Before everyone had the AOL-Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) merger to kick around, there was Turner and Time Warner — the combo that was supposed to provide brilliant print, cable and online synergies in entertainment, news and sports. You all remember CNN/SI? Well, maybe not. After all, the plug was pulled on the expensive effort to create a sports-news challenger to ESPN (NYSE: DIS) almost a decade ago. (At this point, the cable net has been gone longer than it existed.) But the online connection remained, at least in via domain name and network traffic counts. Now, it looks like Time Warner is ready to try a Turner-SI combo again, sort of.
Time Inc. and Turner are expected to announce a partnership today, WSJ reports, creating Turner/SI Digital and giving Turner Sports control over the business side of SI.com and Golf.com. The two sites will be managed as part of the Turner Sports group, which includes NBA.com, Nascar.com and PGA.com, with the goal that the sum will be worth more than its digital parts on their own. In addition to its league deals to manage digital editorial and business operations, Turner Sports also has a partnership with Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) for content and exclusive ad sales for the Yahoo Sports’ NBA, Nascar and Golf sites,
SI.com’s stats have been part of the CNN network; it looks like that will now shift to the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network. WSJ suggests Turner Sports may eventually be rebranded with SI‘s name — which may help with some aspects but could also sow more confusion given that the SI brand overall is still Time Inc. Turner is also in the midst of gaining control over the digital aspects of the $10.8 billion deal it and CBS (NYSE: CBS) just signed for NCAA’s March Madness. In some respects, this is like any deal. According to the Journal, Turner has guaranteed Time Inc. annual payments of $15 million or more and more exposure for SI‘s journalists.
We’ve been down this road before. More than a decade ago, Turner Broadcasting was crowing about the glories of integrated sales and the way the merger with Time Warner enhanced that — while agencies hoped that the addition of Turner to Time and Warner finally meant long-awaited synergies would be delivered. Since then, between AOL (NYSE: AOL) Time Warner, Time Warner and life without AOL or Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), the media giant and its units have shifted strategies so many times in so many ways that Plastic Man should be the corporate mascot.
This idea sounds as plausible as any until you realize that digital is being hived off from print, that editorial control is being split from the digital business and that it’s all taking place across supposedly finite divisions.
In its efforts to create one kind of synergy — a word Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes avoids as much as possible even while encouraging the concept — TW is deliberately splitting up control over what should be one of the most important assets it has: the SI brand.
Take this example from WSJ: free mobile apps will be controlled by Turner, paid apps stay with Time Inc. It’s not surprising given how vested SI Group Editor Terry McDonell is in the tablet process and how important the tablet apps are to the growth of Time Inc.’s magazines. But separating the apps and adding more layers?
True, Turner already manages CNNMoney.com, a blend of CNN, Fortune and Money, but the site also has its own editorial staff and identity in addition to the magazine resources. It’s a different proposition.
It also marks another shift. One of the reasons Time Warner gave for CNN/SI’s inability to thrive as a cable net was the decision to stay away from event rights rather than compromise journalistic credibility. One of the reasons given for this deal: as part of Turner, SI.com will have rights to sports video it currently can’t afford.
Update: Time Inc. and SI have formally announced the deal (SI is listed first in the headline but Turner’s David Levy goes first in the release for those who track PR politics). From the rather brief announcement:
>>The combination marries the wealth of stories, perspective and photos from SI with Turner