Ladies first at NBC U

Conglom pays $600 mil for femme-focused iVillage

NEW YORK — NBC Universal became the latest media conglom to place a big bet on online media, paying $600 million to bring women-oriented portal iVillage into the fold.

The Web site and related properties, including gURL, Astrology.com and Healthology.com, will give NBC U broader exposure to the online advertising market and form the backbone of a Web distribution strategy for TV and film.

IVillage “knows now to create and sustain online communities; we know how to create great content. This deal gives us immediate scale in the online world,” NBC U chairman Bob Wright said.

NBC U expects iVillage, ranked 41st in terms of Web traffic according to ComScore Media Metrix, to grow quickly with the addition of NBC video to the site, which is divided into categories addressing topics like beauty, style, entertainment, parenting and relationships.

“We see some fantastic opportunities to marry our television content with iVillage content,” Wright said. “After the integration is completed, we’ll be able to bring video to bear to better take advantage of the community that iVillage has built up.”

Acquisition ends a near-decade-long flirtation between iVillage and the Peacock that began when then-NBC cable prexy Tom Rogers took an equity stake in the portal as part of a cross-promotion deal in 1998.

That deal was canceled in 2001 when the New York-based company nearly collapsed during the dot-com downturn. Hearst Corp. came in with additional financing that year, and iVillage acquired its main competitor, Women.com, in a $47 million stock-swap.

Content synergies aside, deal reflects NBC U’s desire to reap a greater share of the online ad market, a segment that is growing quickly at the expense of network and cable TV.

“The thing about the Internet is it’s highly targeted, and people don’t seek out the content unless it has relevance to them,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, prexy of Interpublic Media’s recently launched consumer experience practice.

NBC “realized they needed an online presence that was about more than just their content, but about community.”

Under terms of the deal for iVillage, NBC U will pay $8.50 a share — a 6.5% premium over the closing stock price Friday. Hearst Corp., which owns 25% of the company, has already voted to approve the deal.

Deal marks latest in a spate of online acquisitions by the media congloms forming a mini post-bust gold rush for sites with big audiences and profitable business models.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. spent a little more than $1 billion on MySpace.com and gamer network IGN Entertainment, both with strong community features. Viacom spent $160 million for Neopets, a site with 70 million mostly school-aged members.

Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp bought AskJeeves for $2 billion, betting it could become the third player in online search.

Once a top-20 Web property, iVillage registered a relatively small 14.5 million unique visitors in January, down from the year before and well below MySpace’s 35.5 million.

But NBC will have complete control of the property, unlike MSNBC.com, which it owns jointly with Microsoft.

Deal will allow NBC U to cross-sell female auds on network and cable TV with online. While women form the bulk of TV audiences, they are harder to reach in significant numbers online. By contrast, sports, news and gaming sites are pretty good aggregators of men online.

NBC U television prexy Jeff Zucker said he can imagine content initiatives that span network, cable, news and local television. Some of the first initiatives will involve women-skewing segments from “Today,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Project Runway” and health segments generated by NBC U’s local stations.

“I think from a TV perspective we are going to be able to go back and forth online and on the air in a way that suits all our goals,” Zucker said.