Disney's better Internet Mouse trap
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- That real estate slowdown you keep reading about? It certainly isn't taking place in the virtual world.
Sellers of Internet properties are having no trouble finding buyers. Big media companies are tripping over themselves in an online land grab. Google
agreed to plunk down $1.65 billion for YouTube earlier this month. Also this month, Viacom announced that it was buying Quizilla, a Web site catering to teens. That deal comes on the heels of Viacom's purchase of online video site Atom Entertainment for $200 million in August
Sony bought online video firm Grouper for $65 million in August. GE's NBC Universal ponied up $600 million for iVillage, a network of sites that focuses on women, in March. Time Warner's
AOL has bought three firms with social networking or online video ties this year. (Time Warner also owns CNNMoney.com.) And, of course, News Corp. shelled
out $590 million last year for Intermix, parent of the social networking phenomenon MySpace. After YouTube: Who's next to sell?
But one big media firm has been notably absent from the merger wave sweeping across the Web: Walt Disney.
And while Wall Street speculates about who might want to buy privately held social networking company Facebook, news site Digg and other online upstarts, Disney's name is rarely mentioned among the list of possible suitors.
Still, does Disney need to make a splashy Internet deal?
Steve Wadsworth, president of Walt Disney Internet Group, said that the company isn't averse to making an online acquisition but that it has to be at the right price. He adds that there are few Internet companies that have wound up selling out recently that Disney hasn't looked at but that, ultimately, it was more sensible to not pursue deals.
"To pay what is, on the surface, significant amounts of money doesn't make sense for us. For others it may make sense. We are concerned about valuations," he said.
Disney's strategy is a stark contrast to its media rivals. But it could turn out to be the most prudent and sound. After all, Disney seems to be the one media firm that still remembers the last time there was a rush to embrace the Web and how painful that turned out.
In the late 1990s, Disney spent more than $2 billion on Web search firm Infoseek, changed the name to Go.com and then set up a tracking stock for this Internet unit. After the dot-com bubble burst, Disney shut down most of the site's operations in 2001 and converted the tracking stock back into Disney common shares.
"One of the things that were learned in the late '90s is that you have to have a sustainable business model to justify the investments that companies have made and are making online," he said. Wall Street likes the strategy
And investors apparently aren't too upset by the fact that Disney doesn't have its own MySpace or YouTube. Shares of Disney have surged 33 percent this year, and the stock has vastly outperformed most of its major media rivals.
Plus, it's not as if Disney is shunning the Internet. It has just chosen, so far, to focus more on establishing a strong presence through Web sites for its existing brands such as ABC, ESPN and, of course, Disney.
"Disney has more of a build mentality. I think that it is their strategy - to extend brands rather than buy new ones. I don't think they need to mimic what News Corp. and others have done," said David Joyce, an analyst
with Miller Tabak & Co.