Barry Diller: The Hollywood mogul who cast himself as a star of the internet

Interview: Chairman and Chief Executive, IAC/InterActive

"I really don't like competition, though many of my colleagues do. It doesn't interest me," says Mr Diller, who is one of America's richest men and whose career has included running Paramount Pictures and turning Fox into a viable forth TV network in the US for its majority owner Rupert Murdoch.

No one might find 63-year-old Mr Diller's serene stance more unexpected than Michael Eisner, Disney's larger-than-life chief executive who stepped down at the beginning of this month.

According to Mr Eisner, he and Mr Diller were like "two little tigers" when they worked together at ABC's television network in their twenties, where Mr Diller had the senior role.

The forty years since then have included several spectacular bust-ups and periods of not talking between the two. However, particularly recently, relations seem to have become more cordial and Mr Eisner chose Mr Diller along with John Travolta as his interviewees when he last week appeared as the guest host on the Charlie Rose show, a popular TV chatshow.

"Michael's just more competitive than I am. I made my way and he made his. We've both, as they say, done alright," is Mr Diller's pronouncement.

At a time when his old friend and foe is bowing out of full-time powerbroking, Mr Diller could not be busier. Last month he split his company, IAC Interactive Corp, into two, making its internet travel site, Expedia.com, into a separate entity.

Mr Diller is now chairman of both Expedia, the world's largest online travel business, and of the other company, which has retained the IAC name. Its holdings range from Ticketmaster, to the Home Shopping Network on television to the latest major acquisition, Ask Jeeves, which is in the process of being rebranded, possibly to Ask.com.

Mr Diller, who is tall and lean and originally hails from Beverly Hills, where he started work in the postroom of the famous Hollywood talent agency, William Morris, notes wryly: "Mr career is getting to be endless".

He seems to relish the challenges presented by the fact that he deserted the world of old media nine years ago - reportedly after tensions at Fox with Mr Murdoch - to create through acquisitions an internet and direct retailing empire.

He concedes that those challenges include getting investors to understand IAC's particularly complex business model. "We are very young at this. We're not a Procter & Gamble - one hundred years old - or a General Motors - 125 years old, or whatever it is. But we are multi-business businesses like they are. To think that all of our businesses, all in these new areas, are going to appear to anyone looking in as relating to each other in a long-term strategic way is just foolishness," says Mr Diller.

Indeed, investors are wary of IAC, accusing Mr Diller of using the multiple deals he has done since he first bought the Home Shopping Network in the mid 1990s to create a "hodgepodge" or a "smorgasbord" of holdings which do not hang together in a coherent fashion.

Shares in both IAC and Expedia have fallen since the businesses were split, despite the fact that the move was intended to be a way to become more transparent and investor-friendly.

Mr Diller says he has much more equanimity about Wall Street's view than he used to. "The problem is that in this mostly silly men's club, you are often too wired, and your emotions and self worth are too tied to the short term markets. The real issue is, are you building something of real long-term value? If so, everything else will take care of itself," he says.

At IAC, what is being built is a business which has lots of different constituents, with financial services and house buying recently added to the tickets, home shopping and internet search business. But in common the fact that all of the businesses are directly used by customers.

The first priority with Ask Jeeves is to try to boost its position from fifth in the internet search market. Mr Diller says that is already happening, with queries growing by 25 per cent a month in the US.

There is a strong possibility that the next aim for the search engine might be to use it to link all of IAC's customer-facing businesses up. Creating a so-called internet portal, which brings together online search, with " content", such as shopping, entertainment and news, is already being pursued with gusto by others such as America Online, owned by Time Warner, because of the lucrative advertising revenues that can be earned.

Given Mr Diller's background in the TV and movie business - where he oversaw hits including Cheers being made and pioneered ideas such as the movie made for TV - it seems particularly striking that IAC now owns no creative content provider.

That is likely to change, due to technology developments making it possible for consumers to download film over a broadband connection to the internet at much faster rates than before.

"Me and my colleagues have expertise in audio visual forms of content and I think we'll enter it. I don't know when and I don't know how, but it is getting to look interesting again," says Mr Diller.

Just as Time Warner, whose traditional media holdings include CNN, Time Magazine and the TV network HBO are muscling in on IAC's internet space, so is another traditional media giant: News Corporation.

Mr Diller is reluctant to be drawn on his views of the list of media moguls that he is on first name terms with, and who come to the annual picnic he hosts with his fashion designer wife, Diane von Furstenberg. Yet he is fulsome in his praise of Mr Murdoch.

"Rupert Murdoch is the only truly great international entrepreneur functioning in the media business. He makes his bets and he is right more often than he is wrong," says Mr Diller.

Of the 74-year-old businessman's decision to make it a priority to buy internet businesses, including IGN - which is behind various gaming and entertainment sites and MySpace.com, which allows users to talk to each other online - Mr Diller says: "He is willing to take the risk of opportunity. The businesses he is buying will either be worth more over time or they will be worth vastly less. If I were taking a bet, I'd always bet on Rupert because he is that good."

What Rupert, and AOL and Google and a host of others are up to is competing with Mr Diller for control of the highly lucrative and fast-growing area on the internet that centres on merging advertising, internet search with content. Mr Diller might be able to claim he got there first in terms of seeing the opportunities to create an internet conglomerate, but he now runs the risk of being outfoxed by rivals.

Does this make his competitive hackles rise? He admits that "being competed against keeps one sharper and more willing to innovate." But fundamentally, Mr Diller maintains, his reaction to other sharp operators turning their attention his business plan is quite zen-like. "It just makes me smile," he says.

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