ABC News, Yahoo ink online news pact

Deal calls for co-branded websites, vid streaming

Yahoo and ABC News have forged a sweeping alliance they hope will usher the brands into 100 million households a month via computers, mobile devices and tablets, and provide a new pot of ad revenue to share.

The move gives Yahoo, which has excelled in sports reporting and other areas, a sturdy foothold in the hard-news biz, while No. 2 newscaster ABC secures a wide digital footprint at a particularly critical time: the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

“This is an audience the size of a Super Bowl audience,” said ABC News prexy Ben Sherwood at a press conference in a Times Square studio just above the set of “Good Morning America,” where the ayemcast was in full swing. He was flanked by Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and other ABC News royalty whose interviews and original video series will be prominently featured on Yahoo.

Unlike rivals NBC and Fox, ABC has no 24-hour sister cable news network. “We are really excited that our team (senior White House correspondent) Jake Tapper, and (senior political correspondent) Jon Karl, and (political director) Amy Walter will have a huge opportunity to reach even more people and do original programming around politics,” Sherwood told Variety .

“The future of digital news is up for grabs,” he added.

Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo’s exec VP of the Americas, claimed that 95% of voters log onto Yahoo each month, and said he wants the site’s coverage to “aggressively set the standard.” “The upcoming election is the most important in our generation,” he said.

One of the first features to hit the site Monday afternoon was an interview with President Obama by ABC chief political correspondent George Stephanopoulos that was streamed live on Yahoo News and ABC.com. Portions were to air Monday night on “World News With Diane Sawyer” and today on “Good Morning America.”

Also Monday, “Good Morning America” launched co-branded interactive site GMA.yahoo.com.

The partners will split revenue from online video advertising but didn’t say how. They said they plan to create “a suite of premium online video advertising opportunities and a variety of enhanced sponsorships” to attract new business. ABC will lead sales during the upfront selling season, and Yahoo will manage them throughout the rest of the year.

ABC News will become the main news provider for Yahoo News and will be integrated across the platform. The two companies will combine some newsroom operations and personnel in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Yahoo editorial staff and content will appear on air on ABC.

On the programming front, the pact calls for a slate of new online video series: political and celebrity interviews with “Newsmakers”; in-depth international news reporting in “Around the World With Christiane Amanpour”; and “This Could Be Big,” a series on technical innovation with “Nightline” anchor Bill Weir.

Sherwood, who was tapped to run ABC News in December 2010, said he and Levinsohn have known each other for years — back when the Yahoo exec was a venture capitalist in L.A. and the news topper was hitting him up for cash for a tiny startup — and that the two have similar visions for news in the digital age. Sherwood said he wasn’t put off in pursuing the deal by the messy ouster of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz last month or by frequent rumors that Yahoo may be sold.

Jack Ma, founder and CEO of giant Chinese e-commerce group Alibaba, was the latest, late last week, to express interest in buying Yahoo.

Said Sherwood of Yahoo: “We look at their towering status online, in terms of users — that is a very successful business. They have huge power in the online space, do billions in ad sales, and are very profitable. The habits of their users are extremely stable … for mail, news, to check finance, entertainment. They do not look to the corner office, or corporate ownership, about whether or not to use the site,” he added.

Sherwood said that in the end, Levinsohn never did give him the cash for what became a site called TheSurvivorsClub, now owned by Hearst. “But I know he regrets it,” he joked.

Levinsohn, whose wide-ranging career includes stints at Fox Interactive Media, CBS Sportsline and, early on, HBO, lauded ABC’s online commitment. “I have worked at four big media companies in my life, and it takes guts to step up and say digital platforms are as important as they are today. (Even) trying to get them to use the word ‘Internet’ was a hard thing,” he said.