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AOL-Time Warner's Money Pit 326

ElitusPrime writes: "There's an interesting analysis of the recently released balance sheet net worth of AOL Time Warner. The net worth of the largest media conglomerate on earth has now been slashed by more than one-third. The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the merger never should have happened. But there's some interesting financial analysis to show exactly how bad the merger has been for Time Warner."
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AOL-Time Warner's Money Pit

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  • by flacco ( 324089 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:34PM (#3432393)
    AOL just didn't do enough advertising. Especially on its TW media outlets.
    • AOL just didn't do enough advertising.

      Yeah, they really should make their presence known! I mean, they could do stuff like send out CDs and come up with a catchy slogan to advertise on TV. Maybe something like "so easy to use it's #1." And who knows, maybe they could get a computer store (perhaps CompUSA) to bundle AOL discs with everything... These people just need to think a bit.

    • Actually, the reason they're doing so poorly is the Zik Zak Effect. Does anyone here remember Max Headroom (the ABC TV series that aired during the 1980's)? There was an episode in which Zik Zak, a large corporation, bought out a controlling share in Network 23 thinking they would increase their profits. What actually happened was that many of the other companies who were advertising with Network 23 stopped doing business with them because they did not want to pay a rival for the air time and Network 23 (and Zik Zak) ended up losing money rather than gaining it. In the end, the only way for Zik Zak to recover was to sell Network 23 back to the original owners. Essentially, AOL has done the same thing by buying a controlling portion of Time Warner. Unless they are willing to take initial loss and sell it back to its original owners, AOL will no doubt find Time Warner to be a white elephant.
  • come on (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Husaria ( 262766 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:34PM (#3432396) Homepage
    yet they hold three very popular programs amongst the slashdot crowd, AIM, ICQ, Winamp and support Mozilla. Should slashdotters really feel bad that AOL-TW is going down?
  • AOL Worth 1/3 less (Score:3, Insightful)

    by k_d3 ( 559373 ) <kool_dudzNO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:37PM (#3432410)
    Hm... AOL/TW is just an experiment. Things can and do go wrong in experiments. Keeping personal opinions aside, (I hate AOL/TW's guts!), I think it's fortunate for all of the other smaller companies to have a chance. AOL/TW's not making as much money as it could be, in fact, it's losing money. Capitalism at its best (or worst, in AOL/TW's case).
  • by TheNecromancer ( 179644 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:37PM (#3432413)
    Did you know, for example, that AOL Time Warner, at latest tally, has nearly 13 million square feet of office space on its books?

    And that's just the CEO's office!

    • Re:Nice office! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jay L ( 74152 ) <jay+slash&jay,fm> on Monday April 29, 2002 @09:34PM (#3433243) Homepage
      Did you know, for example, that AOL Time Warner, at latest tally, has nearly 13 million square feet of office space on its books?

      So what? At 90,000 employees, that works out to an average of 162.5 square feet per employee, including conference rooms, hallways, cafeterias, bathrooms, etc. That doesn't sound like a whole lot to me.
  • This isn't surprising, these kinds of mergers almost always go awry at some point. The whole is less than the sum of the parts.

    At least Compaq has some actual assets to offer HP -- so maybe, just maybe, Carly won't have to take up poetry in 2005 :-)

    • This is different, though. HP vs. Compaq is about two similar companies merging to reap the (perceived) benefits of increasing scale. AOL vs. TimeWarner, on the other hand, I've always felt to be about an overpriced dotcompany doing the smart thing and taking all that investor money to buy something that was actually worth something. Yahoo should've done the same thing and bought Disney back when they could.
  • In the long run... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vkg ( 158234 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:38PM (#3432419) Homepage
    I think they will make out like banditos!

    Seriously, these kinds of cross-industry mergers are often appallingly inefficient for the first few years while all of the organizational kinks get worked out.

    Then, when you start to see the synergies, they really take off, often out-competing all of the players from the industries the hybrid company was formed from.

    In two years, when you see tightly branded Time Warner content (i.e. Bugs Bunny!) "Available Only On AOL!", with AOL billing you per-view on your ISP bill on your DCMA/CBDTPA-enabled home Entertainment Appliance, don't say you didn't have the chance to buy stock now :-)

    • No, no, no; you started the sentence right:

      Then, when you start to see the synergies,

      but the way it continues should be:

      They spin off most of these branches that were "not part of the core competency".

      See, in couple of years the whole strategy of behemoth company may (will) change. That's the way things work; one fraction sails the boat for a while, then another.

    • Spin Doctor (Score:5, Interesting)

      by phriedom ( 561200 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:08PM (#3432605)
      Wow, you sure have a bunch of nice buzzwords packed into that short post. But I don't see how any "synergy" is going to turn the AOL unit into a money-making and growing division like it used to be. They are not going to be "out-competing" my local ISP. If they were to start making T-W content exclusive to AOL, they are only going to be choking off the potential for T-W.

      AOL made a sweet deal. They turned a vast amount of very perishable stock value into some real assets by buying T-W. T-W was blinded by dollar signs in their eyes. They looked at the (temporary) value of the stock, instead of (real) value of the AOL company.

      I know they are not going to shrivel up and blow away or anything like that, but if I was a T-W stockholder I would be pretty pissed off. There were billions of dollars here last time I looked. Where did it go?

      I shouldn't be too hard on them though. Tyco, who has nothing to do with the dot-com bubble, and nothing to do with energy trading, and makes and sells actual products rather than just having intellectual property, has dropped in value by 30 BILLION dollars in the last 2 weeks. Think about that: 30 billion dollars that used to belong to stockholders has EVAPORATED in the last 14 days.
      • I think it should be modded "funny" instead of "interesting" read it from that viewpoint and it makes *much* more sense.
      • Think about that: 30 billion dollars that used to belong to stockholders has EVAPORATED in the last 14 days.

