Congloms dig into digital business

NEW YORK — News Corp. and CBS opened up the vaults on Wednesday, spending a combined $600 million on digital startups in separate deals that illustrate how both congloms are attempting to define their new-media strategies.

CBS shelled out about $280 million to buy Last.FM, a site that links users with similar musical and other tastes. News Corp. scooped up video-sharing site Photobucket for a reported $300 million as well as nascent vid-tools site Flektor for about $20 million in addition to backend incentives.

Despite the timing and similar pricetags, the transactions demonstrated the vastly different approaches the congloms are taking to the Web 2.0 age.

By buying companies that give consumers easy access to cutting-edge digital-media applications, News Corp. has demonstrated it wants to use new media as more than just a place to market and sell its movies: It seeks to control the machinery people use to work and play on the Web.

With an estimated 30 million unique users, Photobucket allows for the posting and sharing of photos and video; site in some ways resembles YouTube and serves as a kind of cosmic photo album.

It’s estimated that nearly half of Photobucket’s traffic comes from MySpace, where users embed links to the site, presenting some obvious synergies for MySpace owner News Corp.

Flektor, which has been live for only about a month, hopes to become popular as a spot where consumers can mix content and engage in mash-ups. News Corp. on Wednesday said it will disseminate the Flektor tool throughout Fox properties such as FoxSports.com as well as MySpace.

“When you combine the biggest social-networking platform with the biggest personal media site and the best set of editing tools, you have a canvas and a destination where people can go and express themselves,” Fox Interactive media topper Peter Levinsohn said in explaining the deal.

With the combination of MySpace and Photobucket, News Corp. has put a division in place with services distinct from anything Viacom, Time Warner and other competitors have to offer.

Those companies’ goals are more modest and, arguably, more in line with their traditional content businesses. They’re attempting primarily to ensure that their content gets exposure as movies and TV shows migrate to the Web.

“There’s no question News Corp. has set itself apart in what it wants to do on the Web,” one media exec said. “But it’s far too early to say whether this is the perfect role for a company in the 21st century or just a fad.”

MySpace has been used as a promotional platform for such Fox pics as “Borat,” but its main function for most consumers remains social networking and user-generated diaries and photos — hardly a media conglom staple.

With its own acquisition, CBS Corp. planted a flag in a different piece of the new-media landscape.

While CBS Interactive topper Quincy Smith likened the deal to News Corp.’s purchase of MySpace in 2005, Last.FM is at once a more modest and ambitious application.

With 15 million users, Last.FM doesn’t have nearly the presence or resonance of MySpace. But with sophisticated tastemaking features, it allows users with similar habits to find each other and recommend brands in a way that goes beyond the more straightforward “friends” mechanism of MySpace.

CBS hopes to broaden the Last.FM application from music and radio to movies, television, books and other content areas in which the Eye operates; it wants to draw users by becoming a reliable site that can help consumers discover entertainment they would otherwise have struggled to find.

In the process, CBS hopes to aggregate a large audience to which it can sell advertising.

But it also has bold plans to use the site as an information-seeking tool that it says can quantify its audience in new ways.

With this site, CBS is less concerned in using the Web to promote its shows or with developing a parallel television network online — as Time Warner is doing with its AOL program slate — as it is with amassing as much information as possible about its viewers’ tastes.

“It’s much more about discovery and sharing than having the content there,” Smith said. As for the larger strategic goals, he said, “We’re evolving from a content company to a media-profiling company.”

It’s a departure from CBS’ previous mantra: CEO Leslie Moonves and other execs had emphasized that the conglom was a content company foremost and would leave innovations in distribution and additional areas to others, a philosophy embodied by its distribution deal with major online players.

CBS hopes it can eventually use the information it gathers from Last.FM in diverse ways, from supplying that info to advertisers on the net to utilizing it in making programming and scheduling decisions.

“We want to know if a ‘CSI’ fan is also an Avril Lavigne fan is also a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fan,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter that those aren’t CBS properties.”

The Eye also is pointedly trying to get younger. “This is one of the first big pushes into the younger audience,” Smith said of the Last.FM deal. (CBS last week also bought financial video blog Wallstrip, which skews younger.)

But questions abound for both media giants.

It’s far from assured that Wednesday’s investments will pay off for News Corp. in the long run or that other companies will be deemed nearsighted for not being similarly aggressive. As one rival exec noted, “There’s no track record for any company doing what News Corp. is doing.”

And integrating News Corp.’s tools-based biz with its content ops is by no means a simple matter. For example, the MySpace-Photobucket branch of News Corp. is set up under Levinsohn’s L.A.-based Fox Interactive Media, a group run apart from the corporate division charged with handling the company’s new video-sharing venture with NBC Universal.

As for CBS, the pricetag for Last.FM was thought high by some analysts for a site with an audience that’s still growing, and for what CBS hopes will become a turbocharged research tool.

And how nets will use research gathered online is still uncharted territory; when it comes to development, for instance, most nets remain loyal to traditional focus-grouping.

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