Polo-NBCi Deal Heralds Convergence of E-Commerce, Media Industries - TheStreet

Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) - Get Report has built a fortune thanks in part to an idealized version of the past. Now it's building an idealized version of the future.

Monday's deal between the apparel/home/fragrance empire and the broadcast network

NBC

could very well be a blueprint for a new relationship between advertisers on one side and broadcast networks on the other. It's not just a business relationship in which a network sells advertising and an advertiser sells products, say participants in the deal. Instead, as the world moves toward high-speed Internet connections, they say, the two sides will blur.

Advertisers with strong brands, such as Polo Ralph Lauren, will become more like media companies, and media companies such as the

GE

(GE) - Get Report

-owned unit NBC will, through the Internet, jump into the retail business, which they've previously left to their clients. Assuming that media companies can find enough brands big enough to hang a lifestyle on, that means investors may start having to think of media companies as e-commerce plays.

Progression

Those moves are reflected in the terms of Monday's deal to create

Ralph Lauren Media

, which expects to launch the

Polo.com

Web site by the end of the year. Rather than just be a place for selling clothes, Polo.com will be "a destination site dedicated to the American lifestyle" featuring original content, commerce and community, according to the companies -- the sort of description which seems to put it in the same line of business as online portals like

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

and

Lycos

(LCOS)

.

Meanwhile, by giving NBC and related companies a 50% stake in the venture, the deal essentially makes NBC not just a company from which Polo Ralph Lauren buys advertising time, but a retailing partner which gets a cut of the clothing, perfume and accessories that Polo.com sells online.

Expect to see a lot more of these types of deals in which a media company partners with a retail brand on an Internet retail site, says

PaineWebber

new-media analyst Christopher Dixon. He calls it a natural progression in the media business, which started out as an advertising-supported industry earlier this century, and added subscription fees with the rise of cable TV. The Polo.com transaction closely resembles the deal announced last week between

USA Networks

(USAI) - Get Report

and the

National Basketball Association

, says Dixon, in which the two are teaming up on the NBA Store in the

NBA.com

Web site. "I look at these announcements," says Dixon, "as an affirmation that the Internet is becoming a bona fide mass medium." Dixon has a buy rating on USA Networks, which has been an investment banking client of his firm.

Ah, Broadband

Although high-speed Internet connections to the home aren't absolutely necessary for the NBC/Ralph Lauren deal to work, that broadband, interactive future looks important to some of the people in the deal. Doug Williams, group president of global business development for Polo Ralph Lauren, envisions a time when customers around the country will be able to watch the unveiling of the firm's women's collection, a privilege that's now limited to the 600 or so people attending the fashion show. He also imagines Ralph Lauren-affiliated golfers teaching online. The technology to make this work might not be widespread for three or four years, Williams says, but today is the time to create the expertise to operate in that world.

Similarly, Chris Kitze, CEO of

NBC Internet

(NBCI)

, says the Polo.com site -- chock full of material related to such Ralph Lauren-like activities like golfing, sailing and travel -- will thrive in the broadband world, one in which the images in Polo Ralph Lauren's advertising will spring to life.

"We believe there's going to be a major transformation in the Web from utility to lifestyle and entertainment," he says -- the type of material that will work well in a broadband environment. However quickly that will arrive for the general population, he says, "The real question is, What is the time it takes for the Polo audience to be

broadband enabled? ... You've got to believe it's going to be faster."