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'Brangelina' Baby Pictures Sale Stinks

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Time Inc. should be embarrassed.

Time Warner's Time Inc. unit reportedly paid big bucks for its People unit to gain the rights to publish the pictures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's newborn twins. The price tag was said to be $14 million, according to unconfirmed media reports, though it's not clear how much People actually paid itself.

But given the celebrity-obsessed nature of the media, where hyperbole is often the rule, it's likely the dollar amount has been exaggerated.

This is the state of much of the media today. Anything with a celebrity tinge to it passes for serious news. The publishing industry is so depressed, with advertisers staying perched on the sidelines, that the lucrative prospect of publishing something as relatively insignificant as the baby pictures of famous movie stars counts as manna from heaven.

People obtained the North American rights to the pictures and Britain's tabloid magazine Hello! can publish the photos elsewhere around the world. You expect a gossip magazine to covet these kinds of properties. But is that what People has sunk to? I expect more from Time Inc. Maybe the joke is on me.

It is somewhat predictable, given society's obsession with all things celebrity, that even a Time Inc. holding would race to publish such Hollywood fodder. But it's still very disappointing from a journalistic perspective.

People really can't lose here. Much of the publicity will stem from the money angle. Even if People had partners and didn't shoulder the burden by itself, this is the magazine that will be named most prominently in North America's key media markets.

While People is No. 1 in its increasingly competitive category -- boasting 43 million readers a week -- to remain on top it must sometimes resort to these types of gimmicks.

Business

Still, it's terrible that while Time Inc., has pushed out many journalists over the years because of cost considerations, one of its subsidiaries crows about this non-newsy event.

Sure, business is business. Money talks. Time Inc. and People are going to stand to gain a fortune from this venture. People, the most valuable property at Time Inc. these days, will always get its way in the company's hierarchy.

Big payouts for celebrity baby pictures have become common -- People reportedly paid $6 million for shots of Jennifer Lopez's twins earlier this year -- though the Jolie-Pitt photos are the most expensive ever sold, reports said.

And it isn't only People doing this sort of thing. Publishers all over the world vie for the right to get exclusives of non-news events like the baby pictures of Hollywood's most glamorous couple (that is, until Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes step forward and give Suri a baby brother or a sister).

Time Inc. offers no apologies and stresses that each of its titles runs its own business affairs.

"Each of our business is run by a different P&L," said Dawn Bridges, the spokeswoman for Time Inc. "People is very profitable."

"We don't comment specifics of any deals," said Sandi Shurgin, the spokeswoman of People.

Who knows? People itself may have intentionally fanned the flames to contribute to the hype surrounding the baby pictures as a way to boost the sales of the magazine and the readership on the Web.

In any case, Angelina Jolie may be setting a standard for birthing. The unsourced report said the rights went for $14 million, which works out to be more than three times the speculated sum of the $4.1 million arrangement for the 2006 baby photos of Shiloh, the older child Pitt and Jolie had together.

People put the cover of its new issue, showcasing twins Vivienne Marcheline and Knox Leon and their beaming parents, on its Web site, as a lead-in for for a 19-page spread that will arrive on newsstands on Monday.

Jolie and Pitt said they will donate the money to charity. They come ou of this looking like promotional geniuses. Certainly, this kind of publicity can't hurt the movie career of either star, even though they may be more famous by now for their off-screen activities than their film roles.

Time Inc. and People could use some promotional geniuses to justify this stunt as anything more than a thinly veiled grab for publicity.

What do you think of People's move?

to about the possibility of the media favoring Barack Obama: "There is no question the media is biased in its coverage of Obama. The funny thing about bias is that it acts like a pair of blinders. If you have it, you usually can't see it. The bias is evident by the fact that almost no one in the media pointed out the obvious about Obama's trip. He had to go on the trip because he has no experience or accomplishments in foreign relations."

-- Randy Jones

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By Jon Friedman