By Sophie Vorrath and Stephen Mayne


If an anonymous tip
sent to Crikey is right, theAustralian internet landscape saw a seismic
shift last week: Australia’s leading motor vehicle advertising website carsales.com.au has sealed a deal to merge with the Packer family’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited’s classified websites, carpoint.ninemsn.com.au, boatpoint.ninemsn.com.au and bikepoint.ninemsn.com.au and several other industrial and farming online publications, giving PBL a 41% stake in carsales.

According to Alan Kohler in The Age
in August, the largest shareholder in the carsales goldmine – – an
unlisted public company largely owned by car dealers which last year
earned $3 million profit – is chairman Wal Pisciotta, with a bit more
than 20%. Fairfax is next, with a 12% stake it bought this year from
Yahoo. But, said Kohler, Fairfax is regarded by carsales as a hostile
shareholder because it’s also a competitor through drive.com.au: “but
it will surely not be long before either Fairfax, News, PBL – or
perhaps all three – attempt to take it over.”

Carsales chief
Greg Roebuck was unable to get back to Crikey today to confirm or deny
the rumour and the folk at PBL’s Sydney HQ are enjoying a public
holiday. But according to our tipster, the deal was signed last
Thursday night by PBL chairman James Packer, and Pisciotta and
shareholders will vote in 21 days. If this all checks out, the vote
will be interesting, because our source tells us Fairfax is not happy
about the deal.

Fairfax is already feeling embarrassed about
missing out on Seek (seek.com.au), so another strategic loss to the
Packers would not be a good look. Paying more than $40 million for
dating service RSVP is small consolation when you consider that cars,
homes and jobs are the three big classified categories under attack
from the internet.

PBL has already got 25% of Seek, which has
58% of the Australian internet advertising market for jobs, and News
Ltd is busily trying to mop up the rest of realestate.com.au, the
biggest independent Australian site for property advertising online.

If
PBL also gets hold of carsales.com.au, that will leave Fairfax without
a major marriage partner in the three big categories. Sure, Fairfax has
its organically developed sites, but with Telstra also rampaging away
after beating Fred Hilmer’s team to the Trading Post in 2003, the beleagured Fairfax is finding itself increasingly under attack from all sides.

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Peter Fray
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