In Time, Life Repeats Itself

We just finished reading a 1994 Harvard Business School case study about Time Life Inc., featuring John Fahey .

(John was Time Life’s Chairman, President, and CEO from 1989 until 1996, just before he jumped ship and came aboard here at National Geographic.)

It’s a breathtaking document, mostly because it feels like déja vu all over again. As you read the excerpt below, just make the following substitutions:

Time Life >> National Geographic
True Crime (book series) >> Locked up AbroadTabooPrison Women (and other Fox-like fare on the National Geographic Channel, which is majority owned by News Corp)
John Fahey, “guardian of the brand” >> John Fahey, marketer of the brand (In John’s defense, it’s hard to protect a brand when you’ve already sold it to a corporation that willfully abuses it.)

From the HBS case study:

As the video screen faded to black, all eyes turned to John Fahey, Time Life’s president and chief executive officer. The group in Fahey’s office included most of the firm’s top management. They had gathered on January 22, 1993, to view a selection of revised TV advertisements for the True Crime book series and decide whether they should be used. Time Life sold series of books, videotapes, records, and compact disks by mail, and True Crime was its first attempt to tap the public desire for graphic accounts of famous crimes and criminals. Market tests suggested that the series would be a solid success and perhaps a major hit, the first in nearly six years. Yet Fahey and others in the room were troubled. Did the ads (or for that matter True Crime itself) fit Time Life’s strategy? Would the series undermine the company’s image as a provider of quality family material? Fahey had already temporarily halted shipment of the book series and suspended TV advertising, following hostile mail from viewers who had seen early versions of the advertisements and felt that they glorified violence. Now he needed to decide whether to proceed with the new version of the ads—and even whether to proceed with True Crime itself. …

The True Crime project began in the book division. Market research suggested a healthy public appetite for books on crime and criminals, and the goal was to combine Time Life’s traditional standards of accuracy and careful investigative reporting with graphic details and vivid images. Each volume in the series was designed to investigate a particular type of crime, including serial killers, mass murderers, cultists, the Mafia, and crimes of passion. By January 1993 six volumes had been researched, developed, and test-marketed, and were ready for shipment. Meanwhile, the video and television division had pitched the idea of a television series on the same subject to broadcasters and received an encouraging response. Development had started on the television series in May 1992, and three treatments were now in hand. Videotape sales were anticipated at a later date.

Early tests suggested that the book series would be a major hit. In fact, in the week after the first television advertisements hit the air, Time Life received more orders than it had for any other series in the company’s history. But at the same time, Fahey began to receive concerned letters from viewers, who felt that Time Life was glorifying law breaking and promoting violence by giving excessive attention to mass murderers and other criminals. While the number of letters was relatively small, they came at a bad time: Time Warner, the parent company, had recently been in the public eye because of inflammatory lyrics in a recording by the rap singer Ice-T and a racy new book of photographs of Madonna. In fact, concerns about the series had earlier risen internally. During the development of True Crime, members of the editorial group had expressed misgivings about the topic and proposed treatment. But the strong market tests had prevailed, leaving Fahey with the current predicament. He observed:

This problem came about because of market research-based publishing. People told us that they wanted blood, guts, and gore. We needed a hit to revitalize the business, and all our research pointed to this topic.

To buy time, Fahey asked the book division to temporarily halt release of the series. He also requested revised television advertisements, and it was this version that the group had just screened in Fahey’s office. They were less graphic than previous versions, but still dramatic. Now, Fahey had to weigh several arguments. On the one hand, there were the potential profits and boost to morale that the books division would gain from a hit. Estimated profits ranged from $8 million to $17 million, with the videotape and television series expected to contribute an additional $7 million. This alone might mean that the company should take the risk and proceed. Fahey was also loathe to do anything that would discourage the efforts of the video and television division to continue to build in-house capabilities and collaborate with editorial and books personnel. The division had identified True Crime as an important vehicle for establishing its credibility, and its managers were much less worried about the topic and proposed advertising than their counterparts in books. Fahey did not want to reinforce the impression that Time Life was too stodgy to succeed in television. Moreover, he knew that success with the book, television, and videotape series would provide further momentum for multimedia projects and cooperation across divisions.

Still, there were concerns about the brand. Fahey knew that this series, and television in general, required more provocative advertising than the books division had historically used. But he was worried that an adverse image might be created for the whole company by the proposed advertisements, and, indeed, by the series itself. He commented:

We know what the public wants and we can give it to them. We accept that we’re becoming more controversial; with the videotape Trials of Life, for instance, our television ads showed vivid scenes of violence in nature and produced a runaway hit. I don’t want to serve as the guardian of the brand or to stop True Crime because of tradition. We need to move forward. But we also have to protect our image. My role is difficult; the word “guardian,” after all, has both positive and negative connotations. …

In February 1993 Fahey decided to reposition the True Crime book series and re-launch the promotional campaign with new television advertisements.  Instead of beginning with the “Serial Killers” title, Fahey opted to make the first volume of the series the less-provocative “Unsolved Crimes.”  The series would continue under the Time Life brand.  The new advertisements were less graphic and dramatic than the previous version.  They did not include the earlier emphasis on psychological killers, but relied more heavily on customer testimonials about the value of the series. The aim was to return to Time Life’s traditional image of reliable, fact-based journalism.

The new advertisements succeeded in reducing complaints from members of the public. Unfortunately, they did not generate many sales.  With the new campaign in place, True Crime sales fell precipitously to less than one-third their previous high.  To test whether the problem was the type of advertising, or whether perhaps the public was simply losing interest in the concept, Fahey asked that the original advertisements be re-run on an experimental basis.  Sales quickly doubled.  At the same time, the video and television division elected not to proceed with plans to develop a television series based on the books.  While several networks had originally been interested, they now expressed concerns about image problems with True Crime.

{ end of HBS excerpt }


A Time Life / John Fahey Timeline

1961: Time-Life was established as the book division of Time Inc.

1970s & ‘80s: Time-Life becomes a juggernaut in the creation & direct marketing of books and music. (Remember these iconic ads?)

1989 to 1996: John Fahey serves as Time Life’s Chairman, President, and CEO.

1993: The True Crime case (see above).

1996: John Fahey leaves Time Life to become the first president & CEO of National Geographic Ventures, the nonprofit Society’s separate, wholly owned, taxable subsidiary.

(It was a savvy move by John: As the Harvard case study notes, “image problems” had emerged at Time Life in the early 1990s. Soon, there were revenue problems too. Time Life — or Time Strife, as some former staffers call it — was on its way to becoming a has-been brand. Today, Time Life is part of Direct Holdings Worldwide, and the purveyor of DVDs such as Richard Simmons 20th Anniversary Edition of Sweatin’ With The Oldies.)


Dear John,

What did you learn
from your experience at Time Life?

How has that experience influenced
your decisions at National Geographic?

What do you think
when National Geographic sends out
lurid tweets like this?

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.