Interview: Neil Ashe, CEO, CNET Networks

For the most part, Neil Ashe has let his actions speak for themselves since he became CEO of Networks last October when co-founder Shelby Bonnie unexpectedly stepped down. (Bonnie left following an options investigation in which he was not implicated. He remains on the board.) His mission: to expand CNET’s reach, relevance and revenues and to ensure CNET by users and advertisers as an interactive media company, not the tech publisher it once was. We talked today after a deal was announced that matches that mission — a non-equity partnership with NBCU-News Corp.’s NewCo both to distribute and provide content. Through distribution partnerships with NewCo and CBS, CNET becomes a place not just for its own content or for indie content, but for viewing of prime-time network shows. Some highlights: more after the jump…

Transforming CNET: Ashe: “What CNET Networks is not is an online tech publisher — and I think people are starting to realize.” One of his favorite comments recently came from someone who said, “I was never really a CNET user but I’m using Bnet and Chow all the time.” Both are recent launches. Ashe: “We’ll continue to demonstrate our ability to build these brands for different target markets.”

M&A: “We have continued aspirations to expand out footprint,” Ashe said. That could be through acquisitions or DIY. Pricing is a key concern. I asked what happens to everyone else when Rupert Murdoch is willing to pay premiums. “You’ve got to get out of the way,” he said, only half joking. Murdoch, it appears, is willing to pay more than three times for Photobucket than CNET paid for Webshots — $70 million back in July 2004. Webshots didn’t pan out as planned for CNET and is being scaled back. Ashe: “Look at the integration issue on Photobucket and MySpace … they go hand and glove in a way that is different for us at Webshots.”

Back to pricing, Ashe says “if you find a cycle where valuations are out of whack than you build.” Are start-ups valuing themselves too highly? “There can be a little bit of disconnect between the aspirations of the small and the realities of the large.”

M&A Take Two: Ashe knows full well that CNET often is perceived either as being for sale or a target for the right buyer. (Most of the shoppers I’ve talked to say they want parts of the company but not the whole.) But Ashe would rather focus on growing CNET than what others are saying: “The best thing we can do is make this company as big and profitable as we can .. growing the user base is a testament to what we’re capable of.” Average monthly uniques hit 144 million in 1Q07, up 23 percent from the previous year.

On NewCo’s NewSite: I asked Ashe about making a deal with a new company that doesn’t even have a name yet. He laughed and admitted it’s a little strange to be dealing with something called NewCo, NewSite. He said he gives them full credit for moving so fast.

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