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The Hungry Caterpillar

The announcement that NBC Universal and News Corp.—in conjunction with AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft—would launch a Web portal is more notable for what was left unsaid than what was said. Even with those marquee players, there are too many elements missing from the pact to make anybody at Google/YouTube quake in their boots.

Just look at who's not part of the consortium. Viacom—the guys who, a week ago, sued YouTube for a cool $1 billion—planned to join in but backed out at the eleventh hour. CBS was in talks but balked as well, believing, like Viacom, that the deal meant giving up too much control of its libraries, without enough revenue potential. Earlier on, ABC had been approached but wasn't getting assurances that network branding would be integrated into series running on the site—an essential caveat of its landmark Apple iTunes deal.

Meanwhile, the proposed portal site has no name (only a code name: Caterpillar), nobody has been named to run it long-term (NBCU digital chief George Kliavkoff will lead a transitional team), and no launch date has been set. Do they even have a blueprint for the technology in place? No wonder the Google crowd is derisively referring to the project as “Clown Co.”

The whole gambit seems to have been thrown together in haste. Speculation abounds that the announcement was driven by newly minted NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker, anxious to put his leadership stamp on the company as an online player to be reckoned with, even if all the details had yet to be sorted out. Meanwhile, News Corp. President Peter Chernin saw this as a way not only to operate in the YouTube universe but to add marketing muscle to MySpace, which, as part of the new deal, will now get promoted on NBC and its portfolio of cable networks.

The head-long rush by these big players into the Web is reminiscent of the advent of cable, when attempts by so many old-line companies to launch networks failed miserably, throwing open the door for a whole new cast of characters to come to the fore. It was Ted Turner, for example, who successfully started a cable news network revolution, while a raft of establishment players lost millions trying to do likewise.

Once again, we see established giants attempting to clone the latest media mojo, arming themselves for battle without thinking through the minefield that lies ahead. À la YouTube, much was made by Chernin, Zucker and crew that the new site will actively solicit user-generated content. Visitors to the site will be encouraged to do mash-ups of programming from the NBC and Fox stables. Think a funny collage clip of The Office and 24. But who's to say those same users won't graft content from the Viacom family, whether SpongeBob or Jackass. Then Caterpillar could find itself in the same policing cocoon as YouTube.

At last Wednesday's press conference, Chernin touted the nascent Web play as a “game-changer for Internet video.” We can understand the propensity for hyper-hype. It's in keeping with the times, as we increasingly get to watch old-media players sell Wall Street and the public that they are oh so tuned in to new media. But to truly make that pitch resonate, there has to be more action added to words and a true corporate will to invest and grow.

Does the alliance between News Corp. and NBCU have that DNA? You tell me.

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