ESPN Planning UK Online Sports Portal

What’s missing from ESPN’s UK soccer package? A website to go with the TV coverage. But the U.S. network has confirmed to us it is preparing a UK sports portal to accompany the broadcasts.

We reported this month that the company was hiring senior online editorial staff to work at its London HQ. ESPN’s digital media VP for EMEA Tom Gleeson tells us ESPN.co.uk will also encompass Cricinfo and ESPNSoccernet in the coming months. The site will give fans an overview of the big sports stories of the day, regardless of whether they relate to sports whfor whichere ESPN (NYSE: DIS) has rights.

ESPN’s MD for EMEA Lynne Frank told me in July that the acquisition of English Premier League TV rights would spur the company to boost is digital properties in the UK—but the site is only at the planning stage and a launch is thought to be months not weeks away, despite the all-conquering UK football season already being in full swing. Gleeson tells paidContent:UK in an interview that ESPN.co.uk will help promote its other assets, but will be a destination for original sports content in its own right.

Site synergies: “It’s will be a sports site that’s relevant to the market, supports and is supported by the TV channel and taps into the huge range and diversity of our sports verticals - whether that’s on (US-facing) ESPN.com or from our sites in Argentina and Brazil,” says Gleeson. He says the model could work in territories like Australia where the company has a large online audience through Cricinfo and ESPNSoccernet.com. Gleeson stresses the site will be editorially-led and not just an exercise in promoting ESPN sites and channels. ESPN is also hiring for ESPNSoccernet and ESPNCricinfo in a sign of growing resources being allocated to its UK push.

VOD prospects: ESPN is known to most American sports fans for its on demand online video—ESPN360.com offers all manner of live action and highlights. What chance UK viewers will get the same VOD treatment? Gleeson says: “In truth I don’t know. We will look to acquire rights when we can, when it makes commercial sense to do so.” The restrictive rights system for many British sports would make a similar service difficult. However, there are opportunities to publish original ESPN content online—post-match analysis or big-game build-up from studio pundits.

What’s in a name?: ESPN.co.uk was launched in July as a marketing tool for the ESPN UK TV channel—but no name has been decided for the forthcoming portal. ESPN.com is the company’s US-facing main portal and while the UK site will mirror its mixture of news, stats and clips from ESPN coverage, it may not share a name.

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New York Times Malware: Bad Ad On NYTimes.com

Here's a front page story the New York Times (NYT) would rather not be running: The paper is warning readers to be aware of bogus ads running on its Web site.

The paper says "some readers" have seen unauthorized pop-up ads promoting antivirus software on NYTimes.com, and warns visitors who see the ad not to click on it but to restart their browsers instead.

Kirchner and Clarin: Argentina Media Fight Gets Personal

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP)-- An epic battle between Argentina's two reigning powers -- the presidency and media giant Grupo Clarin -- started with a political cartoon, the way one editor tells it.

When President Cristina Fernandez was drawn with an X taped over her mouth, she called it a "mafia-like" threat and accused "media generals" of using their newspaper and TV stations to rally her opponents.

She and her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner told Clarin to be more "disciplined," editor Ricardo Kirschbaum recalls -- one of many attempts to control the paper's coverage.

Now, in the name of "freedom of speech," Fernandez has proposed a law that would break up Clarin, one of Latin America's largest newspaper and cable TV companies, piece by piece.

The dispute involves motives of profit and power far more complex than a drawing published in March 2008 during a heated national debate over Fernandez raising taxes on windfall soy profits.

In the months since then, the fight has become vindictive and costly.

Clarin has published expose after expose accusing the Kirchners and other government officials of illegal enrichment and abuse of power. The Kirchners have responded in kind, using taxpayer money and government officials to attack Clarin's bottom line.

Last week, 200 tax agents were sent to question Clarin's employees. This week, appellate judges will hear arguments in open court that the Clarin director's children were illegally adopted orphans of Argentina's dirty war.

"This is a war without mercy, a bloody fight to the death," said Henoch Aguiar, a former Argentine communications secretary.

Fernandez now blames Grupo Clarin's critical coverage for her 20 percent approval rating and for punishing losses in June's midterm elections. It's a strange situation for both sides, since the interests of Clarin and the presidency have long been intertwined.

Argentina's largest and most-respected newspaper survived and prospered under dictators and leaders from right to left, and its coverage fit more or less comfortably within Nestor Kirchner's agenda as he brought the country out of an economic meltdown.

