Yahoo! and the Temptation to Merge with a Major Media Firm

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Yahoo!’s (NASDAQ: YHOO) earnings were weak, which raised the matter of a business combination with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) or Aol (NYSE: AOL) again. A more suitable merger would be with a major media company like CBS (NYSE: CBS) or Viacom (NYSE: VIA).

Yahoo!’s revenue fell 13% to $1.324 billion in the fourth quarter. Net income dropped 5% to $296 million. Even with its new CEO, almost no one who watches the company thinks there is a solution to the ongoing shrinkage of sales.

Yahoo! will somehow add cash, perhaps over $10 billion, to its balance sheet through the sale or spinoff of Yahoo! Japan and its stake in Alibaba. The means by which it will handle those transactions are still an open question because of tax issues and the difficulties of negotiations with the two Asian companies. Neither of them has to make a transaction with Yahoo! now.

MSN and Aol already have huge online audiences. They have to find ways to increase sales from these visitors, but there is no proof that combining with Yahoo! will do that.

Companies that lack the scale that they need to augment their traditional media sales with larger online ones would find Yahoo! an important acquisition. It would allow them to marry their old world TV or print sales with a larger online audience. CBS had 79 million unique visitors in December, according to research firm Comscore. Viacom’s digital properties had about the same number. Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) had 50 million and Gannett (NYSE: GCI) had 44 million. None of these figures comes close to Yahoo!’s 176 million.

The troubles of traditional media are well understood. Public firms like CBS and Gannett face the erosion of television and print ad sales. Right now, their digital sales are insufficient to make up for that attrition. The chance to go to advertisers with packages that combine old media marketing with new may be their only chance to keep revenue advances — and happy shareholders.

Yahoo! has a market cap of $19 billion. Much of that is based on the value of Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan. Yahoo!’s core business may be worth less than $10 billion. That makes it an affordable purchase or merger candidate for most large traditional media companies, which have larger market values than Yahoo!.

The argument against a the ownership of Yahoo! by a traditional media company is that the older company would have no better chance to increase the portal’s revenue than MSN would. That is not true. Large advertisers continue to look for ways to reach huge audiences, some of which consume most media through traditional channels and some of which spend much of their time online. Yahoo!, in combination with a traditional media company, would offer the world’s largest marketers a chance to gain both through one firm.

Douglas A. McIntyre