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British newspapers succumb to Bingo craze

By GREGORY JENSEN

LONDON -- They're not yelling 'Extra! Extra! these days in London. Now it's Bingo! Bingo!

'Play the only 1 million pound bingo,' screams a black-background streamer above every headline on the front page of the Daily Express.

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'We've smashed the world record, folks,' shouts a similar front-page splash in the Sun, which casually brushes aside the Daily Express claim by saying its game 'is now worth an amazing 1.3 million pounds ($2.5 million).'

The Daily Mirror also is playing bingo. The Daily Star, which began it all, is playing bingo. The Sunday Express, the Sunday Mirror, the News of the World -- which also claims a 1 million pound ($1.86 million) payoff -- the Sunday People: they're all playing bingo. Experts think the Daily Mail will be next.

'It's part of the very long drawn-out dance of death going on in Fleet Street,' the 'street of ink' at the heart of Britain's newspaper industry, according to a professor who studies newspaper economics.

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Most experts believe it is just that. The current mania for bingo, they believe, can only end with the death of another newspaper.

Long before that happens, the bingo binge has had some bizarre effects.

Postmen groan under the weight of bingo cards, needed to play the game, sent million upon million into British homes -- by one estimate, 25.7 million cards for a nation of 55 million people.

The ordinary bingo industry -- and in Britain it is a big one, with defunct movie theaters by the score taken over for the traditional form of the game -- is not amused.

'We do feel very strongly about this,' said George Pannett, president of the British Bingo Association. Worried about bingo hall attendances, he added: 'We feel it is a bit unfair at the moment.'

Customs and Excise investigators have launched a probe of the newspaper game to see whether newspapers, now fee of tax, should be subject to the 10 percent tax bingo halls pay, a tax doubled within a year.

Bingo by newspaper is, of course, a pure circulation gimmick. The idea is to snare people into buying your newspaper by offering huge prizes they can only win by buying the paper daily.

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The Daily Star started it June 15 with the now-common blaze of publicity. The Star, a comparatively new newspaper trying to force its way into an overcrowded field, needs a circulation of 2 million to break even, analysts say, and falls 400,000 short.

It was instantly followed by the Sun, Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch's first British success. In the United States, Murdoch's New York Post has its own version of the game called Wingo. The New York Daily News also has its version... Zingo.

Journalism professor Richard Redden of City University, London, thinks circulation gained by bingo games just about covers the games' costs, though he warns that 'sales could drop if people get bored.'

No authenticated circulation figures have been compiled since the bingo binge began. But the Star and the Sun both claim they gained 500,000 circulation in a matter of weeks.

'The question is whether these gains are sustainable after you have stopped the scheme,' said an advertising manager.

'It also devalues the currency of newspapers,' says Prof. Jeremy Tunstall, a sociologist. 'If people take them because of bingo, they'll drop them for the same reason.'

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