AOL, News Corp. Add New Twists to Yahoo's Saga
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SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK -- Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO), which was widely believed to be running out of alternatives to accepting Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) takeover offer, has become a target of two warring camps of technology giants and their media allies, sources said on Wednesday.
News Corp is considering joining Microsoft in a bid for Yahoo which would bring in News Corp's MySpace online social hangout and create a more formidable rival to Internet juggernaut Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), newspaper reports said.
But Yahoo, which announced earlier on Wednesday it plans to test Google search ads alongside Yahoo Web search services, is closing in on a deal with Time Warner Inc with its AOL unit, several sources told Reuters.
Google, unaccustomed to being backfooted by its rivals, is considered a secondary player unlikely to enter the merger bidding as its growing dominance in Web search and search-based advertising could be blocked by competition regulators.
Reports were sketchy on exactly how a Microsoft deal with News Corp might be structured, making it difficult for Wall Street analysts to say which combination might prove the superior offer. Several said Yahoo has regained some of the negotiating momentum it appeared to have lost with Microsoft.
But UBS analyst Benjamin Schachter said neither an AOL deal nor a reported plan by Yahoo to buy back a chunk of its shares had enough funding to satisfy shareholders clamoring for a deal worth at least Microsoft's current offer of $31 a share.
"I still think Microsoft holds the cards and the cash," Schachter said.
Yahoo's talks with Time Warner are getting near to a deal that would fold AOL's business, excluding its legacy dial-up Internet access operations, into a combined Yahoo company, a person familiar with the talks said. Such a deal would value AOL at $10 billion, the person said.
Yahoo would receive cash from Time Warner in exchange for 20 percent of a combined Yahoo-AOL, the source said. Other sources confirmed the outlines of the talks but provided no further details.
The Wall Street Journal cited sources saying Yahoo would use the Time Warner cash and other funds to buy back several billion dollars worth of Yahoo stock at a price somewhere in the middle of the range between $30 and $40 a share.
The New York Times reported that Microsoft had begun talks to bring News Corp in on its effort to acquire Yahoo.
This combination would bring together three of the biggest Web site publishers on the Internet: Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and News Corp's MySpace, creating a formidable counterweight to Web pacesetter Google, but also drawing antitrust scrutiny.
"The whole situation seems to be very unstable," said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Jeffrey Lindsay, adding that Microsoft's bid for Yahoo precipitated a cascade of offers.
"There are so many pent-up moves for consolidation but it's hard to say what moves will be successful," Lindsay said.
Yahoo said it was beginning a two-week test on whether it can use Google to sell ads alongside Yahoo Web search services. The initial test is small, covering only 3 percent of Web searches performed on Yahoo, the companies said.
But sources familiar with the talks said the tests could lead Yahoo to a broader deal in which it lets Google sell search advertising for it in order for Yahoo to concentrate on online brand ads. Lindsay has estimated that, by turning over search ad sales to Google, Yahoo could boost its revenue by 10 percent and free up money to invest in stronger businesses.