The Next HBO

Yahoo's Ross Levinsohn 'embracing creativity' in new/old plan

     We've heard variations on this theme before: Yahoo's going big with original content.

     When Hollywood old hand Terry Semel took over as CEO in 2001, the plan was to make Yahoo a platform for original programming. And again, last year, the company started boosting in-house content creation with new hires and the acquisition of Associated Content.

     Today, at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Innovation Days event, Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo's evp for the Americas region, said in a conversation with IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg that he doesn't just want to produce any original content, but content on par with the gold standard of original programming (and his former employer), HBO.

     "I think we are actively embracing creativity," he said. "I really want Yahoo to be a haven, much the same way HBO was when I worked there . . . of creative talent."

     At HBO, Levinsohn said he learned the value of programming for ratings and awards. While he said it's not a "knock against anyone," he said he hadn't found enough of that philosophy in place at Yahoo.

     Since arriving at the company last October, Levinsohn said he's also been struck by the massive size of Yahoo's audience—and the lack of awareness about it. "It was so clear to me coming in and, as I've sort of been around for the last six or seven months and having these conversations, the one word that always comes back to me is 'really'?" he said.

     In his many years of running websites, Levinsohn added, he can't recall a site attracting a Yahoo-sized audience of a billion page views a month. The 20 original Yahoo video shows alone (which produce 200 episodes a month) attract more unique users than Hulu, he pointed out.

     Those numbers and Yahoo's user data—married with the shrinking creative and financial opportunities for Hollywood's finest—could mean sweet success for Yahoo, he said. "When I look at the way people are engaging with content and experiences on Yahoo, it really struck me that we are the network of the digital age," he said. And video in particular, is "something we need to embrace."

     Of course, Yahoo isn't the only Web company with designs on cornering the original video market. YouTube recently launched a new initiative supporting professional programming, and Hulu and are trying to raise their profiles in original content.

     But Levinsohn said Yahoo's brand, reach, and ability to personalize will serve it well.

     Oh, and one more thing: "We have cash. That helps," he said.