At 33, Roy Bahat is leading IGN Entertainment, a division of News Corp’s digital media business that one former insider estimates accounts for roughly $120 million in revenues.
It’s a big job for a young guy. According to the Web metrics company Quantcast, IGN.com, a gaming information site, is visited by 23 million people each month, while IGN’s second biggest property, Askmen.com, gets 13 million visitors monthly. In the last couple of years, IGN has also branched out into other areas, including original video, digital distribution, and online gaming.
As a division of a group within News Corp. that’s not faring terribly well, Bahat is also in a challenging spot. In its fourth-quarter earnings call last week, News Corp. reported that despite posting earnings of 25 cents on revenue of $8.7 billion, the company’s digital media earnings were down $32 million compared with a year ago.
MySpace, for which News Corp. spent $580 million in 2005, has become the biggest drag on Fox Interactive. But given its seemingly irreversible tailspin, some have suggested that CEO Rupert Murdoch might be happier simply jettisoning his digital properties piece by piece.
Unsurprisingly, that’s an asessement with which Bahat — a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar who has also worked in the Office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company — couldn’t disagree more. “News Corp. is incredibly supportive of IGN,” he told me an interview yesterday morning. Here’s some of that chat:
What’s your overarching objective at IGN?
We have the biggest audience of videogamers anywhere in the world, but our audience is still small compared to the hundreds of millions of people who play games. We want to be the mainstream media brand for games. To be honest, nothing like that exists; we’d like to do it. From sites like IGN.com and AskMen.com we already have the highest concentration of men ages 18 to 34 according to Nielsen, and our sites have grown 40 percent in size since last year.
I’ve read that under your leadership, IGN is developing a larger videogame strategy across its online businesses, but you aren’t doing any social gaming yet. Why not?
We’re looking at a lot of things. It’s early days. As big as all the social games are, we still don’t even know how big a hit could get. Social games are powerful in part because they give you an identity in the game — a notion of “self” that you can improve, and that you’re willing to spend money improving, be it buying a tractor or just a nicely colored hat. We’re also convinced there’s an opportunity to create media around social games.
Why not just throw up something to see what works? Isn’t that the new model of game development?
It is, and in the online business we live by hour-by-hour statistics and make adjustments all the time, but we don’t make games. At IGN, we’re here to be evangelists for the world of games.
Aren’t you leaving cash on the table? Is there enough money in evangelism?
Sure, Fox and ESPN don’t make sports. They create incredible media experiences around them.
So your focus is really just on making your content more engaging.
There are two big puzzles now for us and other online media companies. The first is how to make the experience more meaningfully social. Your expectation now when you travel around the Web is to know what your friends are doing and how they’re experiencing content. Media sites — including ours — don’t yet do a good job yet of letting you know what articles your friends are reading, what videos they’re watching, or allowing you to share what you are experiencing in the moment.
There are most-emailed categories. There’s also Twitter.
Twitter is a great tool for sharing stuff and finding stuff that your friends have seen, and there are others, but they’re not centered in the content itself. So the point is: how do you really embrace all the available tools and suck them into the world of the content you’re experiencing.
Why do I need to know the precise moment when someone is reading something? I don’t understand the focus on that kind of immediacy.
Well, despite some really great tools sprinkled all over the place that allow people to share what they’ve experienced, few are really woven into the experience of the content. The great news is that all these companies are creating tools that improve on that. Be it Twitter’s APIs or MySpace and Facebook having more open systems of identity, we now have a way to figure out who you are and make our services more useful.
Games are a great proving ground for these ideas, and we’ll test a lot of things at IGN. You might want to know who among your friends bought XYZ game, whether any of them are playing right now, whether you can watch any of them playing right now and ask them a question. It’s all technologically possible.
You mentioned a second big puzzle facing big media companies. What’s that, revenue? What percentage of yours derives from advertising?
We’re mostly ad supported, but we have a portfolio of businesses that goes beyond media. We do digital distribution — we sell games at Direct2Drive.com, for example — and we have a game technology group — GameSpy Technology — that does R&D for connecting games to the Web.
Being diversified is a real strength. Display advertising is important but it can’t be the only source of revenue. The nice thing about IGN is that it’s a laboratory where we face almost every problem in how consumers use the Web.
What’s your own day-to-day like, working within such a large company? Is there a pattern? Is it in any way predictable?
Working in a big organization is a lot about serving the people around you, and I feel that way at IGN. We have all these teams working on great stuff, and my main job is to get obstacles out of the way to make them successful.
And what’s the decision-making process like?
We take all comers. When someone says, “We should do X,” we usually say, “then just go ahead and do it.” Don’t ask for permission. It’s easier to correct things after the fact, once you’ve seen whether something works, than to approve every decision. And in general, we’d rather have the person who is closest to the user or the client being the one making the decision.
Last question: what’s your take on what just happened at MySpace? How surprised were you by this Van Natta business?