Why Nikki Finke + Variety = A Business Dilemma for Jay Penske

Jay Penske appears to have shut out Nikki Finke from having much to do with Variety — which creates the challenge going forward: owning two competing brands that cover the same subject matter

Nikki Finke’s silence is deafening on the day that her boss, Jay Penske, bought the trade publication Variety.

Finke, who chose to be on vacation when the deal was done, had been agitating for weeks to get Penske to buy the trade for her to run. She blanketed the town with phone calls weeks ago when she believed TheWrap was about to buy it. (She needn’t have worried: We looked, we passed.)

Also read: Deadline Owner Penske Media Buys Variety

In the end, Penske appears to have shut her out from having much to do with Variety, and that will ultimately marginalize her. This creates the challenge he is going to face going forward: owning two competing brands that cover the exact same subject matter.

The purchase raises a lot of questions:

          >> Is Nikki Finke, seething in silence, expected to stop competing with Variety?
          >> Will she lay off the "Toldjas," and the browbeating when she loses a scoop?
          >> What will Variety do that Deadline does not?
          >> Will readers want to read both Variety and Deadline?
          >> Where will Mike Fleming and Nellie Andreeva end up?

That does not even begin to address the business questions, which are much more challenging.

If the Variety paywall goes away, as Fleming said in his post Tuesday about the acquisition, the publication will immediately need to replace several million dollars a year in subscriptions. That’s one challenge.

More serious for the long term is that maintaining Deadline and Variety creates brand confusion for the endemic advertisers that drive both their revenues.

If you are an advertiser, will you put the same print dollars into Deadline, or shift that money into Variety at three times the cost? And with competitors like THR and TheWrap offering beautiful, glossy alternatives, how do you maintain market share?

Penske can cut his way to profitability at Variety — there is a mountain of fat to be sliced away, even with all the layoffs in recent years. The editorial salaries of senior Variety staffers would shock even the once-generous L.A. Times.

But here’s the bottom line: Penske is going to have to choose to put his muscle and his capital behind one of his two insider brands.

Also read: What’s Variety Worth and Who Will Buy It?

And given that he’s just put about $25 million of his and Third Point founder Dan Loeb’s money into buying a print trade, that’s going to be Variety.

So if Variety gets better, Deadline will necessarily be marginalized. He cannot maintain and grow both brands equally; it’s a law of nature. Deadline can’t continue to be a flame-throwing blog while coexisting with the trade’s most conservative publication — with both seeking revenue from the same advertisers.

And that is why I’m told that Nikki Finke is breathing fire from her vacation in Hawaii. She came this close to being the queen of Hollywood she believed was her due, and Penske has taken it from her. (My insiders say the purchase agreement requires that Finke stay out of Variety’s editorial business for one year.)

In March I wrote this about Reed Elsevier when Variety was put up for sale:

“Now — four years after deciding $1 billion wasn’t enough — they are ready to unload the much depleted trade.

“They are probably dreaming of a buyer who will overpay to own an historic brand and go to the Oscars. I doubt that will happen. Variety doesn’t have the cachet it used to. Peter Bart is mostly gone. Army Archerd has passed. And there is no one who has filled their shoes….

I concluded:

“So who will buy it? Someone who cares about content. And in a Twitter-Instagram-Facebook obsessed world, those parties are fewer and fewer

Three weeks ago I went to see Barry Diller in New York at his office in the IAC building.

We talked about the media business, and I was curious about his view regarding Variety, since Diller launched the Daily Beast only to merge it with the historic Newsweek magazine, a legacy print brand that reportedly has been losing tens of millions of dollars a year.

Should TheWrap buy Variety? I asked.

His answer was unequivocal: “Not even if they give it to you.”

Good luck, Jay. And thanks, Barry.