        Hmm, not quite. There was potentially 30 billion dollars that stockholders might have has, iff they sold the stock to a willing buyer. The opportunity evaporated, not any actual dollars.

        Of course, that's still a good reason to be pissed.

      • by Erris ( 531066 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @09:00PM (#3433081) Homepage Journal
        Revenues for the quarter increased 4% over the same period in 2001 to $9.8 billion. Subscription revenues increased 14% to $4.7 billion, reflecting strong subscriber growth in the Company's AOL and Cable businesses. Content and Other revenues were essentially flat at $3.2 billion, primarily because of robust theatrical results in the current year, offset by strong prior-year syndication sales. Advertising and Commerce revenues declined 13% to $1.8 billion, reflecting weakness in the overall advertising market and difficult comparisons against last year.

        So, duh, the cable business is growing while the traditional entertainment is dying. No news here, exept trolls like to call it a "dot com bubble burst" and other stupid shit like that. Nope, sorry, the internet subscription is doing well, the rest is flat or sagging. When was the last time you read Time or any other monthly print magazine without wondering what kind of clueless hermit would consider any of it news? Is it any supprise that assets like that might lose value?

        Where did the money go? It was "good will" overpayment for those "crown jewels", Time Warner. Enetertainment is not an easy business to be in, especially right before a small recession. The internet business, however, is a good bet. When things get tough what are you going to axe, Time, cable TV or your internet connection? I don't have the first two and I'm doing well.

        Dead trees is dead business. Pththth-fit! Good riddance, now those trees can be used on things like houses that don't fill up landfills as fast. Books are doing well, and that is nice but the mags sag. Here, read it for yourself:

        Publishing's EBITDA grew 14% in the quarter on revenue gains of 3%. Revenue growth reflected increases in Advertising and Commerce as well as Content and Other revenues, which were partially offset by a decline in Subscription revenues.

    • by twilight30 ( 84644 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:11PM (#3432635) Homepage
      "Synergies": dot.com-speak for "We don't know what the hell we are going to do next".

      Don't believe me? Look at Margaret Wente's commentary on BCE's chair resigning at the Globe and Mail [globeandmail.ca], Michael Posner's comments on Vivendi's fall from grace [globeandmail.ca], and perhaps most damagingly, a recent NYT comment [nytimes.com] (registration, blah blah) [majcher.com].

      One problem is that 'content driving distribution' ends up looking like trying to play monopoly (in general terms, not the board game), especially when the 'synergistic' entity restricts content competition on distribution channels. Remember the ABC cable fiasco from a couple of years ago, when they wouldn't let one channel show up on people's tv screens?

      Another is not restricting access to avoid the public/governmental response outlined above: where's the 'synergy'? If there is no 'synergy', why bother?

      AOL-TW is just the biggest failure, not the only one. And to be honest, the prospect of seeing this kind of 21st century 'new' mercantilism fail actually doesn't bother me a whit.
    • Seriously, these kinds of cross-industry mergers are often appallingly inefficient for the first few years while all of the organizational kinks get worked out.

      Someone can pay me $50B to work out some organizational kinks any day.

      In two years, when you see tightly branded Time Warner content (i.e. Bugs Bunny!) "Available Only On AOL!", ...

      Oh, yah. Bugs Bunny on AOL will save them.

  • But why? (Score:3, Funny)

    by apathyruiner ( 222745 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:39PM (#3432424)
    AOL charges $10+ more a month than most other ISPs how could they be losing money?
    • Well, most ISPs don't have all the content and staff that AOL has. It's genuinely huge. And it wants to be a media empire (thus the T-W bit.) All that crap is expensive.
  • time warner employee's all had to switch to aol service, and that shit is expensive!
    • And then had to switch back when it all went horribly wrong...

      Wasn't that surprising?
  • crosses fingers (Score:2, Redundant)

    by reaper20 ( 23396 )
    Everyone put your hands over your ears and chant "please don't kill mozilla, please don't kill mozilla, blame it on accounting ... "
    • It would be inane of them to destroy mozilla considering it costs them very little for the benefit they get out of it. Considering that *Alot of the development is carried out for free and they have little overhead - some yes, from developers who work on project/netscape + cost of bandwith and etc, but all-in-all it is probably very cheap to run.

      The benefits are simple: don't have to pay to license IE for every single AOL/Compusever/whathaveyou install. Plus the possibility of actually developing a competive product is probably high and the desire to not become a Slave of MSIE is also, I'm sure, a good motive.

      Of course corporate america offen does totaly asi9 things that boggle the mind but this would be an all time f*ck up.
    • Re:crosses fingers (Score:3, Informative)

      by OneFix ( 18661 )
      Not likely...

      First off, Mozilla uses an open source license...while not GPL/LGPL, the idea is the similar. This means that if AOL/Netscape dropped support, someone could always take it up...

      But the truth is, Mozilla is one of AOL's biggest hopefuls...it will be taking over as the standard AOL browser and will be used by many companies who want branded browsers and still more that don't want to use IE as their in-house browser (IBM, Sun, etc)...
      • Re:crosses fingers (Score:2, Informative)

        by NetGuruFL ( 28160 )
        Just to clarify, most of Mozilla is already under or will soon be (if not everyone who contributed to a particular file has been contacted for approval yet) under the MPL/GPL/LGPL tri-license
      • Clearly they can't "kill" Mozilla, but if they
        stopped paying their Mozilla staff, it would be
        a bad thing for the project.

