Here comes the new boss at Yahoo. But he's not exactly the same as the old boss.
Ross Levinsohn -- who until today headed up Yahoo's global-media business -- now suddenly helms the entire company, following a shakeup that ousted former CEO Scott Thompson (and his inflated resume) and rejiggered the board to placate activist investor Daniel Loeb and his hedge fund, Third Point. Levinsohn, whose roots run deep in the Big Media biz, cuts a very different figure from Thompson, a former president of PayPal.
For starters, Levinsohn is at least as much a creature of Hollywood as of Silicon Valley. His corporate biography describes him as having "long been on the forefront of digital media innovation," with stints at News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media, CBS Sportsline (full disclosure: CBS also owns CNET) and HBO.
Even Levinsohn's techiest-sounding job -- at least up to now -- was as general manager of "new media" at AltaVista, the late and largely unlamented search engine. There he was tasked with developing "content and programming" for AltaVista, Zip2, and Shopping.com, an effort that must not have gone terribly well.
That said, Levinsohn's media background puts him very much in sync with dissident shareholder Daniel Loeb, whose hedge fund, Third Point, just scored a big victory by taking three Yahoo board seats. Loeb has long complained that Yahoo was managed more as a tech company than a media outfit, and it looks like he'll now have a chance to see his preferred strategy play out.
Lost in Myspace
Levinsohn was instrumental in helping Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. outmaneuver Viacom and Sumner Redstone in their $580 million acquisition of Myspace in 2005. While that doesn't sound like much to brag about -- News finally dumped Myspace last year for $35 million -- Levinsohn played a big role in cutting the advertising deal that Myspace signed with Google shortly after the deal closed.
Which, at the time, looked brilliant. Facebook was still mostly a big deal on college campuses, and Murdoch boasted that he'd be able to flip Myspace for $6 billion. Even allowing for Murdochian hyperbole, conservative estimates valued the company at $2 billion. Pretty much nobody saw Facebook coming, and at the time Murdoch seemed a far-sighted genius by snagging what was then the au courant social network.
Levinsohn came to Yahoo in late 2010, when then-CEO Carol Bartz named him to head up Yahoo's business across the Americas. He later moved up to assume responsibility for the entire company's multibillion-dollar advertising business.
In an interview (see below) just a couple of days ago at the the Paley Center for Media, Levinsohn described Yahoo as an "untapped jewel" and an "incredible platform" when he joined the company in November 2010.
"We have a business that most companies on the Internet would die to have," Levinsohn said. "Unfortunately a small block of writers, bloggers and analysts focus on the negative." The soon-to-be CEO pointed to Yahoo's social bar as the fastest growing social network, more than 700 million users and $1 billion in profit as evidence of Yahoo's forward progress.
"Yahoo has its own share of issues, but so does every other company. The real challenge is we have to move this business forward, and we are....I am the luckiest guy in the world to be part of this, in spite of all the headaches," Levinsohn said.
CNET executive editor Charles Cooper and senior editor Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.