The next wave of media company partnerships with the likes of YouTube, iTunes and Google Video may trace their roots back to last week’s Google Partner Forum, held in Mountain View, Calif.
The Internet search giant hosted a two-day think tank at its headquarters that attracted top television and media executives along with CEOs and chairmen of Fortune 500 companies and thought-leaders such as former Vice President Al Gore and the chief scientist from NASA.
TV executives who attended the forum described it as “half trade show, half renaissance weekend” and said it was the kind of event where the seeds of deals get sown. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, the day after the conclusion of the forum, that Google is in talks to buy popular video-sharing site YouTube for some $1.6 billion. An earlier, unsubstantiated report appeared on the blog TechCrunch.com.
“We do not comment on rumor or speculation,” a Google spokeswoman said.
But a venture capitalist who focuses on tech startups said that there’s a minor bidding war going on behind the scenes for YouTube among Google, Yahoo and others, with Google possibly trying to drive up the cost for Yahoo.
CBS executives Les Moonves and Nancy Tellem were seen spending time with YouTube CEO Chad Hurley at the Google forum, attendees said. “If people see a senior executive at a digital company sitting for an extra hour with the young CEO of a video-sharing site, it fuels all sorts of speculation,” said an executive who attended.
CBS downplayed the meeting. “Everyone said hello to each other and that was that,” a CBS spokesman said.
“Chad was at the event and spoke with many executives that were in attendance, including Nancy and Les. As you know, we are in discussions with all the major labels, networks and studios,” said YouTube spokeswoman Emily Scherberth. The company later could not be reached for specific comment on the reported Google deal.
CBS was one of the first networks to strike a deal with Google when it inked a pact earlier this year to provide prime-time shows on Google Video, and YouTube is a direct competitor to Google. The conference conversation between old stalwart CBS and young upstart YouTube illustrates just how far the television and new media worlds have traveled together in recent months.
The mere presence of the CBS executives is an indicator of where Google is headed as a leader in American economics. Investment banking firms, rather than search engines, usually host the sort of events that draw corporate superstars like those in attendance in Mountain View last week. But Google has become a pivotal player in media and advertising, less than two years after TV companies balked at the beta version of Google Video. New media deals with Google, YouTube and iTunes have become de rigueur.
But the Google event spanned much broader subject matter than deal making and the business of Internet video.
Google cast a wide and global net with its event, at which the foundations for future deals were likely built, whether in the hallways of the Four Seasons and Westin hotels in nearby Palo Alto or in the long lines at the cappuccino-and-latte stand on the Google campus, where attendees gathered under overcast skies.
“What it wasn’t was a pitch for Google,” said a television executive who attended. “Not once was it `Here’s why Google is great,’ ever. It was bringing people together to share ideas. I have to admit it was inspiring.”
Another executive characterized the event as a “collection of thoughts and ideas and absolutely the top leaders in digital content and distribution and technology.” The executive added, “It’s a chance to catch up with all the folks we are negotiating deals with and to meet folks I wouldn’t generally meet.”
One criticism of the event was that Google did not discuss new projects it has in the hopper.
Because the event was closed to the press, executives spoke more candidly during presentations and while fielding questions, attendees said. For instance, Dell Computer founder and Chairman Michael Dell addressed questions about Dell help lines, an area where the company has taken heat for outsourcing. Attendees also asked Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin pointed questions about how Google plans to improve the relevancy of its search results.
Google created a lot of good will with the television executives who attended, and that halo effect will likely make potential partners feel better about doing more business with Google, said a TV executive who attended.
David Hallerman, senior analyst with new media research firm eMarketer, follows Google closely. While he did not attend, he said of the event, “It certainly seems like classic big wet sloppy kisses to those companies they want as customers, especially as they try to expand beyond just paid search advertising into video and other display advertising.”
This event was actually the second annual Google Partner Forum. Television attendees included Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp.; CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem; YouTube CEO Chad Hurley; Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television; Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Entertainment Group; Dennis Quinn, executive VP of business development for Turner Broadcasting; Sean Carey, executive VP of digital distribution and product acquisition for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Peter Levinsohn, president of Fox Digital Media; Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media; MySpace CEO Chris Wolfe; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; and Time Warner President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Bewkes.
In addition, the event drew speakers including Ed Zander, chairman and CEO of Motorola; and Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, as well as the chief marketing officers from Sony, Yahoo and Nike. Other attendees included JetBlue CEO David Neeleman.
Other speakers included Mr. Gore, the chairman of Current TV, who spoke about global warming, and NASA Chief Scientist James Garvin, who was scheduled to speak on Mars exploration.
The event featured a science fair with exhibits including a solar-powered Wi-Fi project, a lithium-powered taxicab and Commuter Cars’ Tango motorcycle-sized car.