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June 20, 2011 4:21 am

Internet chief plays to the audience

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Ross Levinsohn helped buy MySpace for News Corp in 2005 when old media companies were trying to become internet companies.

Now, seven months after joining Yahoo, he leads the internet company’s efforts to become more like a media company. Yahoo’s head of media, advertising sales and partnerships for the Americas heads for the Cannes Lions advertising festival this week to persuade advertisers to think of Yahoo like a television network and able to assemble large audiences around its programming.

He uses broadcast terms such as “tentpoles” and “anchors” and rattles off figures to show Yahoo Sports and Yahoo News beating the online audience of rival TV brands such as ESPN and CNN. With 189m unique US users in May, he boasts: “There’s no bigger place in ... digital media than Yahoo.”

Yahoo harboured similar entertainment ambitions in the mid-2000s when it hired media executives to woo Hollywood on the potential for shows online. The strategy’s failure contributed to Terry Semel’s departure as chief executive in 2007.

“Yahoo was ahead of its time,” Mr Levinsohn says. When Semel and former TV executive Lloyd Braun were running Yahoo “the demand wasn’t there but they were right on with the strategy”.

Now, by contrast “there’s incredible demand [from advertisers] for the right video ... We just can’t produce enough of it, but we will”.

Under Carol Bartz, chief executive, Yahoo will “double down” on its investment in premium content, he says. Its investments in shows such as Prime Time in No Time, which has been watched more than 500m times, could expand on what are already the most popular sites in 19 categories, such as web news, sports and finance. But there is still work to do to find “a tone and a voice that is distinct to Yahoo”.

Mr Levinson says he will not be writing $100m cheques for original series, as Netflix has reputedly done, but he is aiming for 10-30 per cent of its content to be its own productions, with the rest aggregated, curated and licensed.

Yahoo produces about 200 episodes of 20 original shows a month, many of them sponsored. Mr Levinsohn, who started his career on US soap operas, notes that having episodes of the Yahoo Sports Minute “powered by Dunkin Donuts” echoes earlier eras of branded entertainment.

Better planning around “tentpole” events such as the Oscars and the Royal Wedding has boosted time spent on the site by 17 per cent year-on-year, while the Japanese earthquake and Osama bin Laden’s death gave Yahoo News its busiest three days yet. But that growth lags far behind that of Facebook and other newer sites.

Mr Levinsohn looks to connect its shows closely with other assets, such as Yahoo Answers and its Flickr photo-sharing site and its search results.

The bigger push is to move from dozens of systems to a single publishing platform which allows it to tailor its homepage 13m different ways each day.

The new system has driven a more than threefold increase in the rate of people clicking through from the homepage in three months.

Pressure for such improvements is intense. Uncertainty about Yahoo’s investment in Chinese internet group Alibaba and falling revenues from its search advertising deal with Microsoft have rattled investors.

Yahoo’s shares have fallen since May from almost $19 to below $15. Its $19.3bn valuation contrasts with investors’ clamour for newer internet names and Mr Levinsohn sees “a little bit of a bubble” in internet valuations, particularly in the private market.

Yahoo might wish it were caught up in the exuberance but Mr Levinsohn notes: “For all the excitement in and around new platforms like Twitter or Facebook or Groupon, we do more revenue in a couple of weeks than Twitter will do all year.”

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