I’m not quite as bearish on CBS-CNET as colleague Barry Parr. Barry’s critiques of CNET ring true — they’re a former leading online media innovator that still has some good content, but has fallen behind on many of the new trends in online media distribution and networking. And Barry says “CBS needs more distribution and network power and fewer content businesses,” riffing off his analysis in this thoughtful Jupiter report.

But I’d argue that, while content and distribution are separate businesses, they needn’t be separate companies. And as Barry points out, CBS’ roots are as a distributor. The thing is, networks aren’t just distribution. They’re audience aggregation and ad sales. And, especially for premium advertising, he who owns the page — really, he who owns the audience — keeps most of the ad dollars. (Barry will correctly say that, although I can talk a good game on 21st century networks, I’m still too fond of old-school portals.)

So if CBS and CNET can actually figure out how to sell ads across what is now a more diverse audience in a broader variety of contexts, they might have something. CNET adds tech, games, and a couple of weak lifestyle/entertainment properties to CBS’ TV promotional site, sports, last.fm, and a weak online news offering.

The result is a hodgpodge. It’s not a general-purpose network or portal yet, and it doesn’t own any verticals, though it’s strong in tech and sports. I still believe in synergy, and I see some cross-promotion potential in sports, tech, and games (young males, anyone?). And of course, bulking up in digital could help the folks running the thing get attention, focus, and resources from a media conglomerate that’s weighted towards slow-growth markets like broadcast TV, book publishing, radio, and outdoor.

Some ad buyers seem to like the combo, or are at least being very polite, according to Paid Content.