BBC spokesman has confirmed that a single publishing partner, able  to handle the bulk of the business, would be preferable to a number of smaller individual deals. Such a desire would certainly make for a more straightforward set-up, but in turn seriously restricts any potential pool of suitors.

"If the BBC is looking for one partner – it has got to be a larger publisher who would have the resources," agreed Clifford.

At least some of the magazines are also considered to be a good fit for Hachette Filipacchi, publisher of women's consumer magazines Red, Elle and Psychologies, and wholly owned subsidiary of French multi-conglomerate giant, Lagardère.

Andy Taylor, associate director and head of magazines at Carat, said: "The BBC Magazines titles would obviously fit very well with Hachette’s offerings, as it’s far removed from their current monthly titles. They don’t have anything in the food, car or TV listings arena, so it’s a perfect addition to the portfolio."

One notable absence from the names being bandied around among experts is IPC Media.

Despite being the UK's largest magazine publisher, the home of titles as diverse as InStyle, Women & Home, Wallpaper, Essentials and Now, is currently in the middle of a brutal sell-off of many of its more niche brands.

Both IPC and its US owner Time Inc are believed to be preparing for their own significant overhauls as two new chief executives take control.

Meanwhile, some industry sources have been speculating that the complexities of selling magazines linked to TV brands, where control is ceded, might be more appropriate for traditional customer publishers such as John Brown Publishing and River.

Taylor said: "You won’t have a consumer publisher buying something where the BBC dictate a schedule to them. They will want the heritage that those programme-led magazines have, but, in terms of influence, there would need to be a serious discussion between the two parties."

Rob Lynam, press director at MEC, agreed the necessary "partnership" likely to be stipulated in any such deal made the move a hard one to call.

"There are simply too many unknowns," he said. "Will it be broken up, will it go to one publisher, and if so, who really has the cash to do it?"

BBC Magazines was formed in 1986 with Peter Phippen as publisher of Radio Times and Nick Brett as its editor. Three years later, the BBC Good Food magazine launched and in 1994, BBC Worldwide formed, incorporating BBC Magazines and launching more titles.

The Radio Times is widely considered to be the corporation's "jewel in the crown", and for many years has generally been considered to be the most profitable magazine in the UK.  

It was launched 87 years ago yesterday, as a vehicle for Lord Reith to tell people when to turn the wireless on. Today, the TV and radio listings magazine recorded a circulation of 947,131 in the last ABC figures for the first six months of 2010.

BBC Magazines made pre-tax profits of more than £18m for the 12 months to the end of March 2010, up 13.6% year on year.

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