        (Yes, Slashdot Pod People, I know that someone else
        could pick up where they left off, but it could take
        a while, and they might not have the expertise, and
        if these hypothetical third parties care so much,
        why aren't they paying people to work on Mozilla
        full-time already?)
    • At the moment, with Mozilla at almost-but-not-quite-there 1.0 version, it now has enough momentum that even if AOL killed off the funding, it would probably do pretty well. The Gecko core is helping other businesses, and since AOL knows that MS is their #1 enemy (right behind that furry thing that crawled up Wolf Blitzer's chin and died), they're going to keep their bets open. With moments like this, they'll at least keep it as a bargaining chip:

      AOL: So, Mr. Gates. Do you want to put AOL links in Windows XP - or do we need to shift to Mozilla and watch as web developers remember how to program HTML 4.0 compliant web pages?
    • < sarcasm off > Um, could someone quickly enlighten me as the precise relationship of Sun to AOL-TW? Are they a full component of AOL now? Were they ever? How does that relate to Netscape and so forth?

      From the article AOL owns Netscape wholly, but I still don't really see how Sun fits in. Anyone with a cluestick, comments greatly appreciated.
  • Jeez. (Score:4, Funny)

    by SlashChick ( 544252 ) <<zib.acire> <ta> <acire>> on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:43PM (#3432454) Homepage Journal
    From the article:

    "You can get as much of a return by investing in a U.S. government bond these days as you can from throwing your money into the AOL Time Warner black hole."

    Uncle Sam should definitely co-opt this for advertising: "U.S. savings bonds: not as bad as investing in AOL."
  • Aol cant afford to send me those dopey cd/frisbees anymore!! Yippee
  • by idonotexist ( 450877 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:43PM (#3432460)
    While I cannot present any proof, I am convinced what AOL acquires, AOL screws up. Netscape is a prime example. Certainly Netscape had value (server app, a browser...) prior to its acquisition by AOL and after acquisition, AOL left Netscape with a simple homepage. I guess I'll see if AOL brings Time Warner's assets to its knees. Certainly the Road Runner service is not improving since the merger.
    • I think they were pretty much done in by Microsoft's IE. If they had value why didn't they continue to exploit it? It's not like AOL wants to throw money away for no good reason.
    • Sorry, but Netscape had very little value in itself anyway, AOL just failed to see that fact. The company has historically been all about the hype, and that's why it's acquisitions fail. Time Warner is the one part of its operations that has value, and it still does.
    • Yeah, Winamp and ICQ have been abismal failures.
    • AOL bought NSCP for three major reasons:

      1. Their home page. At the time of the purchase, AOL was dominant in the consumer market but had no handle on how to get access to the businesses. They saw the ability to drive significantly more advertising revenue by acquiring Netscape.com as they were the dominant business portal at that time. AOL closed deal after deal with major advertisers because of this.

      2. Their browser. AOL hates Microsoft and really hates IE. Between 33% - 37% of their support costs were directly related to IE bugs. At the same time, they were forced to go with IE if they wanted that icon on the desktop of every new PC. By purchasing NSCP, they hoped to get the people and hard-earned know-how to put a competitive browser in play that directly integrated with not only the Internet, but AOL services.

      3. Their servers. AOL was also looking at dumping their proprietary architecture and replacing it with a completely browser based solution. This, obviously, didn't pan out. But the thinking was they would have complete access to the best LDAP server, app server (performance and scalability wise), mail servers, and web servers on the market at that time.

      The final piece of the puzzle was an agreement with Sun to dump the rest of the enterprise software (BuyerX, SellerX, ECX, etc) on Sun. This was done in simultaneously with a major hardware purchase from Sun ($500M?) with Sun purchasing a huge amount of advertising from AOL ($250M?). This agreement took two years to complete as U.S. tax law would have stuck AOL with a $250M bill if they divested those assets within the first two years of acquiring NSCP.

      I, personally, didn't think it was a great deal. NSCP was on the way down and I thought AOL could have bought those assets at firesale prices 3 months later instead of the $4B they paid. Oh well, they made some of my good friends rich. :-)

      Just say no to cool sigs,

  • Exec payola (Score:2, Insightful)

    by hedley ( 8715 )

    These guys (Levin et al) live in a strata that most peons can't even comprehend. Imagine if you can, sitting there, seing on paper a massive payola for you personally if the deal goes through. Now... your task is to spin the deal to the shareholders so it looks like a great deal. Cha-ching.
  • by Byteme ( 6617 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:44PM (#3432468) Homepage
    Somewhat related, possibly goes to show why AOL is losing money. Ironic to say the least.

    Wilco's recent deal with AOL [thedmonline.com] subsidiaries:

    It's their least poppy and most experimental effort to date. Which is why Reprise Records rejected it last summer: if the suits don't think you have a hit single, you're S.O.L, no matter how great your album is. Thankfully, after a fall tour and six months of shopping around, Wilco wrested "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" back and sold it to Nonesuch. Both are subsidiaries of AOL Time-Warner, so in an ironic twist, the band was paid twice for the same album by the same company.

  • was by AOL time warner which had a stated loss of 58.20 Billion bux.
  • In order for them to be succesful they need to have time warner drop roadrunner and make it AOL high speed access. The simple fact that its possible to have time warner roadrunner without AOL reduces the value of AOL-TimeWarner. Granted, this would make some of RoadRunner's users unhappy, but if they charged a comperable rate to what RoadRunner is right now I would assume the vast majority (power users excluded) wouldn't care. And for those that hate AOL they could up the price of basic roadrunner service and give a faster connection without AOL. I work for a competitor of RoadRunner (although I live in RoadRunner subscriber area) and I personally recieve about 5-10 phone calls a day about people wanting our service so that they can use it in conjunction with AOL.
    • by ONU CS Geek ( 323473 ) <ian@m@wilson.gmail@com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:38PM (#3432759) Homepage
      Ok. I work as an Installation Coordinator for a contractor for AOL-Time Warner. Albeit your idea is a nice one, there is a good reason why AOL HSD (High-Speed Data) won't work.

      The AOL Software is buggy, bloated, and won't work. They use VPN's and unlike road-runner, you must be signed into the service before you are connected to the internet. Another good reason is that the AOL Backbones are slower than roadrunner.

