Peter Kafka

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Facebook to Big Media: We Like You. We Really, Really Like You.

Facebook has more than 550 million users, but right now the company has its eyes on a very particular set of friends: Big media companies.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company is working hard to win over heavyweight content distributors, hoping to convince them to link their sites up with Facebook, or to make their existing links deeper. The pitch: Connect your site to ours, and we’ll drive you eyeballs and help you hang on to them. And in return, we’d like to know more about your users.

Facebook has been headed in this direction for a while, and made a big move in April when it rolled out its “Like” button to outside sites. Some two million of them have now integrated the social network in some form.

But Facebook has made a point of wooing big media companies in the past few months. It has hired New York-based ambassadors specifically for the task, and is sending top executives out east for schmoozes. It might be working.

For instance: Facebook and Time Warner are now talking about using the social network’s login system to “authenticate” cable subscribers who want to watch online video from cable channels like TBS and HBO. Sources familiar with the companies’ plans say they are in early stages, but that the two companies are hoping to link up first with Verizon’s FiOS TV  service.

The upside for Time Warner and Verizon: It will be easy for customers to sign into Web video sites, and easy for them to tell their Facebook friends what they’re doing. That can drive more traffic and engagement, and ultimately more ad dollars or more subscribers.

And the upside for Facebook: It gets incredibly valuable data.

If that linkup goes through, it will be a big deal for pay TV operators, who have been wary about letting outsiders act as gatekeepers between their subscribers and their content. That’s why Facebook and Time Warner want to work with Verizon, a newcomer to the TV business, instead of established cable giants like Comcast.

The proposed Time Warner-Facebook linkup is a good example of what Facebook is trying to accomplish across the board. It wants to insert itself between media companies and their consumers–with “Share” buttons, “Like” buttons and Facebook Connect logins–but in a way that makes both groups happy about the arrangement.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Dan Rose, the company’s VP of partnerships, made a version of that pitch to senior Time Warner executives in a meeting last week. The pair also hosted a presentation and dinner for about 20 other big Web publishers, including executives from ESPN, the New York Times, Condé Nast, CBS and at least one media celebrity. “Tina Brown was actually there, which I thought was sort of hilarious,” says one attendee.

Facebook has also hired two New York-based executives tasked specifically with getting big media companies on board: Andy Mitchell, previously a VP of business development at the Daily Beast, and Nick Grudin, who held the same title at Newsweek.

Executives who’ve attended the meetings say media companies seem reasonably receptive to Facebook’s approach. In part, it seems, it’s because the company isn’t Apple or Google, two heavyweights that can make Web publishers wary.

“Facebook doesn’t attest to be perfect about being perfectly transparent about where they’re going. But they’re pretty predictable,” says one meeting participant. “It’s not like Apple, where they’re closed.”

Add another: “It was very friendly. It wasn’t like meetings we’ve had with Google, where everyone’s arms are crossed.”

But publishers are also realistic–they realize by trading user data for traffic and engagement, they’re helping to build up a company that is already competing with them for ad dollars. “In the end, they’re like the other big guys,” says another attendee. “They’re both friend and foe simultaneously.”