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News Corp to Yahoos Rescue: Possibly but not Probably

news white knightOne of the rumors floating around the potential merger of Microsoft and Yahoo is that News Corp.  is in discussions to get involved.  The idea, which started floating on blogs like Tech Crunch and Silicon Alley Insider late last night and since escalated to Wall Street Journal reporting, speculates that News Corp is considering rolling MySpace (and possible more of Fox Interactive Media’s assets) into Yahoo.  In exchange, and along with cash paid to Yahoo, News Corp and possible private equity partners would take a substantial stake, as much as 30% of the combined property.

Anything is possible in the Wild West like fog of the Micro-Hoo scenario. News Corps opportunistic investigation certainly makes sense. Where I’m having a difficult time is forming an opinion as to whether such conversations have any shot at being fruitful.  It’s not that Rupert Murdoch has explicitly said no to buying Yahoo (“We are definitely not going to make a bid for Yahoo”).  He could change his mind, not to mention this isn’t a buying them outright.  It’s something different to what he’s ruled out in his talk with analysts, at least semantically.

The skepticism comes from looking at strategic patterns and longer term visions.   News Corp already has a significant online presence through MySpace, IGN, Rotten Tomatoes, the assorted Fox and Wall Street Journal Online properties and even beta stage video start up Hulu.   It’s also no secret the longer term vision for these properties includes using their footprint as a part of a vehicle to integrate and advance News  Corps substantial other media assets across the digital divide – online, mobile, and all in between.

Yahoo’s media services and general site traffic could be a jewel in News Corp’s crown.  Assuredly, they could advance the company’s digital progression.  But that is only possible if News Corp has the operational influence and control (either through ownership or partnership) to insure their strategy is implemented.  News Corp. is not going to take a passive investment position. 

The primary question that provokes is:

Is Yahoo so set on rebuking Microsoft’s advances that they’d give News Corp this level of influence?

Or from the other side: Would News Corp consider doing a deal without it explicitly provided for?

Another, set of more secondary questions is mathematic: What valuation for MySpace (and whatever else is included) would  leave the two sides comfortable with the equation?  And can they come to such an agreement? There’s also transactional questions about what happens with search and how the two brands will deal with conflict and overlap among their various products/sites.

News Corp and Yahoo have been back and forth with MySpace related discussions for more than a year. They never could find the common ground.  Maybe desperation on Yahoo’s part will change that.  Then again, it’s not clear that Yahoo is desperate yet.  Just the opposite, Yahoo seems to be intent on trying to provoke multiple bids (or create the appearance of them) to stimulate pricing valuation.  

History poses a challenge too.  Over the years, News Corp has made lots of acquisitions but their pattern suggests a preference for outright ownership over minority positions.   (And when they do take a small stake, it’s often either a gateway to a larger purchase or because regulatory restrictions don’t allow them to buy more.)

A few examples include the 1981 purchase of part of 20th Century Fox.  Just three years later, in 1984 they acquired the rest.  Another deal, their 34% stake in DirecTV might have followed a similar path if Liberty Media hadn’t begun defensively buying News Corp stock in response.  (In 2006, the two sides agreed to swap positions – Liberty’s stake in News Corp in exchange for News Corps stake in DirecTV).

Given the significance of digital media to News Corps strategy and the history of how they’ve handled equity investments make taking a “reality check” and gauging probability a difficult proposition.  Anybody, everybody, can have discussions.  There’s a big jump from hearing a competitors views and having a chat to consummating a deal.  This one, maybe it’s 50-50, that’s the safe bet, but as a gut reaction, it seems far less likely than that.

Other partial equity investments currently in News Corps holdings include: 50% of Australia’s Premier Media Group, 75% of the National Geographic Channel, 50% of Smart Money (via ownership of Dow Jones), 15% of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, 50% of the National Rugby League (in Australia and New Zealand), 45% of Hulu, 44% of Sky Network Television in New Zealand, 39% of British satellite TV provider BskyB and 25% of Australian Associated Press.

Adding a 20-30% stake in Yahoo to that list?… Going on a limb, throwing disclaimers and probabilities to the side, I don’t think it will happen.


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