      We've had customers whose computers that just WILL NOT work with AOL's HSD, but with RoadRunner and AOL's BYOA program, they connect to the net just fine. The pricing? The same (Roadrunner + AOL's BYOA = AOL HSD).

      Also, something you have to look at is Support. AOL's support is ok...but RoadRunner's is better. If you're having Road Runner problems (e.g., your 31337 child installed a firewall and now you can't connect to the internet) if you call us, we'll be out in a Day...because it's a PC problem...and we support that. AOL will only support via the phone, unless it's a NO CABLE type of work request, then an line tech goes out...who doesn't have working knowledge of computers.

      Anyway...from what I've seen Comwaves (who is our biggest competitor up here) uses RoadRunner at their CEO's and a majority of their employee's houses.

  • by Edmund Blackadder ( 559735 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:47PM (#3432484)
    And Fox is a direct competitor with TimeWarner in most of its media ventures.

    And lots of the article is rhetoric and not financial analysis - is it that importent that they own more office space than the pentagon? They are a large company after all. The article also bever analised the earnings, saying thet the assets are most important.

    Truth is "good will" (by its technical accounting term) was never really considered as a real asset. Also the billions of dollars of goodwill can suggest that TW shareholders got a good deal, because they got payed a lot over the assets of time warner at the time of the merger.

    But i can easily believed that their financial statements are complicated and whole companies are hidden, so their performance cannot be seen. AOlTW is not the first large company to do that.
    • The goodwill is what justifies a high stock price in a merger--in that sense it is definitely an asset. Most of the "goodwill" disappeared from the AOL side, so it is the AOL shareholders that got a deal on this. Time-Warner shareholders got abused.
      • Aol bought TW. The good will is the price over assets payed by a buying company to a company that is being bought.

        Since TW was being bought it is their goodwill that got put in the books. If that good will was really high, it means that AOL payed a lot over the assets of TW for TW. Which means that TW shareholders got a good deal.

        Tell me if i am wrong somewhere.
        • The goodwill was written off of the combined
          company. The deal wasn't structured as AOL buying
          TW, it was structured as a "merger of equals", as
          it says in the article.

          The write-off reflects the loss of market cap,
          again according to the article. So if you want
          to know which shareholders got screwed, ask
          yourself this: had the businesses remained
          separate, whose stock would likely have retained
          more value in the last few months? The answer
          is obviously TW: stocks are down all around,
          but internet stocks are worse.

    • And lots of the article is rhetoric and not financial analysis - is it that importent that they own more office space than the pentagon?

      I noticed that too. In that part of the article, they were drawing some comparisons with the Department of Defense - org. charts and office space measured in the non-industry-standard Pentagons (I have yet to see a sign reading "Office Space Available - .15 Pentagons"). My cynical streak screams that this was an attempt to link AOL/Time Warner with the PR hobgoblin of inneficiency and waste the DoD has been trying to shake for the last couple decades.

      Of course - if you really want to make the comparison stick, instead of focusing on the square footage of one DoD building (the Pentagon)... lets compare the square footage of office space claimed by AOL/TW and the square footage of office space held by the entire US DoD.

      Betcha the point falls flat.

    • Truth is "good will" (by its technical accounting term) was never really considered as a real asset. Also the billions of dollars of goodwill can suggest that TW shareholders got a good deal, because they got payed a lot over the assets of time warner at the time of the merger.

      What? Good will is what you carry on your books to reflect the difference between the assets you got in the buy out or merger and what you paid for those assets. In real terms it's how much you overpaid for the company.

      Not that this is necessarily bad -- pretty much all companies are worth more than their assets. If it was otherwise somebody would just buy the company and strip them of their assets! This happened in the eighties ...

      The reason the SEC is making companies write off good will is that many companies were pretending it was an asset! And succeeding as your message somewhat indicates. It is NOT in any way, shape or form an "asset" and is the one of the biggest accounting hornswoggles ever invented, just before "pro forma" results :-(

    • Living as I do in News Corp.'s home town :(, I've noticed a lot of slanting of financial articles towards News/Fox properties in their newspapers. They seem to have no shame about it, whether it's aimed at changing government policy, or talking down competitors, or talking their businesses up.

  • From the Article: even as the man who presided over the drowning - Mr. Gerald M. Levin - heads for the exit door, a $1 million per year "consulting" contract stuffed in his briefcase.

    Isn't this just so typical? Who are these elite executives with their golden parachutes? Even the execs of Enron got performance bonuses well after the company went bankrupt. IMO, this sort of cronyism is what is wrong with the corporate world today (apart from mindless greed and monopoly building)

    I hope they go down...

  • "Worst merger...ever"
  • by AKAJack ( 31058 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:50PM (#3432505)
    ...but unfortunatly the value of AOL/Time Warner is down over $150 billion if you look at stock prices now and what they were when the "merger" took place.

    Don't expect them to answer any questions about:

    What assets EXACTLY did you write down?
    What about the rest of that lost value, when are you going to take that hit?

    Inflated .com dollars from AOL didn't buy Time/Warner. It was a stock trade that did it and that's what will kill Time/Warner on their end of this "deal."

    Big problems brewing for the future.
  • --and there is no beanstalk growing. AOL, on the other hand, was smart enough to convert it's Internet hyped valuation into control over a company that would be worth something after the crash.
  • AOL was the first destructive force on Usenet. (spammers were the second).

    Everyone who is happy to see these bastards writhing around please follow up with a "me too". And then post something stupid. And then someone else followup (without quoting the original article, or if you do, get the attributions all wrong) with a heartly LOL, or even a ROTFLMAO.

    AOL losers make me sick. I never saw a Henry Spencer post with LOL in it.

    • AOL losers make me sick.

      Me Too.
      (an AOL/TW/RIAA/MPAA (TM))

      (admittadly, I posted one "Me Too"...once, and only once, a decade ago.)

      Soon there will/shoud be a AOLA (AOL Anonymous) and the meeting will start of with "Hi, my name is ____ and I got a clue...I've been AOL free for XXX days."

