Interview, Part 1: Ross Levinsohn, President, Fox Interactive Media

rosslevinsohn.jpgWe’ve known for months that News Corps. was creating a new internet strategy. Earlier this year, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch called some 50 senior executives to New York in February for a corporate-wide internet summit. Consultant McKinsey & Company helped frame the discussion. Then, in April, Murdoch made a speech to newspaper publishers that sent shockwaves through the publishing world and served public notice that News Corp. was committed to joining the broadband age. “Our job now,” he said, is “to garner our fair share — hopefully more than our fair share — of the advertising dollars that will come from successfully converging these media.” Last Friday, News Corp. took another major step in that direction with the formation of Fox Interactive Media to leverage the strength of the Fox entertainment, sports and news web properties. Ross Levinsohn moves from SVP/GM of Fox Sports Interactive Media to president of the new powerhouse unit. If anyone internally or externally wants more proof that News Corp. means business, consider this: Levinsohn reports directly to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. President Peter Chernin. Executive Editor Staci D. Kramer spent some quality time on the phone with Levinsohn this weekend; they covered a lot of ground including working with other News Corp. execs and how the new vision fits into the online content universe, particularly where partners like MSN, are concerned. The unit also must contend with broadcast affiliates and cable operators, along with a host of rights issues. Some excerpts:

— Levinsohn: “We need to be smarter about how we use our brands and content across those mediums, whether it’s wireless or internet or broadband. And we need to be smarter about how we interact with consumers. The formation of this is really just a continuance of what we’ve been doing as a company for the last couple of years and just trying to shine a little more light on it so we can be a little more aggressive.”

— The February corporate summit was “transformational” — “that we could look at each other and share our own war stories, our own horror stories, many of us have been in this space for years, it’s amazing how much common ground we all had.” So far there’s nothing as formal as an interactive council nor is there any formal plan to replicate the efforts at Fox across the rest of News Corp. “We are talking more. We are trying to figure out what we’re going to do in that regard. I’m hoping we’re all going to come together as a company again in the next two months and figure out where we should go.”

As complicated as it will be, FIM may be one of the easiest units to form. One difference is wholly owned versus majority owned; the former, particularly domestic, can get cracking right away while the later — BSkyB, Gemstar-TVGuide, DirecTV, etc. will take more time. Levinsohn spent some time in London recently with UK execs from The Times, The Sun and Sky, among others. Offered an example of using The Sun’s new video feed here to cover a major event like the recent London bombings, he said it sounds simple but “in big, diversified media conglomerates sometimes with all the ways to communicate we just don’t communicate as well as we should. It’s amazing what happens when you get in the same room with people and you all have the same goal and you’re all being given the same mandate from the chairman. … You will see much more of that and that will make us stronger as a company. I’m sure every other media company has gone through this as well, where if you can sort of check your egos at the door and focus on working together and building better value as a company, things happen pretty quickly.”

Some projects get buy-in from the top. This one starts there, which adds a different kind of emphasis. Even the decision about when to make an announcement came at the highest levels. Murdoch was in LA and thought Friday was as good a time as any; Chernin announced it on an internal semi-annual broadcast. Levinsohn says, when the leadership “decide they want to do something it gets done. For months, they’ve decided we need to do this. We haven’t rushed into it. … They’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time with me and they have very big businesses to run. I’ve never seen two executives at that level this curious about a business.”
Coming in part II: Portal plays, timing and how FIM fits in with other Fox advanced media efforts.