CNET has been eyed by Quincy Smith, CBS's hyperacquisitive online chief, long before he sealed a $1.8 billion deal to buy the company. As a banker at Allen & Co., CNET was his client. "At one point, he wrote this major presentation about how valuable content was," a tipster tells us. "The single example in it was CNET. It was basically his only idea." An unfair dig? Perhaps. There is little like CNET on the market — a pure play on professional online content worth $1.8 billion? It can't be found. But the lack of a direct competitor may have also been CNET's undoing — the mixed blessing that brought it under attack by activist investors and led it to CBS's waiting arms.
Sites like Engadget and Gizmodo (the latter published, like Valleywag, by Gawker Media) seemed too small to matter when they launched; by the time CNET got around to trying to compete with the tech blogs, it was too late. In the meantime, having deluded themselves into thinking they had conquered tech publishing, CNET managers pursued off-brand expansions into baby and food sites, areas in which it had no particular experience or other value to add.
CNET was at its sharpest when dueling with rival ZDNet, the online publisher of once-formidable tech publisher Ziff-Davis. Since it merged with ZDNet and became a conglomerate of online brands — hence the "CNET Networks" name — it has devolved into soft, bureaucratic mediocrity, a trend only accelerated by the departure of cofounder Shelby Bonnie in 2006. If buying CNET was Smith's one big idea, we'll gladly lend him another: Shuffle current CNET CEO Neil Ashe out the door as soon as possible.