In internet land, everybody's very excited about the Redmond software giant's bid for Jerry Yang's languishing internet directory. Where would a combination leave AOL? (Answer: without an obvious acquirer or partner.) What about the challenge to Google? (Finally, a competitor, financed by Microsoft's profits from its bloated operating system and office applications.) Most of the commentary is overblown. Fusing two mediocre internet units, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo, will not magically produce a dynamic challenger to Google; merely, if business precedent is any guide, mediocrity on a greater scale. Unfortunately, the petrified traditional media companies don't know that. (They don't know anything really.) And that's why the creation of another internet behemoth would be so pernicious.
Media conglomerates such as Time Warner, which went through its own disastrous mega-merger with AOL in 2000, seemed finally to be recognizing that size wasn't everything. "Whether [Time Warner] is the biggest is not the main thing," said Jeffrey Bewkes, Time Warner's incoming chief executive. "It needs to be the most profitable." Sumner Redstone last year spun out Viacom's traditional media businesses such as TV network, CBS. And Barry Diller's IAC is, even if only after pressure from disgruntled shareholders, being broken up.
Now one can be sure every media company chief executive is running around like a headless chicken. They know that their future depends on internet advertising. For the moment, the bulk of the growth appears to be going to those properties with the biggest audience reach, which scares smaller media companies. Add in a mega-merger they don't understand: it's the perfect environment for media bankers to present consolidation as inevitable and their hair-brained schemes as urgent.
Most of these ideas will come to nothing. But someone who understands the web just enough to be dangerous, will be panicked into a moronic deal. (Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times, maybe, though he's hampered by the family legacy). Microsoft will survive the hugely expensive and wearying combination it is now proposing. Traditional media companies which follow its example don't have the luxury of making the same mistakes.