Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Marvel pops comics online, hopes fans pay

Robert MacMillan (Reuters)

NEW YORK, Nov 13 - Spider-Man may spin a good yarn in comic books, but Marvel Entertainment Inc hopes that he finds the World Wide Web equally comfortable. The publisher said on Tuesday that it will start a Web site that will feature access to thousands of its comic books and the famous heroes who populate them, from Spider-Man and the X-Men to the Fantastic Four and The Avengers. Marvel will charge subscriptions -- $4.99 a month if people sign up for a year, or $9.99 a month if they don't.

"This is a major new piece of my overall publishing plan," Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Publishing, said in an interview.

"It's a different entertainment experience, online versus reading a book." Marvel plans to offer access to 2,500 comics, Buckley said. It will make 250 available for free to entice people to pay up, but for a limited time, a company statement explained. The Digital Comics Unlimited site then will add 20 additional books a week, including a mix of new and vintage comics.

Among the older titles will be the first 100 issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Fantastic Four," as well as the initial 66-issue run of "Uncanny X-Men" and the first 50 issues of "The Avengers." It will feature other super heroes like the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and the Silver Surfer. It will also include the first appearances of villains Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Lizard and Dr. Doom, not to mention the first appearance of Spider-Man's black costume.

New titles will include Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men," "The House of M," "Young Avengers" and "Runaways." To present the titles in a quality format, Marvel has recolored and redigitized some of its offerings. The move to the Internet is unlikely to account for a major portion of Marvel Publishing's sales, Buckley said, but it will be an important addition. It sells its magazines at newsstands, though he said the business has been contracting in the past 10 years. What has been performing well is the hobby business, he said, with some 2,500 shops across the companies that attract collectors and other fans. Titles must be in print for at least six months before they will go online, Buckley said. Marvel's move runs contrary to newspaper and magazine publishers, which have been moving toward not charging people and supporting themselves through advertising. Buckley said the nature of the content is what makes Marvel's plan different.

"Our comic book distribution and our comic book properties aren't part of the mass medium where you can it for free easily," he said. Dennis Webb, owner of the Comics and Cards Collectorama in Alexandria, Virginia, doubted that it would attract a mass audience used to reading and collecting their comics in print. "I think most of them like to buy their own comics and read them where they want to go," he said. "I don't think they want to have it just online because if they're really a collector, they're going to want the actual collection."

The EU Delays Google's Ad Buy


European officials want more time to review the proposed DoubleClick deal, and critics in the U.S. hope the FTC is paying attention




by Catherine Holahan (Business Week)

Sheer size has helped Google (GOOG) dominate much of the world's $30 billion online advertising market. But the search giant's massive reach is proving to be a liability in Europe. On Nov. 13, the European Union's antitrust authority held off on approving Google's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of online ad company DoubleClick, opting instead to subject the transaction to further review.

The European Commission's move, which extends the decision deadline until Apr. 2, is a setback for a deal that would broaden Google's already considerable ability to determine ad placement not only on its own search engine—the world's largest—but also across untold sites across the Web. Google may have to jump through additional hoops to win approval for the deal, whereas rivals Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Time Warner's (TWX) AOL are moving ahead with similar acquisitions that have already passed EU muster (BusinessWeek.com, 10/1/07). "We can't just treat this as just another competition case," Sophia In't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, says in defense of the decision.

Approval Still Likely

Google was quick to cry foul. "We are obviously disappointed by the European Commission's decision to extend its review of our acquisition of DoubleClick," Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said in a statement. "We seek to avoid further delays that might put us at a disadvantage in competing fully against Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and others whose acquisitions in the highly competitive online advertising market have already been approved."

The Google deal will most likely also get a green light—but not before European officials take measures to prevent the enlarged company from exerting undue control over the market. "It could lead to additional conditions being placed on the combined company's actions, which could compromise Google's efforts to fully exploit the DoubleClick value," analysts at securities firm Stifel Nicolaus wrote in a Nov. 13 note. Only 3% to 4% of mergers reviewed by the EU in the last several years have been subjected to the second level of scrutiny, according to the Stifel analysts.
Pleased Opponents

Opponents of the merger are hoping the additional review will influence the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is also examining the deal. Like the EU, the FTC has approved comparable deals by Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. "The European Commission decision has sent a friendly European wind to prop open the doors at the FTC," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the 35-plus groups urging the commission and the FTC to impose restrictions on the merger. Other opponents include the International Advertising Assn., the World Federation of Advertisers, and Google competitors Microsoft, Yahoo, and Ask.com.