      The meeting will end with "Give me the strenght to reject the ISP that I can not change, the courage to switch to a real one, and the wisdom to know anything but AOL is better....Me too".

  • by teslatug ( 543527 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @06:55PM (#3432529)
    They probably just wanted to send out a couple of samples, but due to programming deficiencies ended up in an infinite loop and now they can't stop sending people free CD's.
  • Insightful? Bah. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by KFury ( 19522 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:00PM (#3432561) Homepage
    The linked article is actually very poorly written, and highly specious in its analysis.

    "Save for the monthly subscription revenue, there was nothing much to the AOL business to begin with, as the first mild downturn in the economy has convincingly shown, with advertising revenues from the service having now collapsed in a heap."

    Actually, AOL was making quite a lot of money on advertising, and though the online ad market dove after the merger, that doesn't qualify the statement that there was nothing there to begin with.

    The whole tone (mocking poetry writing, yapping about black holes, colloquialisms instead of actual business terms, and the overly familiar 'I-you-we banter' show this article to be a sensationalist 'I told you so (even though I didn't) editorial rant, and not an 'analysis' of any kind.

    I'd love to find out where the money went, but the only thing this article taught me is that Fox's online news is the equivalant to WB's prime time news.
    • by figment ( 22844 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:48PM (#3432805)

      Save for the monthly subscription revenue, there was nothing much to the AOL business to begin with, as the first mild downturn in the economy has convincingly shown, with advertising revenues from the service having now collapsed in a heap."

      Furthermore, the "save for the monthy subscription revenue"... Dude, the monthly subscription revenue is what makes the company so attractive. If you can count on $21 * (areallylotofusers) / mo. guarenteed, you're already way better off than say, the services industry which is a lot more affected by economic downturns.

      The monthly subscription revenue is what separates AOL from your typical ad-market company, it has a large revenue base that i can use to cushion the impact of advertising revenue, which looks to be very cyclical.

      Once the ad-market has an upturn, AOL/TW is going to be quite fearsome. They have the ability to do a huge branding effort. Think how MSN teamed up with espn.com. Then MSN teamed with GE for MSNBC. Now multiply that by 20, given the TW media assets. They would have the ability to keep people within AOl/TW owned websites, further increasing ad-revenue. If they so chose, they would have the ability to create 'aol-subscriber' only content, much like they did in the late 90.

      Just because things arent working out perfectly doesnt mean a) it was a bad idea, or b) that everyone should abandon ship. While TW was probably charmed by the large amt of stock thrown at them, and soldout for too low, the merger was certainly not as horrible an idea as the article makes it sound.
      • Once the ad-market has an upturn, AOL/TW is going to be quite fearsome. They have the ability to do a huge branding effort.

        For clients that will pay. The big trend in advertising has been better media spending by improved demographic targeting. Charging me more to blast my message across the wrong demos simply because you own a huge chunk of the media outlets won't make it smart. The web is still dominated by 18-35 males, just because you own AOL and TW doesn't warrant extra revenue spending on overly broad demos.
  • I know trolls are an ever-present nuisance on Slashdot, but posting a troll as a news post? I mean come on!

    • "a biblical-sized tidal wave of losses"
    • "To reconnect with his feminine side and "write poetry" as he eases into early retirement."
    • "the largest balance sheet evisceration"
    • "advertising revenues from the service having now collapsed in a heap"
    • "after more than fifteen months of bloodletting"
    • " last week's write-off has only thrown $54 billion of it into the trash bin"
    • "more could disappear before the carnage is complete"
    • "You can get as much of a return by investing in a U.S. government bond these days as you can from throwing your money into the AOL Time Warner black hole."

    Yes AOLTW is getting slammed and their value is low, but so are many former high fliers. This guy doesn't provide any real insight into the situation. He's just flaiming AOL/TW.

    And to me this just looks like merger pains. In ten years, maybe, we can begin to pass judgement on whether the deal was worthwhile.


    • ...coincidentally made earlier today [guardian.co.uk] by Will Hutton (a British economist and newspaper editor) about the pointlessness of big money mergers like this.

      He produces some very interesting statistics about how they almost always lose money, for example;

      The management consultant McKinsey's, for example, reviewing 160 mergers between 1992 and 1999, discovered that only 12 of the merged groups succeeded in lifting organic growth above the trends before the merger; the other 148 failed.
      The article is really worth a read. Just ignore the, um, inflammatory title!
      • The point that your missing is that things could have been worse for the two companies left alone. One big company might not be able to increase "organic growth", but might actually be able to survive. This sort of assumes that if there was no merger, things would go along rosily!
    • The HP-Compaq fiasco, the AOL-Time Warner debacle, and the dot-com bust all point to one thing: a managerial elite class that is stuffing itself with cash whether the companies, the stocks, the employees, or the customers win or lose. One-million-dollar-a-year golden parachutes, massive management bonuses and the like are part of a huge logrolling scam the is being perpetrated on the economy. And if you get critical of it, you're accused of being hostile to "wealth creators". (What the hell is a "wealth creator"? I can understand "good producer," "value creator," "innovator" and all the rest, but somehow I get the feeling that "wealth creator" is a feel-good word for someone who takes a little bit of everyone else's geld and stuffs it in his pocket, "creating" one wealthy schmuck.)
  • . . .

    To me it was always a story of AOL cashing out its funny money stock at the height of the internet boom. Many manias have come and passed, leaving a scorched trail of people who bought in too close to the last hurrah. My guess (since largely vindicated) was that Time - Warner was one such sucker.

    Nevertheless, TW was desperately seeking growth, as a mature massive media business. It's much harder to grow incrementally the larger you get and still hit that year on year percentage target for your shareholders. TW's growth prospects were heavily tied to, e.g., newsprint subscriptions, and the internet boom looked then to be able to run and run.

