Big media's digital shuffle

NBC, News Corp., and others rethink the role of the chief interactive officer.

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By Adam Lashinsky, editor at large

(Fortune Magazine) -- Four years ago or so, a handful of big, lumbering old-media companies, desperate to show investors and the technorati alike that they had a clue when it came to the Internet, created the new position of digital strategist-in-chief.

Almost in lockstep, companies from ABC to Viacom (VIA) named a round of rising stars to a new position of top interactive honcho: MTV Networks hired entrepreneur Jason Hirschhorn as chief digital officer. CBS (CBS, Fortune 500) snagged Allen & Co. dealmaker Quincy Smith to head a newly constituted CBS Interactive division. Disney (DIS, Fortune 500) elevated corporate strategist Albert Cheng to become executive vice president for digital media at its ABC Television Group. Internet executive George Kliavkoff became NBC Universal's first chief digital officer. As a group, the digital gurus lacked bigtime media-operations chops, but their presence sent a message: Media incumbents were thinking seriously about the interactive future.

Today the lineup looks considerably different. Some companies - like MTV and NBC - have dropped the role altogether. Others, like News Corp. (NWS, Fortune 500), have elevated it. That the companies no longer are singing from the same hymnal says a lot about the volatile state of "old" media vs. "new."

Why the shift? For one thing, old-media executives were far more intimidated by technology four years ago than they are today. Beyond that, many chief digital honchos were hired to do deals - like NBC's joint venture with News Corp. for Hulu.com - that have now either fallen by the wayside in the soft economy or become so core to doing business that they no longer need to be led by a digital chief. NBC, for example, didn't replace Kliavkoff after he left last year. And CBS's Smith orchestrated the $1.8 billion acquisition of CNet Networks - but now, instead of doing more deals, he oversees that business.

At other companies, like MTV, the need for a single digital decision-maker evaporated, leaving those decisions to all management. "Eventually the digital strategy becomes grown up enough that a centralized team is more a hindrance than a help," says Kliavkoff, now a dealmaker, digital and otherwise, for Hearst Corp.

Other media giants are keeping, and even empowering, the top interactive exec. News Corp. recently named Jonathan Miller, a former IAC and AOL honcho, as chairman and CEO of its digital-media group and corporate chief digital officer, both new positions. In theory Miller will advise Rupert Murdoch on all things digital. In practice he'll act as chief overlord of MySpace (above its new CEO, Owen Van Natta - and its new "chief product officer," Hirschhorn from MTV) and the company's handful of other Internet investments.

The real indicator that old media has nailed its new-media strategy may come when there's no need for a chief digital officer at all. Perhaps the surest sign of that will be when one or two of them become their companies' chief executive officers.  To top of page

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