The concern is that Google would amass too much data on its users and their online habits. It already has a vast storehouse of information on what people using its Web search tool are looking for, and it uses that information to place ads alongside users' search results. The fear is that owning DoubleClick would improve Google's ability to use that data to place targeted ads on other sites, too. To date, the information DoubleClick collects on clients' site visitors is owned by the clients and is not shared.

Targeting + Reach = Ad Dollars

Google's girth is the primary reason it has attracted more opposition than its competitors. Google already has the most popular search engine in the U.S. and much of Europe, and it controls more than 75% of the $8.3 billion U.S. search advertising market, according to a recent eMarketer report. Google also owns YouTube, the largest video site on the Web, potentially giving it access to a significant slice of the nearly $2 billion online video advertising market. And it has deals to serve ads on some of the Web's most popular sites (BusinessWeek.com, 8/8/06) including the leading social site, News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace.

Google isn't alone in expanding its sphere of influence with such partnerships. During the past few years, the fight for online ad dollars has become a battle of bulk. Audiences have become scattered across the Web due largely to the emergence of sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which let users create countless pages of their own content for public consumption. Little wonder that Internet companies are clamoring for advertising alliances with social networks. Microsoft, for example, recently paid $240 million for a stake in Facebook (BusinessWeek.com, 10/25/07) that enables it to serve ads on the site.

But the most important way online ad giants have sought to increase their influence is through the acquisition of ad networks. Because these networks serve ads on sites across the Web and often monitor the kinds of sites visited by unique computers, they are able to promise marketers large audiences comprising people likely to be interested in what they are selling, or at the very least give marketers information about the people who have responded to their campaigns. It's that power, and the potential to increase it, that spurred Microsoft to buy aQuantive for $6 billion and Yahoo to shell out about $1 billion for Right Media and BlueLithium.
Privacy Concerns

If the deal is approved, DoubleClick's large network of participating Web sites could expand Google's already extensive ability to serve ads off its own site—and render rivals incapable of competing with the Goliath for ad dollars. Why would a marketer bother, for example, to work with a small ad network that can only deliver ads to a relatively small audience on less popular sites, when it can buy the ability to reach a million members of its target market on premier Web sites across the Internet?

Further complicating the issue is the possibility that Google eventually could gain access to the user data DoubleClick collects for clients—information Google could use to better target ads to specific consumers on sites across the Web. "The Google-DoubleClick merger is truly unique because you are merging the global search leader with the company that delivers billions of data-collecting cookies to the world's largest corporations," says Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We have to be concerned about the creation of these private ministries of information…[this] handful of data-collecting giants could ultimately collude with the government and business."

Chester's privacy concerns also apply to recent acquisitions made by Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. But so far, those companies' individual shares of the online advertising pie have been too small to attract regulatory scrutiny. Google will argue it shouldn't be singled out for providing a search advertising product that Web surfers and publishers alike want to use. After all, users can switch to another search engine at any point. For that matter, so can advertisers. But with Google serving as the one-stop shop for ads placed nearly anywhere on the Web, why would anyone want to?

Philippine Bombing May Have Been Triggered by Cell Phone



By Douglas Bakshian (VOA News)

Philippine police suspect a bomb at the House of Representatives that killed a congressman and two other people Tuesday night may have been triggered by a cell phone. In the aftermath of the explosion, the entire security force at the Philippine Congress has been changed. Douglas Bakshian reports.

Police say initial indications are that the bomb was in a motorcycle at an entrance to the House of Representatives, and investigators have found parts of a cell phone that may have been used to trigger the device. Metro Manila Police Chief Geary Barias told ABS-CBN television that a person at the scene may have detonated the bomb.

"On site. In other words the device was under the control of the suspect. He would say when the bomb gets off," said Barias.

There was no immediate explanation of how a bomber was able to penetrate security in the building. Avelino Razon is director-general of the Philippine National Police, or PNP. He says security in the House and Senate has been changed, from one police unit to another, until the authorities have a better idea of what happened.