    As many corporations who have been out of fashion have found (think banks during the '70s, when all the "smart" money was in the conglomerate boom) out of fashion can quickly mean out of access to capital too, and print and press is desperately cyclical, and very capital intensive - worse even, tied to the sharp acceleration and decelleration of advertising which behaves exaggeratedly in synch with that most nebulous of economic indicators - sentiment.

    Things change, and may get better for AOL - TW, but boy does it look tough for them for the forseeable.

    Here's some selected quotes from recent Financial Times articles :

    But broadband is different. Anyone buying a high-speed internet access over a cable system, for instance, will already be paying for the cable company's own ISP. Why pay for AOL as well [ft.com]

    The logic of the synergies, and the merger itself, have failed. . . . shareholders consistently fail to restrain management from empire-building. . . a fine example of hope triumphing over reason . . .AOL used its overvalued paper to buy some real assets . . .Those loyal to Time Warner shares have underperformed the media sector by more than 60 per cent. [ft.com]

    It's a sad indictment of much of mainstream press that which was - to me at least (and allowing I spend a good deal of my time studying speculative bubbles) - plain dang obvious, is only talked about now - after we've all been hit by the train. But then it's easy to go with the flow, ain't it?

  • I bet their cash flow displays about 2 billion $ annually for producing those (sn|cr)appy little "AOL 8" CDs that they send. I've so far received 12 of those (I kid you not); of which highest daily batch was 3x. They sure are desperate to try to lure me into Happy AOL family...

    The irony is that I could actually use my free corporate AOL account if I wanted to, to begin with, but have absolutely no intention to change from the cool and reliable local smallish ISP I'm using.

  • They realized that their stock was overpriced in the "Internet bubble," but unlike the rest of us mortals they could profit from it by buying a "real business."

    They did an equity swap (as opposed to getting bond financing) which was a great move. JDS Uniphase could've bought, say, Boeing - but they didn't and now they're worthless [yahoo.com].

    No wonder the "original" TimeWarner people are pissed - they were had by a bunch of cowboys, and there wasn't a goddamn thing they could do about it at the time.

  • by jamesmartinluther ( 267743 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:07PM (#3432600) Homepage
    My accounting teacher got pissed at me last year when I opined that the "goodwill assets" are often what a company overpaid for some other company. He called it the "keys to the business" and said that it was something of value.

    I think that this can only be true if the keys were bought for a reasonable price. TW shareholders got ripped off because they gave away the keys of the business for too little tangible value (in the form of new AOL shares). TW shareholders got greedy in approving that merger and, if they did not unload their new AOL stock quickly, lost out big time in that deal.

    Financial leaders such as the CFO and the CEO need to apply engineering principles to the financial aspects of the companies they are responsible for. How is that tall buildings structurally fail far less often than the corporations that contain them? Shareholders also need to analyze financial statements and the decisions that they vote on (especially mergers) in the same way.

    - James
  • Cost of CDs (Score:2, Funny)

    by Servo5678 ( 468237 )
    Finally, after all these years, the costs of sending out free AOL CDs has finally caught up with them!
  • by andrel ( 85594 ) <andrel@yahoo.com> on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:11PM (#3432629) Journal
    Steve Case, chairman of AOL is an investing genius. AOL stock was wildly overvalued at the time of the merger; the price would have tanked with our without the merger. Case used internet bubble speculation to buy Time Warner, converting soon-to-be-worthless paper into a valuable asset. Without the Time-Warner side of the company AOL would be worth a lot less today. (The Time-Warner side might be better off today without the merger, but it was definitely good for AOL shareholders.)
  • Interesting... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by OneFix ( 18661 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:11PM (#3432634)
    As the leading U.S. broadband provider, Time Warner Cable added 278,000 net high-speed data subscribers this quarter, for a total of 2.2 million. This is an increase of 1.0 million high-speed data subscribers, or 86%, since the same period last year. At the end of the quarter, digital subscribers represented 28% of basic cable subscribers while high-speed data subscribers represented 11% of eligible homes passed.

    It looks like they are trying to spin this as a positive, but if we belive this [slashdot.org] story, they are almost treated as a liabilty!!!

    Ok...so exactly how are they going to spin the fallout when they see a mass exodus after they implement these bandwidth usage quotas...it's been discussed before, regardless of their usage, the average user will flee at the first hint of bandwidth usage quotas...
    • Re:Interesting... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by jw32767 ( 58363 )
      I strongly disagree. They won't set quotas so that the average user goes over it. They would be better served by rasing the monthly fee at that point. Instead, the quota will hit the average geek user who is using far more than the average amount of bandwidth. Joe Blow doesn't care if they limit the bandwidth to 3 GB a month, they don't use anywhere near that much in the first place.
      • But, you see...Joe Blow doesn't know what 3GB a month is, as I would assume most geeks would have difficulty determining that without software (cat /proc/net/dev) as well...

        Just wait until the DSL companies start telling the cable subscribers that they could reach that limit in 1-2 days time...

        I know alot of ppl that are not geeks that will run when confronted with a technology that they don't understand. Many users are going to see the possibility of being charged for over-quota usage as too much and simply go to DSL.

        And even though DSL is slower in most circumstances, many users will take a slower service with unlimited usage over that of a faster service that is monitored.
        • All they have to do is say "the average user used
          X bytes, N percent of our cap last month", and then
          tell people on their bills how much they used the
          previous month. That would calm people's fears.
          Yes, people can be easily frightened, but it won't
          take a marketing genius to figure out how to calm
          their fears on this issue.
  • Admittedly, right now, AOL-TW is a huge confused mess. Its ugly, inefficient, and bloated. And no one likes them.

    However, that is not to say that there is no chance of things working out. That chance is diminishing, but it is still there. Once the situation with media over internet and copyright gets sorted out, things could work out quite well for them. They could very well succeed yet.

