NBC Universal became the latest major media group to buy into web communities yesterday with the $600m (£340m) acquisition of the iVillage network of women's Internet sites.
Media conglomerates looking for a response to the fragmentation of their TV audiences and the threat of online film piracy have turned to community sites as an alternative outlet for supplying content and screening adverts. News Corporation, owner of the Fox TV network and 20th Century Fox film studio, led the way last year by spending $580m on Intermix Media, owner of the teenage website network MySpace.com. Viacom, owner of MTV and the Paramount film studio, followed suit by taking over the virtual pet site Neopets and iFilm, an online short film service.
Bob Wright, chairman of NBC Universal, said iVillage and its 14 million users would be the "base" for putting its content online. The US group's TV shows include The Tonight Show, with Jay Leno, and Scrubs. Its film studio arm, acquired from Vivendi Universal three years ago, recently released King Kong and War of the Worlds.
The iVillage sites provide articles, message boards, blogs and quizzes under sub-headings such as "pregnancy & parenting" and "love & sex". Details of how NBC Universal will feed its content into the iVillage sites were sketchy, but Mr Wright said "all" NBC Universal content could be made available on the sites.
Beth Comstock, head of digital media at NBC Universal, added that the company was preparing to produce unique content for the sites "from day one" and would also build up a male audience. NBC Universal expects its digital businesses to generate revenues of $200m this year, which compares with revenues of $14.7bn for the company as a whole last year.
"There is content that we will be able to repurpose from existing programming. We can create totally new content. We have digital production capabilities that already exist within NBC Universal, so it would not be difficult for us to start cranking up production," she said.
Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Universal's TV operations, acknowledged that established media groups were having to follow their customers and advertisers on to the web. He denied that iVillage would be used only as a promotional tool for NBC Universal content. "It is an acknowledgement that people are looking for content in many different places, as are advertisers ... the consumer and the website are looking for a whole new experience and this takes us into a whole new arena," he said.
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