The death of CNET's media-conquering dreams

CBS is laying people off at CNET — no surprise, since the entire media business is fitfully contracting, and after a merger, cuts are a given. But it signals the end of CNET's grandiose ambitions.

When Halsey Minor, the ultraopinionated entrepreneur better known these days for his lawsuits than his business skills, launched CNET in the early '90s, he first had his eye on television. CNET's first website didn't come along until 1995. And he snapped up domain names like mad, names which all but spelled out his ambitions — TV.com, Radio.com, News.com. (Apocryphally, he's said to have bought the latter from News Corp., in a deal Rupert Murdoch must still regret.)

CNET went public in 1996, and its market cap peaked at $12 billion before the dotcom bubble burst. At one point, it flirted with NBC, going into a joint-venture deal to create NBCi, a now-forgotten Web portal. At the time, some pundits imagined CNET and NBC combining — with CNET on top.

Since then, it's been a long slide down. Minor left not long after the bubble popped. When CBS bought CNET this spring, the price was $1.8 billion. (CBS CEO Les Moonves recently said that while he "loves the deal," he wouldn't buy CNET again today at that same price.) CNET executives got roles within CBS Interactive, the new division formed by combining CBS's websites with CNET's — but there was no question who was in charge.

That's become clearer now, with the layoffs. The newsrooms for CBSNews.com and CNET News are said to be combining; CBS is trimming back TV.com, MP3.com, and GameSpot, CNET's entertainment properties. Which makes sense: Why run mainstream news and entertainment coverage out of a backwater like San Francisco, when it can be done properly from New York and L.A.? There's logic to the move, but also a certain sadness, knowing that a fantasy of transforming the media business — a business in much need of transformation — has faded for good.

(Logo mashup by Andrew Mager)