Digital media looking for all-around players


LAS VEGAS -- If the revolving doors at media headquarters new and old were spinning any faster, they could rival solar power as an alternative energy source.

Just when the flurry of executive defections at digital media divisions looked like it might slow at the end of 2006, MTV Networks gave it a fresh whirl this month as president and chief operating officer Michael Wolf stepped down after 15 months on the job.

Wolf was brought in to MTVN to smooth its transition to the digital age, a job that seems to have bumped off nearly everyone who has given it a try. In the course of a few months, CBS Corp.'s Larry Kramer, AOL's Jonathan Miller, Yahoo!'s Lloyd Braun and News Corp.'s Ross Levinsohn were all out of a job. This trend isn't exactly mystifying given how turbulent the sea change is transforming media. But a question looms: Is the digital media space so dynamic that no one individual can be said to possess the skill set to master it?

To borrow an old scouting concept from the world of baseball, digital media is waiting for its own version of the five-tool player, a designation bestowed on the rare athlete who possesses above-average abilities in all five of the game's core competencies, which include power hitting and a throwing arm.

To wit, the succession of departures that have occurred in digital media offer a nice opportunity to deconstruct what exactly are the qualifications to make it there.

  Understand advertising: AOL's Miller might have done the heavy lifting at AOL, spearheading the transition from a subscription-based business model, but once the company got there, parent company Time Warner handed his job to NBC Uni's Randy Falco, who is cozy with Madison Avenue buyers after decades of experience in traditional media circles. No matter how innovative a content application is, it don't mean squat unless there is someone with the right relationship to get blue-chip marketers to slap their logos on it.

  The art of the deal: While CBS' Kramer led the way to an online-broadcast milestone with CBS' ad-supported streaming of the NCAA's March Madness, that was yesterday. Now CBS apparently wants to get in business with everyone, and former Allen & Co. investment banker Quincy Smith is the consummate deal-closer making it happen. The strategy is simple: Bet on everything. Listening to CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves detail the company's digital strategy at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas conjured the image of a roulette table with chips placed on all 36 spots.

  Operational know-how: Fox Interactive Media apparently is moving in the opposite direction than CBS Corp. Its acquisition binge from MySpace on down is winding down, rendering the man responsible, Levinsohn, dispensable. The trouble with having a zillion different Web properties is that all these moving parts have to move with some degree of coordination, a task that will be left to Peter Levinsohn, Ross' more operationally minded cousin.

  Creative knack: Yahoo! and Braun might have been a mismatch from the start, a TV mastermind simply working in the wrong medium. After a year and change there, where nothing seemed to go right, he has little to show for original content. Making a breakthrough in online production beyond embracing user-generated content is very difficult.

  Articulating strategy: It isn't enough to have a strategy in digital media; making that strategy comprehensible to everyone from Wall Street to potential partners is just as important. No company is further from that goal than Viacom's MTV Networks, which is known for missing out on MySpace more than anything else. With seemingly hundreds of different Web acquisitions under its umbrella, new digital guru Mika Salmi has to somehow articulate a strategy on how they all come together.

From Salmi to Smith, it's up to the next generation of digital leaders to prove whether they can be five-tool players. Either that or one-trick ponies who will be put out to pasture.