    Then again, they could also screw it up. In either situation, it should be very intesting to watch. So lets just wait and see what happens.

  • I have to take issue with this statement:
    >> "The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the merger never should have happened" In fact, this all depends on your perspective.

    If you were a Time-Warner who kept your stock instead of selling out during the merger, you are certainly annoyed: your stock, which once represented a share in a company with genuine assets and occasionally real income, was diluted with an immense credit for meaningless goodwill, all in a marketplace that grossly overvalued internet stocks like AOL.

    But if you were an AOL shareholder, holding grossly overvalued stock with no reasonable prospect of generating a meaningful return (via dividends or earnings), then buying the Time-Warner assets was a huge improvement. Of course, if you bought those shares at post-1997 prices, you are annoyed, but you are still probably better off than if the merger didn't happen.

    Sure, there has been a huge "failure of synergy" and none of the expected benefits of the merger have been obtained, and sloshing the numbers around shows that only an idiot would hold stock in AOL-TW now. (No offense intended -- I was one of the idiots who held AT&T and Lucent and even Enron stock as they plummetted, I just never bought any dot-com stocks, except for a two-week excursion when I was included on a "friends and family" list.)

  • I read a similar article in the NY Post earlier today. http://www.nypost.com/business/46726.htm [nypost.com]

    Although I don't care for AOLTW, I have noticed a common theme in all the articles I've read about the subject today... they all mention explicitly, "the merger should not have happened". Seems to me like a little fishy business going on in the media, especially with such a story breaking out on a Monday morning. Just be aware that this news may be a bit orchestrated.
    • Nonsense. They were all saying "This merger shouldn't happen" back when it was still being negiotiated. The fact that they're still saying it now is not the least bit suspicious.

      This deal was pushed through so that the TW execs could make a lot of money, and so that AOL could have some real assets when the Internet bubble burst.
  • by coyote-san ( 38515 ) on Monday April 29, 2002 @07:35PM (#3432744)
    I'm struggling to come to terms with 13 million square feet of office space.

    That's substantially over a square kilometer.

    It's just under a half-square mile. (10 city blocks by 5 city blocks.)

    Of course, the real issue isn't the amount of office space they need, it's that incomprehensible 25% of revenue going into overhead. Not production, but overhead. That's one central office person for every three people who actually produce the product or directly support those who do.
  • "Synergies"? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Tabercil ( 158653 )
    Hmmm... we have all these multimedia folks talking about "synergies" - how stuff from one place will drive another will drive another and so on... for instance, the music division will feed the internet division, which in turn will enhance the television division...

    Isn't this merely another form of the corporate conglomerate? And wasn't the concept of the conglomerate pretty much disproven by all these large corporations in the sixties and seventies experiencing difficulty in operating because no-one had the background, skill and knowledge set to properly run all of these divisions?

    Viewed in that light, small wonder AOL-Time Warner ran into difficulty. The skill set needed to run AOL is fundamentally different from that of Time-Warner. Hell, I'm curious as to how efficient Time and Warner were together prior to AOL coming into the mix...

    There will be a dramatic split-up or disinvestment coming in the future to AOL-Time Warner - it doesn't matter how they spin it. They need to get a central vision of what the business is and should be, and remove what doesn't fit into it.
  • It turns out AOL's "Mozilla Project" cost the company $34B, prompting AOL CEO Steve Case to utter, "Whatzilla? What the fuck?" The most blatant of the charges turned out to be the $12m on "foam dart toys and accessories" and the $17m line item simply labeled "caffiene."
  • I find it interesting to see this story considering that I recieved not one, but TWO AOL cds in my mailbox this afternoon.

    They weren't just the regular-old AOL-on-CD type either...one came in hard DVD-like plastic case, the other came in-get this-a metal tin.

    All that was in the tin was the CD, nothing but that... talk about a waste of money... is there really any point to putting a CD that is going to get thrown away anyway into a metal tin?! I would say that even the tin would have use...but I really dont want to carry stuff around in a rather large flat tin that has AOL plastered all over it.

    AOL-Time Warner would probably do fine if they didnt waste millions of dollars on marketing methods which may have been effective in the past, but probably aren't today. If people want AOL, they know wherre to get it...you don't need to spend millions to keep shoving it down their throats.
    • Julius X typed: They weren't just the regular-old AOL-on-CD type either...one came in hard DVD-like plastic case, the other came in-get this-a metal tin.

      But if you purchase a Warner DVD, it comes in a sorry-ass flimsy cardboard case that won't hold up to anything. I don't know of any other DVD distributor that does this with ALL of its titles, and they apparently do it just to save $.003 cents per sale. AOL TimeWarner is a busines school class project for MGMT 4106: Customer Alienation.

  • This is kind of a long post of the entire text (since Time restricts access to online archives). Time had a really scathing article basically outlining all of this ... amazing considering that this was basically an "FU AOL" coming from a subsidiary. Oh, but Steve Case remains confident ....


    April 22, 2002

    The Engine Stalls At AOL

    Steve Case's online giant was supposed to take Time Warner to new heights, not lows

    Six years ago, Bob Pittman traded away his job as CEO of the world's largest real estate company to rescue a struggling Internet company that many critics had already written off. He did that and more, using his marketing wizardry to turn America Online into a new media powerhouse, big enough to eventually swallow an old media standard bearer called Time Warner. He became a self-designated prophet of 21st century success: AOL was going to rocket Time Warner into a brave new world, delivering music, movies and you name it, anywhere, anytime--and of course make a killing in the process.

    But last week Pittman had to be called on once again to save AOL, which is beginning to look like the media giant's albatross. After eagerly devouring Pittman's hype just a year ago, investors and critics now feel woozy. Incoming AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, 54, clearly felt that nobody could clean up the mess better than Pittman, which is why he asked his top deputy to go back to Dulles, Va., on a new rescue mission. "AOL is our biggest problem, and so we're putting our best fighting general on it," says Parsons, who was designated CEO when Gerald Levin abruptly announced his resignation last December.

