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Scripps Hit on U.K. Buy

Merrill Lynch questions the strategy.
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E.W. Scripps

(SSP) - Get E. W. Scripps Company Class A Report

is pushing further into online comparison shopping.

Cincinnati-based Scripps, one of the country's oldest media companies, said it has acquired closely held U.K. Internet concern uSwitch for $366 million.

In doing so Scripps expands on its foray into the interactive world. uSwitch is touted as Britain's "leading provider of online price comparison." The move comes less than a year after Scripps added Shopzilla, a U.S. and European price comparison service, for more than $500 million.

Six-year-old uSwitch helps consumers compare rates on everything from gas and electricity to personal loans, using a set of specialized calculators to help find the most accommodating vendors.

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Scripps said the acquisition is expected to be dilutive to its earnings to the tune of 10 cents to 15 cents per share this year, triggering a rating downgrade at Merrill Lynch from buy to neutral.

In a research note, Merrill analyst Lauren Rich Fine questions the strategic fit. "Scripps already owns Shopzilla, one of the leading comparison shopping sites in the U.S. and, to date, has enjoyed tremendous financial success top and bottom line as well as solid traffic trends," writes Fine.

"We would have expected them to leverage this technology geographically or to other areas of comparison shopping rather than make a hefty acquisition to enter a new area of comparison shopping." Merrill does business with Scripps.

Scripps said that down the road it expects uSwitch to generate profit margins in the 40% to 50% range.

"The addition of uSwitch to our portfolio of interactive businesses, including Shopzilla, is intended to position Scripps to take full advantage of the rapid growth of online comparison shopping for both products and essential home services," said Scripps Chief Executive Ken Lowe. "An increasing number of consumers in the U.K. have found uSwitch to be a valuable online resource when shopping for energy, communications and personal finance services. We believe the uSwitch service and brand provide a sturdy platform on which we can expand into Europe and beyond."

Scripps shares dropped $1.63, or more than 3%, to $46.37 on Thursday.