"We have relieved the entire PSOP security force and changed them with a company of PNP-SAF effective this morning," Razon said. "And that also goes with the contingency force in the Senate."

Congressman Wahab Akbar of the southern island of Basilan was killed in the blast. He is a former Muslim rebel who supported a military campaign against Islamic militants of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group on Basilan.

The region is known for violent political disputes, and authorities say Akbar had many political foes and had received death threats. However, no one has claimed responsibility for the blast, and no suspects have yet been arrested or identified.

Members of Congress went back to work Wednesday in a sign that they will not be intimidated by the violence. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has put Manila and the region around the capital on a state of alert.

Oil detours from road up to $100


By Wailin Wong (Chicago Tribune)

Consumers feared it, speculators rooted for it, and markets waited anxiously for its arrival. But this week, the specter of $100-a-barrel oil appears to have receded.

On Tuesday, the December contract for light, sweet crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell $3.45, to $91.17 a barrel, backing further away from the historic $100 level that it had threatened to breach last week.

The price of crude has surged since late August, hitting a string of record highs as the dollar dropped to historically low levels against other world currencies.

The main catalysts for oil's price decline Tuesday were a monthly report by the International Energy Agency, which lowered its forecast for fourth-quarter oil demand, and a hint from Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries might discuss increasing production when it meets next month.

Traders also played a role, since oil's flirtation with $100 was driven not only by current events but also by the activity of speculators eager to seize on sky-high commodities prices.

"A key reason why prices have spurted so quickly to high levels was there were a lot of financial investors in the market," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com in West Chester, Pa. "There is a lot of options trading and other financial activity related to energy. That drove prices up, and that is now weighing on prices, at least temporarily."

In active and frothy financial markets, participants tend to become fixated on tidy benchmarks -- 14,000 points for the Dow Jones industrial average, for example. The magic number for oil was $100 a barrel, a level that was as tantalizing as it was hard to puncture.

Dave Kirsch, manager of the market intelligence service at consulting firm PFC Energy in Washington, described the attitude among many traders as, "It's never hit 100 before; wouldn't it be cool?"

Kirsch also said he believes the International Energy Agency had overestimated oil demand in its projections, which are crucial data for markets. The Paris-based agency revised its view on the fourth quarter on Tuesday, saying there are "strong indications that high prices are depressing demand" and reducing its projection for the period by 500,000 barrels a day, to 87.14 million barrels.

High prices may persist

But although oil prices have retreated from $100, they are likely to remain at elevated levels that will continue to nag at consumers. Economists note that unease over the U.S. economy, which is grappling with a battered housing sector and volatile financial markets, will persist whether crude is at $90 or $100.

The consequences of high oil prices are "a little more like termites as opposed to something more dramatic," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research in New York. "It just slowly eats away at the foundation of consumer spending, and that will obviously continue to happen."

Steidtmann noted that high energy costs are helping push up the cost of food, while many consumers also are getting squeezed because of higher mortgage payments and less access to credit.

"Consumers have a lot on their plate right now," he said.

Gasoline prices have ticked upward but not at a pace that mirrors the meteoric ascent in oil. Zandi estimates that each additional dollar in crude prices translates to a 4-cent increase at the pump. According to data from AAA and the Oil Price Information Service, the average national gasoline price on Tuesday was $3.105 a gallon, up from $2.761 a month ago. The average price in Illinois is $3.185 a gallon, with Chicago at $3.208.

Gasoline use stable

Gasoline demand has remained relatively steady despite the price increases, with the onset of fall bringing an expected seasonal drop-off in consumption. Nicole Niemi, a spokeswoman for AAA in Illinois, said any lifestyle changes, such as trading in a sport-utility vehicle for a more fuel-efficient car, likely happened when gas prices topped $3 a gallon.

"It's not a rash, major change at the moment," Niemi said. "It will depend on how long prices stay at $3 and how far they continue to climb."

The crucial period will come in spring, when driving season begins and gasoline demand generally swings upward, pushing prices higher.

If the economy remains on shaky footing, elevated oil prices in the spring will be "difficult for consumers to overcome, given the severity of the housing downturn and a weakening job market and ups and downs of the stock market," Zandi said. "It's going to be very hard for the economy to overcome."