    Pittman takes over from Barry Schuler, the former tech entrepreneur who has run AOL since the merger in January 2001 and will now head a new interactive services division. Although Pittman, 48, is known as an agile manager with an uncanny ability to build big consumer brands, this is the Mississippi native's biggest test. He must restore AOL's luster and regain the trust of colleagues, business partners and, most important of all, Wall Street.

    The fact is, two years after the merger was announced, AOL Time Warner's top brass is being forced to prove the decision was not a mistake. Despite its powerful brand and unrivaled global member base of 34 million, the AOL division has seen its once stratospheric subscriber growth slow, its ad revenue fall and its international operations bleed money. The much ballyhooed broadband move--in which networked homes will enjoy high-speed connections to movies and music whenever they want--is off to a rocky start. Any delay is crucial to consumers eagerly anticipating the broadband revolution, because if AOL, with all its affiliated cable systems and entertainment properties, can't deliver those services, who can? Microsoft? Comcast? Rupert Murdoch?

    The AOL service's woes have infected all of AOL Time Warner, whose stock is the third most widely held in the U.S. By the end of last week, those shares had dropped to $20.10--wiping out nearly two-thirds of the market value of the combined companies since their merger was announced in January 2000. Several Wall Street analysts estimate the company's cable, entertainment and publishing divisions (which include CNN, Warner Bros., Warner Music and Time Inc., the parent company of this magazine) are worth about $19 a share. That leaves AOL near zero. When it reports its first-quarter financial results next week, AOL Time Warner will take a write-down of $54 billion--the biggest such charge in U.S. history--to reflect the decline in value of the combined company. This meltdown has revived questions raised by some Time Warner division heads in the months following the merger: Why was a solid company sold for overinflated AOL stock?

    In part, the AOL division is a victim of the lofty expectations generated by its successes in recent years--and the hyperbole of some of its executives. After the online service's ad and e-commerce revenue doubled in 1999 and nearly doubled again in 2000, executives--led by Pittman--declared that AOL could power AOL Time Warner to a 33% annual growth in cash flow, even during a 2001 that was clearly shaping up as a recession year.

    But while managers in New York City were trumpeting these goals, the folks at the AOL division's headquarters in Dulles were overwhelmed by them. Even before the merger was finalized, many of AOL's top managers and technologists were retiring--either formally or in practice--on the immense wealth they amassed before the dotcom bubble burst. Pittman, meanwhile, moved to New York to help run the parent company. And founder Steve Case, now chairman of AOL Time Warner, stepped back from day-to-day responsibilities, in part to spend more time in California with his brother Dan, who is battling brain cancer.

    That left Schuler--who had never managed anything larger than the 100-person software start-up that he sold to AOL in 1995--in charge of a fast-swelling staff of 15,000 and $9 billion in annual revenue. Instead of setting strategic priorities, Schuler and his lieutenants bounced between brainstorming sessions for soon-to-debut products like universal messaging and agonizing meetings over how to fulfill short-term earnings goals. One executive bemoans that at the old AOL: "Our great strength was keeping it simple, the goals clear and everyone pulled together. We really ended up losing our focus."

    In the first move to restore some discipline, AOL Time Warner last fall sent chief financial officer Michael Kelly from the New York headquarters to become the AOL division's chief operating officer. Kelly found what a senior executive refers to as a "big sandbox," in which in the name of synergy, it seemed as if anyone with an idea was suddenly proposing grandiose new projects with Time Warner divisions. "People are doing crazy stuff and wasting money," says the executive. "Someone has to set some priorities." Case, 43, says ruefully that rather than speeding AOL's move into the broadband age, "the merger actually slowed us down."

    Case is confident that AOL will haul itself out of the ditch; he points to a history of unfulfilled predictions of its demise. During the winter of 1996, just before Pittman arrived, the company was dubbed America on Hold because its servers couldn't handle the dial-up volume. But AOL invested heavily in fail-safe server technology and launched a massive marketing effort. "I've seen this movie a lot," says Case, who recently bought an additional 1 million shares of stock at $24 a share, after selling twice that amount early last year at a significantly higher price. "I kind of like being the underdog again. That's when we've always done our best work."

    The situation is serious enough, however, that Case says he will rely more heavily on his founding fraternity to set the company right. AOL's cash cow is its 26 million U.S. subscribers, most of whom pay $23.90 a month for AOL's dial-up service. Almost half of that subscription revenue represents pure profit. But the U.S. dial-up market is already close to 60% saturation and isn't expected to hit 70% before 2005. AOL subscriber growth this year is estimated to drop to about 10%, just a third of its torrid pace in 1999.

    The AOL division's long-term-growth gambit is to attract as many of its dial-up customers as possible into the promised land of broadband, where they would pay more--eventually as much as $200 a month, in Pittman's rosy scenario--for a variety of on-demand services, from wireless instant messaging to the ability to listen to Norah Jones or watch A Beautiful Mind anytime they like.

    But delivering those services--and doing so at a profit--is proving a vastly more complex business proposition than anyone imagined. As the ongoing battle over music and video downloads suggests (think Napster), success in a broadband world requires solving complex questions about copyrights and digital encryption. Few executives, even at AOL Time Warner's movie and music divisions, are ready to open their treasure troves to the threat of piracy in an online, on-demand world. The broadband business also requires AOL to pay a cable or DSL provider for access to the pipes that reach customers' homes--at least in the 80% of the U.S. where Time Warner Cable doesn't control the cable systems--and to figure out a way to share additional revenues with a disparate array of partners. Such deals have become especially imperative since December, when AOL Time Warner lost out to Comcast in the bidding for AT&T's 14 million cable customers.

    All this adds up to a grim reality: until AOL can offer easy access to premium content such as movies and music on demand, not enough customers will pay even the $55 a month it charges today for its broadband service. