AOL faces tough fight as consolidation looms

Perennial questions about AOL, Time Warner's troubled internet division, will take on greater urgency this Wednesday when the media conglomerate announces its fourth-quarter earnings in the wake of Microsoft's $44.6bn offer for Yahoo.

Microsoft's gambit comes little more than a month after Jeff Bewkes took over as Time Warner chief executive, and is sure to influence his deliberations as he attempts to breathe new life into a company whose shares have been flat for the past five years - held down in no small part by problems at AOL.

To some, Microsoft's offer for Yahoo, which represents a 62 per cent premium to the latter's share price before the bid was announced, has also highlighted the value of AOL, and the internet advertising platform that it has been assembling over the past year.

Yet, if the Microsoft-Yahoo deal were consummated, it would also serve to eliminate two potential AOL suitors, if Mr Bewkes intends to sell the division. There is also the reality that AOL, already a laggard to Google and Yahoo, would face an even more robust competitor.

"It sort of leaves them out right now," one media investor says of AOL. "It's almost like the music stopped, and is there a chair for them?"

Time Warner declined to comment.

Mr Bewkes will also face questions on Wednesday about his plans for Time Warner Cable. The company has talked about spinning off or divesting its 84 per cent stake because of its heavy capital needs. Yet some investors believe it could now take advantage of low cable valuations to consolidate its control.

Another subject of speculation is Time Inc. The company's namesake publishing division is still hugely profitable, but offers little growth.

In November, on the eve of his promotion, Mr Bewkes vowed that Time Warner would move faster, and suggested that all options were on the table: "We will be looking at basically anything that can improve our strategic advantage over our competitors, and that has a good long-term return."

People close to the company expect some costcutting package to be announced as early as this week, particularly as the economy slows. Weightier decisions involving AOL are unresolved, they say.

In 2006, when he was still aiming for the top job, Mr Bewkes staked his reputation on a dramatic plan to transform AOL from a dial-up internet service to a free portal supported by advertising.

The plan got off to a promising start, with AOL's advertising revenues surging 40 per cent. Before a room packed full of investors, Mr Bewkes confidently predicted that AOL would grow its online ad sales faster than the rest of the industry. Yet the company was left with egg on its face last August when its advertising sales came in well below forecasts.

Time Warner is widely expected to sell what remains of AOL's dial-up business, possibly to EarthLink. But the future of the advertising business remains unclear.

AOL last year spent about $600m to acquire behavioural and contextual advertising companies to round out its platform. Still, some Time Warner executives question whether the media company will ever have the technological strength to compete with the likes of Google and Microsoft.

In a note to investors on Friday, Michael Morris, a UBS analyst, seemed to agree, arguing that Time Warner enjoyed a competitive advantage in its content businesses, and should separate "weaker" divisions, including AOL.

Prior to Microsoft's announcement on Friday, Time Warner executives had been mulling the possibility of merging AOL into Yahoo, according to a person familiar the matter, leaving it with a minority stake in a larger entity.

If Microsoft and Yahoo combine, then Google would appear to be the best option for AOL. The two companies are well acquainted: Google paid $1bn two years ago for a 5 per cent sake in AOL, and also became its search partner. Proponents of a deal note that AOL could help Google build its display advertising business.

Whether or not other potential partners emerge remains to be seen. In the meantime, at least one investor sounded concerned: "I don't think Bewkes has a very good hand here."

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