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Why NBCU Invested $200 Million in Vox

Old media buying into young, digital publishers 'was inevitable'

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke (left) and Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff struck a deal that could benefit both parties. Credit: Comcast and Twitter

By taking a stake in Vox Media, NBCUniversal is finally getting a foothold in native digital publishing.

The $200 million equity investment will see the two collaborate on digital and video advertising and video programming. The deal, announced Wednesday, will include Vox Media editors and reporters  appearing across NBCU channels including cable news outlets MSNBC and CNBC. This morning, Vox Media chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff went on CNBC's Squawk Box to discuss the deal.

NBCU's parent Comcast had previously invested in Vox Media via its investment arm, Comcast Ventures. NBCU is also close to an investment in BuzzFeed, which should be made official later this week.

"Vox Media is positioned very directly against benefiting from the trend of younger individuals consuming more and more content through the web and digital channels and less and less through traditional channels," Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner of management consultancy cg42, told Adweek. Beck described the move as a defensive one for NBCU and Comcast as consumer habits change. It could also help Comcast's consumer standing, says Beck. "Comcast is the poster child in having the most frustration among its customer base. That's magnified among the younger audience."

Syracuse's Robert Thompson, also the director for the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, told Adweek that "so much of NBC's business now is ad-supported television."

"Diversifying into these other digital avenues was inevitable," he said.

For Vox Media, the benefit is capital to fuel growth as well as a stronger relationship with one of the biggest TV players, which still reigns over digital publishing in terms of ad dollars. Considering Comcast's earlier investment, Beck described the deal as a vote of confidence in Vox. "[Comcast] probably has a good view into what's working," he said.

The investment in Vox—and the expected investment in BuzzFeed—open the door for NBCU or Comcast to eventually acquire one of these companies down the road, though Beck argues Vox could be wise to maintain control of its company. "There is still some level of autonomy to not be negatively impacted by the brand halo of Comcast," he said.

Even so, this gives NBCU a stake in a fast-growing industry that it hasn't had before, at least not at this scale. As Thompson said, "200 million is not a baby step."

This deal also continues another growing trend: older, traditional media companies buying into younger, digital publishers. Last year, A+E Networks took a 10 percent stake in Vice Media for $250 million that may or may not include a linear channel. And it's a trend that probably will continue as the old guard tries to keep up with the fast-changing media landscape.

"I think that's the play," said Beck, who warned that companies should be wary of how they handle these new assets. "If they bring the management philosophies and business practice that pushed them to high degrees of public frustration and consumer apathy, then what they'll end up with is a tarnished asset."

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