Kirchner rewarded Grupo Clarin during his last week as president by approving a cable TV merger that created a near-monopoly for a company already owning newspapers, magazines, Internet portals, television channels and radio stations. Clarin cable now reaches 80 percent of the homes in the capital and about 50 percent nationwide.

But in Clarin's huge newsroom, editors and reporters watching Fernandez denounce them on television three months into her presidency realized that the relationship was broken, probably for good.

"It was a turning point," Kirschbaum recalled in an interview Friday in his corner office. "From there the political tension with the media grew."

Fernandez made good on her threat to take up a media reform project that Clarin and previous governments had repeatedly blocked in the 25 years since Argentina's dictatorship fell.

The proposal is designed to prevent media monopolies, preserving two-thirds of the digital spectrum for noncommercial TV and radio, and creating an agency like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to regulate content.

But Fernandez's version adds clauses that seem specifically aimed at carving up Clarin.

One, for example, could enable Telecom Argentina telephone company to package television, Internet access and phone service for everyone, while cable providers could sell to no more than a third of Argentine homes. It wouldn't prevent monopolies but could destroy Clarin, Aguiar said.

Grupo Clarin's stock soared after Fernandez's congressional defeat in the June elections; investors may have thought the president would back down.

Instead, she persuaded Argentina's football association to break its pay-per-view cable contract with Clarin and began broadcasting the games for free on a government channel. Then, her government abruptly ordered the cable merger undone.

By last week, the company's stock had lost all its gains since June. Kirschbaum said Thursday's surprise visit by 200 tax agents failed to intimidate, and reminded lawmakers how the media law could be used to punish opponents. Now the divided opposition in Congress seems to be lining up against the proposed law.

The battle has Argentines transfixed, trying to divine the political and financial intrigues behind each development.

Many see hidden influences in this week's appellate court hearings in the case of 22 adopted children who have refused DNA tests to determine if they were stolen from victims of the dirty war.

Two of the children were adopted in 1976 by Clarin's director and majority shareholder, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the founder's widow and a symbol of Argentina's powerful elite.

Some say Clarin's influence delayed the judicial process for years and suggest Wednesday's hearings wouldn't have been scheduled if not for a push by pro-government judges.

Noble made a rare public comment about the war between Clarin and the Kirchners during the 64th anniversary of the paper's founding last month.

"Today we suffer new attacks for defending our journalistic integrity," she said -- "campaigns of unusual virulence, coming from obscure zones of power."

Fernandez tried for higher ground on Friday. Her tax agency chief denied ordering the raid on Clarin and said he fired the two officials responsible. And the president proposed decriminalizing libel, which now carries a three-year prison term.

Kirschbaum said he supports aspects of the proposed media law and says regulations are necessary -- but that they shouldn't be designed to punish one company in particular.

Fernandez wants the law passed before she loses her congressional majority in December. The Inter-American Press Association is asking for patience and prudence, and warns against giving a president the power to decide media content.

Both sides claim "freedom of expression" as their goal, but some journalists fear that it could end up as collateral damage.

"This law is an unpaid debt to democracy," said Jorge Lanata, founder of the publication Pagina 12, who resisted editorial pressure from the Kirchners for years before Clarin bought his paper and ousted him.

"It has been more than 20 years and in all that time it was impossible to seriously consider such a law. Each president wanted to get in good with Clarin to avoid trouble. And Clarin saw to it that the law never advanced."


So Much For The Venture Crunch; DFJ Monies Up, Buys 3i Portfolio

Another top-tier venture capital house, DFJ’s European outpost DFJ Esprit, has found enough money to open another fund - in fact, two funds totaling $495 million…

—With the first, DFJ Esprit III, the VC firm is making €150 million available for “most exciting early and later stage technology companies across Europe”. Backers include European Investment Fund, Finnish Industry Investors, Partners Group, JP Morgan, LGT Group and Harbourvest.

—In the second, DFJ Esprit is creating a fund named Encore Ventures I, with £170 million ($280 million) from Coller Capital and Harbourvest, specifically to buy 3i’s European investment portfolio. That includes shopping channel 123 TV, shopping club BuyVIP, wifi network The Cloud and mag publisher VNU Media.

