Techies to be talk of town in Sun Valley

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NEW YORK -- Summer, sun, merger buzz and digital strategy debates.

That's what the media, entertainment and technology cream of the crop is looking for as it gets ready to congregate for Herb Allen's annual retreat of industry heavyweights beginning Tuesday in Sun Valley, Idaho.

As is tradition, the elite media summit will feature seminars and schmooze time, allowing representatives from long-established industry players to mingle with a lineup of such hot up-and-comers behind Internet TV service Joost, social networking site Ning and virtual world Second Life.

Sources said that investment bank Allen & Co. has been expanding the crowd of young technology folks in an attempt to stay relevant at a time when media execs continue to struggle with the digital transition and while a range of other gatherings -- from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to Dow Jones & Co.'s "D: All Things Digital" conference -- have become prominent forums for discussion of the digital future.

As a result, industry observers expect much talk among Sun Valley attendees about the future growth of such hot digital areas as social networking, online video and virtual worlds, whether they will be real and profitable businesses longer-term, and whether traditional media will lose more advertising dollars to the online world. For example, one Sun Valley panel will feature a discussion of several of the tech entrepreneurs and their current thinking, a source said.

Plus, industry watchers will look for signs of potential dealmaking or deal news affecting moguls in Sun Valley.

With Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates set to make a keynote presentation and recently named Yahoo Inc. CEO Jerry Yang and president Sue Decker also expected, one source wondered whether the companies could revive talks about a possible cooperation or merger.

The Yahoo duo has continued to face questions about its longer-term vision and a possible sale or major acquisition, making the Internet firm one to watch in terms of possible deals in Sun Valley, observers said.

As it is every year, reporters also will try to get a glimpse of representatives from the hot tech outfits talking to any big-name media CEOs as a sign of future acquisitions or cooperations.

Last year, YouTube CEO Chad Hurley and Sling Media Inc. CEO Blake Krikorian were among the hot youngsters who garnered attention from their peers. Three months later, Internet bellwether Google Inc. unveiled its agreement to buy YouTube for $1.65 billion. Meanwhile, Sling Media at the start of the year announced at the Consumer Electronics Show a beta test of a new technology called Clip and Sling with CBS Corp.

Hurley will be back at Sun Valley this year, sources said.

With such past successes following well-received appearances at Sun Valley, Ning co-founders Marc Andreessen (also one of the founders of Netscape) and Gina Bianchini (who also serves as CEO) and Joost CEO Mike Volpi could turn out to be the belles of this year's Idaho ball.

Ning, which allows users to create their own online communities, has created less buzz than others in the digital space, making its presence in Sun Valley somewhat of a surprise, observers said.

Meanwhile, Joost has been in the industry headlines quite a lot. It appointed former Cisco Systems executive Volpi as its CEO about a month ago, just after signing with CAA in a bid to get better access to content. Joost also has content partnerships with Viacom Inc., Sony Pictures Television, Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting and Warner Music Group and is a part of the CBS Interactive Audience Network. Viacom and CBS are among its investors.

Dow Jones & Co. CEO Richard Zannino is not expected to attend, but News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and CFO David DeVoe are. Naturally, everyone will look for signs from them on where News Corp.'s proposed $5 billion takeover of Dow Jones stands. Murdoch recently signaled that he is looking for a final decision by mid- to late July.

WMG also has remained mum on whether it will make a last-minute takeover play for EMI Group this month or wait for private equity to complete a deal first and buy EMI's recorded music operation from the new owners. However, sources have suggested that the music firm is likely to make a final decision sooner rather than later, and if it doesn't announce its intentions before the mogul retreat, chairman and CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. is likely to face questions about his plans.

Among the other key entertainment industry execs expected in Idaho are Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman as well as CBS Corp. and Viacom controlling shareholder and chairman Sumner Redstone, who according to a spokesman missed last year's gathering because of a last-minute scheduling conflict. Both executives' interactions with representatives from Google and its YouTube operation likely will be eyed closely by peers given Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube.

Also on the elite guest list are Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons and president and COO Jeffrey Bewkes, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, Sony Corp. chairman and CEO Howard Stringer, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, Comcast Corp. COO and Comcast Cable president Stephen Burke, DirecTV Group president and CEO Chase Carey and WMG's Bronfman and executive vp digital strategy and business development Alejandro Zubillaga.

Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive and a former Allen & Co. banker, is not expected in Sun Valley this year.

With so much media might in one place, observers also expect discussions about the future of Google, whose stock hit a 52-week high of $544.40 on Thursday. "Will Google own the planet by 2010? Or at least the media industry?" Forrester Research vp and principal analyst Josh Bernoff listed as among the topics he thinks Sun Valley attendees will discuss.

Alex Woodson in New York and Andrew Wallenstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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