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ABCNN.com? Not So Fast, Not So Easy

If Disney were to merge its ABC News division with cable news channel CNN's operations -- or even launch a joint venture -- would the online properties be merged too?

Some analysts answer by suggesting caution about blending two news brands online. Others say full steam ahead. Company officials say no comment.

Beyond confirming again that executives of ABC News and CNN (owned by AOL Time Warner ) are (again) in talks about possibly merging news operations, a spokesman for ABC News declined to comment about whether Web operations might be combined in some way too.

Although the question is speculative, it raises the issue about how to manage a news operation's online brand, notes Jupiter Research media analyst David Card. (Jupiter Research and InternetNews are both owned by Jupitermedia Corp.)

"If there were to be a joint venture of ABC News and CNN, then both companies are going to want to preserve their brands," he says.

Certainly the goal of two broadcast news divisions sharing talent and resources in order to cut costs, especially their overseas bureau costs, makes sense. In this way, "you can preserve the brand while repurposing each other's content." But ABCNN.com? Cybersquatters apparently think so by holding onto the URL, but Card doesn't see it working.

"The two brands, ABCNews.com and CNN.com, are very separate from a content point of view."

In addition to competing strongly with major national newspapers on breaking news, ABCNews.com is also about the evening news broadcast, which helps drive traffic to the site. It has also been making great strides in revenue with RealOne, its montly subscription product offering streaming video of news and other video features. Indeed, some media watchers see it as much farther along in getting people to pay for content on the site compared to CNN.com.

"One has to wonder whether there would be tremendous cost savings by putting them together," says Card, despite the traffic a move could generate.

Within Jupiter Media's core rankings on Web sites, CNN.com's site ranks fifth in standing beyond number one America Online's own internal news sites, followed by MSNBC (which includes MSN), Yahoo and NYTimes.com.

ABCNews.com ranks ninth under Jupiter's core rankings index, which includes factors such as number of visits, how many times visitors return and how long they stay on a site among other factors.

According to Web research firm Nielsen//NetRatings, CNN.com's 22 million visitors during March ranks it 10th in Web traffic behind the usual leaders Yahoo, MSN and AOL's internal news sites. ABCNews.com's 10.5 million visitors ranks it in about 30th.

Carolyn Clark, media analyst with Nielsen//NetRatings, says if a merger or combination of the news operations were to take place, she would expect to see lots of cross-linking of their news sites.

"Both are top sites, both are consistent. Everybody's weighing the offline pros and cons right now: ABC News could get a wealth of content from (overseas bureaus) and CNN would get a kick from the news personalities ABC News has cultivated," Clark says.

To a certain extent, that could translate online. But she says it's unclear whether ABC and CNN would create a site similar to what NBC and Microsoft did with MSNBC.com.

"They could integrate the site and perhaps have different sections, such as the morning program, international news. There are certainly a number of options."

But Phillip Swann, president and publisher of the popular site and publication TVPredictions.com, argues that a combination of the two sites' would make perfect sense.

"A combined CNN.com and ABCNews.com would be a clear leader as a news site and that would make it a magnet for anyone who wants to advertise. If they do decide to merge their divisions and those sites, it would create conflict, sure. But it would be the clear number one site rather than just a barely number one site."

Swann's "TV Prediction" is that even if a merger or joint news gathering venture of some sort doesn't happen, CNN the cable channel is still going to have to find a way to address what he calls a "dysfunctional" news line-up.

"You've got the Larry King show leading off at 9:00 pm with guests such as Phyllis Diller discussing that she's retiring from stand-up comedy, and he bills it as an exclusive. She's 85! That's the lead-in audience they provide for Aaron Brown's serious news show that follows?"

Ken Marlin of media mergers and acquisition advisory firm Marlin & Associates doesn't see much reason at all to combine the Web assets, especially if the deal is a joint venture.

To look at what ABC News is mulling, he says one might consider the case of ABC's network brethren CBS, whose overseas bureaus suffered from the unrelenting cutbacks in the late 1980s. Now, CBS has a joint venture with Marketwatch. The network uses and promotes the assets online and on the air. There's no reason to line up the two sites, he says.

Plus, the estimated $1.6 billion in annual revenue that combined news divisions could garner annually dwarfs any discussion of how to blend the online news operations. Jupitermedia's Card agrees that, given the pressure to cut costs, how to combine the online assets would probably be farther down on the networks' to-do lists. But hopefully not too far down.

"The future of media is the cross-media brand," says Card. "I'm still a believer in this. I think audiences are demanding it already."

Card points to the way Disney is spreading content from its various ESPN cable channels to other platforms such as the Internet, wireless devices, print magazines, even sports bars, as an example. Bring up ABCSports.com and it will default to ESPN-related sites too.

"ESPN is the future of media. The reality is if ABC News is going to stay a brand, it's going to need to be in multimedia."

How such a strategy might work under a merged or joint news operation isn't a major part of the objective, at least not yet, analysts say. But increasingly, it needs to be.