Leslie Moonves' Poker Face And CBS/CNET

A hearty congrats to CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and CBS Interactive head Quincy Smith—because, by all accounts, neither gave up nary a flickering hint that something big was coming down even as they schmoozed with reporters at a CBS upfront shindig last night.

(Unrelated and telling sign of the times, department of network TV: Last year, CBS’ upfronts week party was at Manhattan's Tavern On The Green. This year, it was . . . in the basement of midtown saloon Rosie O’Grady’s.)

The thing about CNET was that it was just hanging out there, and for a long time. Independent Web content companies that do $406 million in annual revenues, as CNET did last year, are hard to come by. (Moonves stated in today's conference call that a post-CNET CBS could do $1 billion in online revenues in 2010 or 2011.) And even harder to come by are online content plays of any such heft focusing on matters technological, which is one of the few arenas in which advertisers are willing to pay up for online ads.

When Jana Partners started agitating about CNET’s depressed stock price and circa-2001 tech platforms, I was like, of course. Not that I'd thought of it, but it made perfect sense: Why hasn’t anyone made a run at CNET? (In particular: Barry Diller, We’re looking at you. And Jana: We’re still waiting to hear from you. Although this $1.8 billion deal gets them $11.50 a share, and a premium of around 44% above where CNET had been trading without the time and expense of a drawn-out proxy war—well, they could do worse.)

I would be telling a very big lie if the networks’ track record with big digital deals has been inspiring. But CBS buying CNET shows it has an admirably catholic sense of what constitutes a good online media play, and that it’s willing to consider properties not wedded on video (though this acquisition was) or radio (though this acquisition was, kinda). Now, of course, CBS has to figure out how to manage a pretty woolly group of properties well, and ones that are begging for some serious freshening-up.

I’m not convinced that’s a slam dunk, but, hell, at least every now and again a big broadcast network can surprise you. (Even if it surprises in ways Wall Street Does Not Like: CBS stock’s down 3.6% in late morning trading.)

Oblique gracenote: We are told that the internal code name for this deal was "tennis."

My colleagues Tom Lowry and Burt Helm contributed to this entry.

UPDATE 7:26 PM: Rafat Ali's take is here, including this nugget:

Everyone looked at CNET, including Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO), New York Times (NYSE: NYT), CBS-sister company Viacom (NYSE: VIA), and many many others, but couldn’t make the economics work. The very same economics which Jana had been criticizing for a long time now.

UPDATE 5/16: This post will not be winning any awards for intellectual acuity. But this post from January by the New York Times' Saul Hansell--helpfully entitled "The Problem With CNET: No One Wants To Buy It"--leaves you with a much better grounding in CNET's situation, as does his post-deal analysis post here.

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