Time Warner restructuring could involve dividing AOL

Time Warner's new Chief Executive Officer announced the outline for AOL's restructuring, which may include divesting from the AOL access business, Time Warner cable unit, and even New Line Cinema.

In the company's quarterly earnings call this morning, newly appointed president and CEO of Time Warner Inc. Jeff Bewkes stressed the importance of increasing profitability by improving cost management across the company. In addition to a vaguely described 15% cost cut at the corporate level, Bewkes' team is working on a plan that would divide AOL's subscriber unit from its audience unit.

Bewkes cited the success of AOL's Access division's shift to a free service and how it has managed to maintain profitability during that shift, while at the same time reducing costs and allowing more money to be invested in AOL's Audience division. Audience entails AOL's Portal and Advertising business, which ultimately, Bewkes says will be separated from AOL's Access so each can be run independently of the other.

Yesterday, prior to the publication of its earnings statement, AOL's Audience business took another big step by acquiring Buy.at, an online affiliate marketing network. That company's system has advertisers pay member Web publishers only when a visitor to the site makes meaningful transactions with the advertiser in response to their ads. The cost of the transaction was not disclosed, although it was the fifth major acquisition made by AOL's advertising business in the last twelve months.

In another possible cost savings move, Bewkes is now openly considering what to do with New Line Cinema, saying today it could either be swallowed by Warner Bros. or sold off.

"New Line's had great success with certain genres of films that are not historically in the sweet spot of large studios, particularly one like Warner's, that appeals to really broad audiences all over the world." Bewkes said, "But with the recent trends toward fewer movie releases across the industry, and given the greater importance of overseas revenues, there is an obvious question about whether it still makes sense for us to have two completely separate studio infrastructures at Warner and New Line."

Though his language leaves room for a number of interpretations as to the fate of New Line, the studio is undoubtedly under close scrutiny at present. As a property acquired when Time Warner bought Turner, simply pondering New Line's fate aloud in public shows that Bewkes may not necessarily regard the Turner properties as a "family" that it needs to keep together.

Another prominent Turner property that has popped up over the years in discussions of possible sellofs is CNN, though Bewkes did not appear to measure up CNN for its execution garments today.

Next, the CEO addressed Time Warner Cable, saying, "In many ways, cable has a very different business profile from our other businesses. And in addition, it also appears that our current ownership structure with Time Warner owning about 84% of Time Warner Cable and with only 16% of its common equity owned by the public is less than optimal for both companies."

The next step, he says, will be for the board of directors to reach a decision on how to change Time Warner's ownership level by April.

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