Kara Swisher

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Is Yahoo’s Mayer Turning Into a Media Mogul With Katie Couric Web Video Deal?


According to numerous sources inside the company, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has turned her attentions of late to goosing the site’s media efforts. That includes personally shepherding a new deal to put a Web interview show by high-profile television news personality Katie Couric right on its home page.

In addition, said sources, Mayer — who is pretty mediagenic herself — has also recently met with execs from Conde Nast for very preliminary talks, and has expressed interest in cooking up some kind of content deal with its flagship Vogue magazine.

(Coincidentally — or not! — she recently appeared in a splashy photo spread and interview in the fashion bible’s September issue. The story included breaking news about Mayer’s massive collection of cashmere bolero designer sweaters and, oh yeah, she runs a major public Internet company.)

What’s striking about both deals is the hands-on involvement of Mayer, who has apparently been working closely on them, especially Couric’s. Sources said the talks have recently moved to include top execs at ABC, which has a robust news partnership with Yahoo.

Among Internet companies, AOL has perhaps been most active in trying to leverage celebrities — in its case, Heidi Klum and Marlo Thomas — to attract audiences. But results have been mixed, mostly due to content that is not terrifically different or innovative.

Couric has done previous appearances for Yahoo, including one event for advertisers, and there is already an offering called “Katie’s Take” on Yahoo News, launched about a year ago. But it is basically repurposed content from her ABC daytime talk show, “Katie,” and written by others, recently including a riveting video about “Orgasm After Menopause.”

The new deal, if struck, would be much more substantive, and presumably would seek to deliver the content in more interesting ways. Sources said it would center on exclusive interviews with a range of high-profile celebrities, business execs and more, done by Couric specifically for the Web and prominently featured on the Yahoo homepage. Sources said that ABC would need to reach agreements about the scope of her role on Yahoo, and balance them with her obligations to ABC.

Since she left her job as well-known news anchor at CBS and, previously, as longtime star of NBC’s “Today Show,” Couric has been host of of ABC’s “Katie,” which will debut its second season on Sept. 9.

According to the “Katie” website, “Couric joined the Disney/ABC Television Group in summer 2011, and serves as special correspondent for ABC News, contributing to ABC World News, Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, This Week and primetime news specials.”

Strengthening its online video efforts has been a recent key focus for Mayer in reviving Yahoo’s fortunes, along with mobile, and sources said that she has talked a lot internally about creating some kind of competitor to Google’s YouTube. Yahoo already tried unsuccessfully to buy France’s Dailymotion, and has since been mulling other major acquisitions in the space.

Mayer has waded into the arena herself (like I said, she’s a hey-look-at-me CEO) in an unusual — but highly entertaining — video presentation of Yahoo’s second-quarter earnings that was formulated in a news-broadcast style.

On the show — which it most certainly was — she stressed the intent to make video a “primary area of investment over the next year.” It’s not just for jazz-hands purposes; video ads are a big area of revenue growth online as traditional graphical ads fade. Yahoo itself has seen a sharp falloff of those key moneymaking ads under Mayer’s regime, part of a larger trend impacting everyone.

Yahoo has already struck a pricey deal for the longtime video archives of “Saturday Night Live,” but that money is harder to recoup compared to a show Yahoo has that catches on.

“We think there’s room for lots of players and video really comes down to the question of the content,” Mayer said on the call, calling out Yahoo Screen, its video portal, and original shows like “Burning Love.” She said that most of the video deals would be via partnerships, rather than via Yahoo’s own original programming.

Yahoo is more likely, of course, to focus itself as a platform than as a content creator, as it plays into Mayer’s tech background. That said, among many execs in the Web space, she has been more attracted to the media scene, and struck deals for Google to buy content properties like Zagat while there.

This deal seems to be an original offering, said sources, so we’ll see when and if it comes to fruition. Additional efforts to up Yahoo’s video business will require the hiring of a top media exec to replace recently departed media chief Mickie Rosen. Internal sources said Mayer has said she is aiming to hire a top television exec for the job, to underscore the company’s commitment to video.

Interestingly, Yahoo recently named a well-regarded and experienced British television exec, Dawn Airey, to lead its efforts in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

An ABC exec declined to comment, as did Yahoo PR (which has suddenly gotten more responsive — thanks, Sara!).

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work