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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Terry Semel of Yahoo at Web 2.0


Another quick dispatch from Web 2.0, mostly notes and quotes from Terry Semel’s morning “fireside chat” with John Battelle. Battelle asked Semel why he took the job as Yahoo’s CEO in 2001, when Internet companies were in a deep slump.

“This old Hollywood hand was looking for a different career. I absolutely wanted to do something different. I saw the Internet as the next way that people and young people would spend a lot of their time. I wanted to be a part of that.” Semel cracked that people saw him as “this moron from Hollywood” coming up to Silicon Valley.

Battelle talked about Yahoo’s hiring of ABC exec Lloyd Braun to run a media division of the company in Santa Monica. He referenced a recent NY Times piece that asked, “Is Terry Semel trying to turn Yahoo into the interactive studio of the future?”

It sounded like Semel doesn’t like the term “interactive studio,” but he very much agreed that he’s trying to leverage technology, content, and distribution. It struck me that while many content companies are technology-phobic (with anemic or non-existent R&D budgets, and cultures that value creatives over engineers), Semel is trying to create a company that is more balanced – one that can create interesting content and also great tools.

“To be a media company, technology is in the core of it – what you must excel at,” Semel said. “Yahoo is all about content” – but it also has wide distribution, reaching 400 million users. “I see us as a 21st century tech company that drives great media. I don’t think you can be one without the other.”

He also seems to believe in balance when it comes to “professional” content versus user-generated content. (Struck me that he buys into the potential of user-generated stuff more than Diller does.) In certain areas, like travel, Semel thinks user-generated content (like reviews or blogs or photos from trips) might be much more valuable than professionally-produced content. In those areas, Yahoo wants to provide the templates and tools to let people create and share their own content.

But Yahoo will also produce and license other, glossier content. Semel wants to “help design the future of what content may be on the Internet – start to lay the groundwork for what things might look like in this broadband universe… I think Yahoo should take the leadership position.”

Unlike traditional media companies (either TV networks or movie studios), Semel seems willing to give Yahoo’s content experiments a longer time to prove that they’re successful – or not. “In the world of television, you had to have a hit that night – and if you had a hit that night, it made a great year. If you had a flop, you had a bad year.” Yahoo’s trying new things in news and entertainment, and Semel wants to foster even more experiments, “and judge that experience 18 months from now.”