It's prime time to sell online properties
Yahoo's dance around Microsoft's hostile takeover bid suggests big media companies sense a good moment to make money from their Net operations.
(Fortune) -- One takeaway from Microsoft's hostile takeover run at Yahoo is that there is suddenly a market place to shop Web businesses around. For some players looking to finally turn their prized Internet units into real cash, now isn't a bad time to be looking.
Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), the tarnished king of the so-called portal empire, is reportedly seeking a meaningful deal with TimeWarner's AOL unit. The company has also had discussions with News Corp (NWS, Fortune 500) and its MySpace venture. The talks are aimed to help Yahoo build a formidable rival to Google or, more likely, to force Microsoft to increase its $41 billion offer.
But with all the big media shops coming to the table with propositions, it becomes evident that no one is really holding the winning hand, at least not in a game against Google. MySpace, for example is the largest revenue contributor of all News Corp's Internet businesses. The popular social networking site has money coming in, but its largest deal is a multi-year guaranteed payment plan with Google, which will eventually bring in $900 million for its share of online ad sales. Last June, News Corp's booked $50 million as its installment from this gravy train. Silicon Alley Insider's blogger and Net media analyst Henry Blodget estimates that MySpace had $600 million in revenue last year. That's merely a ripple on the company's $28.6 billion top line.
The point here is pretty much well understood: for all their untapped Internet revenue potential, media conglomerates have yet to strike it rich in their online ventures. TimeWarner's AOL deal set the industry standard for failed Web opportunities and squandered resources. (TimeWarner is the publisher of Fortune.)
But that said, AOL owns one of the leading display and search ad businesses in Advertising.com, as well as the No.1 instant messaging network that has managed to out-gun challengers and even expand into new frontiers like wireless and big business. In an Internet commerce world dominated by Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), it makes sense for the various players to pitch combinations that emphasize strengths in areas where the giant may have weaknesses. Yahoo filed for an extension Wednesday to postpone its shareholder meeting so it could have more time to explore deals "without the distraction of a proxy contest," implying that it is looking for a Google-wounding combination.
To be sure, the shareholders' interests must be served, even if many of the largest Yahoo stakeholders also hold a lot of Microsoft stock. As Fortune's Adam Lashinsky wrote last month, Yahoo has fumbled deals like Facebook and YouTube on the bumpy Net consolidation path. Now the company simply can't go it alone "against the sheer expense of competing against Google's server farm expansion," Lashinsky wrote. It's far from clear that an AOL deal - even if it had some synergies
Meanwhile, Microsoft's software dominance is being challenged by Google and the company says its single best defense is to take on the Net giant directly by acquiring its rival. CEO Steve Ballmer has cited Microsoft's online size disadvantage as the reason he is pushing ahead with a hostile bid, Fortune's Jon Fortt wrote last month. With a big buyer in the market, it seems smart to try and package some properties for a sweet sale.