Time Warner chief won't rule out an addition to AOL

At an analysts' conference this afternoon, the new chief of Time Warner -- who was once suspected of wanting to cast AOL aside -- refused to rule out the possibility of AOL's involvement in a possible future rescue of Yahoo, or even some other firm.

Speaking at the Bear Stearns media conference in Palm Beach, Florida this afternoon, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes acknowledged that Microsoft's proposed buyout of Yahoo will intensify competition for AOL -- especially on the search side -- assuming that deal ever goes through. One way it might not go through, though, is if AOL steps in.

And to that end, Bewkes said his company can't rule out the possibility of "adding something" to AOL. Specifically, when asked whether "something would be added to AOL," he replied, "We can't rule it out."

Although AOL had been mentioned earlier as a possible "white knight" for Yahoo, Bewkes didn't reference any company in particular in his remark about "adding something" to AOL. He later said he wasn't able to discuss any specific acquisition plans, after being asked by an attendee whether Time Warner is looking at buying Rainbow, an ad agency specializing in cable programming.

"We always say, 'We can't say,'" according to the Time Warner CEO.

But Bewkes did tell investors that, if successful, Microsoft's bid for Yahoo will spell both advantages and disadvantages for Time Warner and AOL.

In a positive vein, Microsoft's pronounced interest in snaring Yahoo "verifies the value" of ad models such as AOL's Platform A, he contended. But Microsoft's bid for Yahoo could also create more "scale in our competition."

Bewkes predicted that the pressures would be particularly keen on the search engine side, noting that many users migrating from AOL's dial-up platform to the AOL.com portal have left AOL's search engine behind in favor of Google. But, he added, other search engines have lost share to Google in recent months, too.

Bewkes also suggested that, in his view, AOL's ad networks are better positioned right now than the AOL.com portal, saying, "We feel good about the ad networks."

But, he said, AOL needs to increase the numbers of page views in some areas of its portal, even though sections of AOL.com such as news and finance have "sometimes gone up to the number one or two position." Yet at least for the foreseeable future, AOL's portal business will not be separated from its ad business.

"They do a lot of good for each other," he maintained, adding that he thinks AOL's "two or three main competitors" will also keep their respective portals and ad networks from being separated.

Also at the conference today, however, Bewkes said that, although Time Warner will not be selling a cable spin-off, the company is strongly considering a "separate" structure for its majority-owned cable business.

During an earnings call with analysts in February, he said that AOL is already working on separating AOL's portal from its old-time dial-up access business.

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