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Brain behind Hulu lands at Hearst

The media empire hires George Kliavkoff--the NBC exec who helped create the popular video site--as it plans its future in the digital age.

George Kliavkoff is headed to the Hearst Corporation to oversee the media company's digital investments. NBC Universal

George Kliavkoff, the former NBC Universal exec who helped conceive of Hulu, is joining the Hearst Corporation, the century-old company known more for newspapers than digital media.

Kliavkoff, who has one of the best track records for building digital media services from the ground up, will become the executive vice president and deputy group head of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. He will report to the unit's president, Scott Sassa, the former CEO of Friendster and

The news was first reported by Peter Kafka at All Things Digital.

The unit Kliavkoff joins is responsible for managing the company's ownership stakes in cable companies, such as A&E Television Networks, the History Channel, and ESPN. The division also operates a television product unit, a newspaper syndication business, and a merchandise licensing unit. In addition to helping Sassa run those businesses, Kliavkoff told CNET News that that he will also oversee Hearst's "building, buying, and operating of new digital businesses."

Kliavkoff says Hearst wants to invest in both start-ups and also create companies on its own, which is what he did with Hulu, the popular video site.

Kliavkoff said in November, when he announced his departure from NBC, that he was ready for a new challenge. He certainly found one in Hearst.

Founded by William Randolph Hearst in 1887, a media tycoon that created a vast newspaper and magazine empire, the Hearst Corporation today is a huge communications conglomerate. In addition to more than 70 newspapers and 200 magazines, the privately held company also owns more than 25 TV stations, two radio stations, and significant stakes in cable channels.

According to estimates, Hearst generated more than $4.3 billion in revenues in 2007 and employs more than 17,000 workers. The company is controlled by Hearst's descendants. When asked whether the conglomerate has the assets to make significant investments, Kliavkoff said he couldn't discuss specifics but said the company was profitable.

At the same time Hearst tries to safely navigate the collapse of the newspaper sector (Hearst has said 2009 may see the closure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and flagship paper the San Francisco Chronicle), the company is also looking for a way to profit from the Web. After all, the Internet is a communications medium and for a 121-year-old communications company, this should be in its wheelhouse.

But the company's record in digital investments have been mixed. Some of the companies it has an interest in are Pandora, Brightcove, Meta TV, MobiTV, and XM Satellite Radio. In the past several months, Hearst has announced the company would make a foray into electronics by building an electronic book reader. The device, which may launch this year, would be designed to boost the number of digital outlets for Hearst's print content. Managers also said they plan to start charging readers for some newspaper content.

Hiring the marquee name in digital entertainment is another sign that Hearst is serious about the Web. Upon his departure from NBC in November, Kliavkoff said "this is a best time to start, run, or invest in digital companies." He said then that he wanted to oversee this kind of investment but that it was getting harder for public companies to make those kinds of bets.

"It's also particularly great in this economic climate to be doing this kind of investment," Kliavkoff said, "and building in a private media company, which has the benefit of having a long-term perspective on growth, as opposed to having to worry as much on a quarter-by-quarter basis."

Besides helping draw the blueprint for Hulu, Kliavkoff, 41, oversaw NBC's online distribution of last year's Olympic games. Before NBC, he helped make Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the digital arm of professional baseball, the most successful subscription video site on the Web.

A good bet is that Kliavkoff, who started in digital media at RealNetworks, will look for ways to help Hearst use its video content to cash in on the Web.