The 3i announcement sees 3i distancing itself from early-stage investment. Encore will be headed by Charles Cameron and Brian Robertson and will also take several 3i staff as partners

Since January ‘08, Europe’s top tech VC houses have all raised big new funds totaling $2.37 billion through the economy’s downturn…

Wellington (€265 million, Jan ‘08)
Accel ($280 million and $525 million, Dec ‘08)
Balderton Capital ($430 million, Jan ‘09)
Atlas Venture ($283 million, Jan ‘09)
Index Ventures (€350 million, Mar ‘09)

But each is also shortening the leash and ratcheting up expectations on their investment targets’ chances of success. Individual entrepreneurs Michael Birch, Brent Hoberman and Julie Meyer have been starting their own funds targeting what they see as a funding gap closer to the startup grassroots.


Yahoo Readies Big Branding Campaign For Ad Week Launch

Yahoo’s latest branding campaign will be centered on trumpeting the company as the “home on the web” for advertisers and consumers, AllThingsD reports. For months, Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz has promised to overhaul the company’s brand image, which has experienced some drift the past few years. The launch pad: Advertising Week, which begins Sept. 21 in New York City.

Not much detail yet on what the branding campaign would be composed of, how much would be spent and if it was being handled by a third party. Yahoo reps declined comment. One source did tell paidContent that the company would be concentrating on stressing its ability as a “be-all, end-all” source for content with consumers, with the hope of ultimately inspiring advertisers to spend more on its vast supply display inventory.

Bartz routinely stresses that despite Yahoo’s less-than-stellar standing among investors and media professionals, it’s still draws a tremendous amount of traffic. So it does have something to build on, though not the kind of brand strength that can match that of Google (NSDQ: GOOG) or Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). But even Google has felt the need to advertise in order to raise consumers’ awareness when it comes products like Google Apps and the Chrome browser via out-of-home billboards and through its Google TV Ads service. Yahoo’s not alone in trying to shift the image of a portal: Earlier this month, AOL (NYSE: TWX) said it starting a brand revamp with help from traditional ad agency Leo Burnett.

That said, advertising can’t always work magic. After all, it took Microsoft several campaigns—from the Jerry Seinfeld series to the infamous Vom-Mom spot—until it settled on a set of ads that didn’t draw widespread hostility.

How would you rebrand Yahoo? The comment line is open.

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Bill Maher Takes On Democrats For Bowing To Beck

maher_9-13Bill Maher’s main “new rule” Friday night on Real Time was “Democrats must get in touch with their inner asshole.”

In his monologue and on a blog post on The Huffington Post, he explained his reasoning. And a lot of it related to Glenn Beck.

The crux of Maher’s argument was how President Barack Obama and other Democrats have been so quick to acquiesce to their critics. There’s the Van Jones firing, with no comment from Obama, which can be tied directly to Beck. Maher also cites Sarah Palin and the “death panel” story and the uproar over his school speech.

Muhammad Ali also had a way with words, but it helped enormously that he could also punch guys in the face,” said Maher. He countered the “asshole” way the GOP conducts its business with the “pussies” on the left. It’s a storyline he’s touched on before.

Here’s part of his monologue:

It bothers me that Obama didn’t say a word in defense of Mr. Van Jones and basically fired him when Glenn Beck told him to. Just like we dropped “end of life counseling” from health care reform because Sarah Palin said it meant “death panels” on her Facebook page. Crazy morons make up things for Obama to do, and he does it.

Maher took on others at Fox earlier this summer, and it’s not surprising to see the media man of the moment, Beck, get name-checked so much on Maher’s HBO show. In fact, he was touched on again later in the monologue, regarding the tea partying:

Glenn Beck’s army of zombie retirees are marching on Washington in protest of, well, everything. It’s the Million Moron March, although they won’t get a million of course, because many will be confused and drive to Washington state. Bbut they will make news, because people who take to the streets always do. They’re at the town hall screaming at the congressmen, we’re on the couch screaming at the TV.

Check out the clip:

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For Reporter, No Doubt: ‘I’d Use The Rifle If I Had To’

GANJGAL, Afghanistan -- Getting separated from the others may have been a blessing in disguise.

As I lay in the dirt and rocks, the sharp needles of dry nettles pinching my palms and backside, three men in the group I'd been with were injured.

Marine Maj. Kevin Williams of Louisville, Ky., took a bullet in his left forearm. Marine 1st Sgt. Christopher Garza of Houston suffered a near total loss of hearing and a serious concussion from a rocket-propelled grenade explosion. U.S. Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook of Colorado Springs, Colo., was gravely wounded when a bullet gouged his right cheek and then tore into the base of his neck.

Had I bolted with them, I, too, might've been killed or wounded.