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Not just print: Hearst quietly builds digital-video arsenal

Hearst has incubated a digital-video powerhouse within its secretive empire, making a series of investments in while some other traditional media companies moved slowly or avoided such deals altogether.

The private media conglomerate, which has roots in print media but also has major interests in cable and TV, has poured nearly $300 million into digital video platforms in the last two years. The deals include stakes in video-intensive news site BuzzFeed, hardware company Roku, teen-focused YouTube channel AwesomenessTV, and video news site Vice Media (made through Hearst's 50 percent investment in A&E Networks).

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Shane Smith on an episode of Vice.
Source: Vice
Shane Smith on an episode of Vice.

Those investments aren't the largest by a traditional media company, but they are big in relative terms for Hearst, which had $10.3 billion in revenue in 2014. While some large media companies like Disney and 21st Century Fox have poured plenty of cash into digital video, others such as Time Warner and Viacom have been reticent to make big outside investments in the concept.

Investing in new technology is "nothing new" at Hearst, according to Neeraj Khemlani, president of Hearst Digital Studios and Co-president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. "It's just done quietly."

Hearst's push into digital video came recently but without much hesitation. The first investments came in 2013 under former CEO Frank Bennack and his successor Steven Swartz, who also decided to create Hearst Digital Studios. The company has developed a steaming video platform that has already used Hearst magazine brands Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping as the inspiration for video-streaming products.

Khemlani said Hearst makes a considerable (though undisclosed) amount of its profit from video-related properties, which include 31 TV stations along with a 20 percent stake in ESPN and its 50 percent stake in A&E Networks. The company also has production company through a joint venture with partners including MGM, reality-TV mogul Mark Burnett, and his wife Roma Downey.

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Until recently, digital video was still seen by some industry executives as a distraction and potential threat to traditional television. Executives say that sentiment has changed over time, particularly as advertisers have shown preference for digital video in the last several months.

Another reason for the reluctance is that many media-company shareholders simply didn't want to see money used for technology deals in the last few years. Instead, most of the big media companies bought back their own shares aggressively over the last several years. While such buybacks don't improve a business's operations, they reduce shares outstanding and therefore have a direct positive impact on earnings per share.

Hearst, meanwhile, can probably afford to have a longer-term view as a private company. While it pays dividends to the Hearst family, those investors are likely less concerned about quarter-to-quarter performance and may be more patient with growth-stage businesses.

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Other media companies faced an uphill climb in digital video before seeing much of a result. Take video-streaming service Hulu, largest bet made to date by old media companies. The service was created in 2007 by 21st Century Fox and CNBC parent NBCUniversal (now part of Comcast). Disney came on board in 2009 and the three companies made a combination of equity investments and loan guarantees while the service struggled to gain a solid footing.

The trio was tempted to abandon Hulu altogether, putting the service up for sale multiple times in subsequent years. The partners ultimately decided to keep it and invest another combined $750 million in 2013. The three companies declined to comment.

Disney has probably been the boldest investor in digital video, also investing $500 million (with an additional potential payment of up to $450 million) in Maker Studios, which produces video channels for Google's YouTube. It also invested $125 million in Vice Media (through its stake in A&E Networks).

Disney has been given a green light from investors to do more deals, in part due to the success of its Marvel and Pixar deals, along with the sheer size of the company, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. Indeed, even large recent acquisitions such as Lucasfilm in 2012 didn't appear to upset many investors.

21st Century Fox, which gained experience in digital video through its 40 percent stake in London-listed SKY, has also made significant investments in digital video. Those include a $45 million investment in Roku, a $70 million investment in Vice Media, and most recently the purchase of TrueX, an advertising platform that uses digital video. That deal is valued at up to $200 million depending on performance, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Comcast has also made a series of deals in the last few years in addition to Hulu. Those deals total less than $100 million based on figures provided by data service Dealogic.

At the other end of the spectrum are Time Warner and Viacom. According to Dealogic data, Time Warner has spent less than $30 million on such deals and Viacom hasn't spent any. It's unclear how much the companies may have spent internally, however. Both companies declined to comment.

For Hearst, digital video investments will probably continue, though it's unclear if the company will seek acquisitions or grow internally. "We're not done,' Khemlani said.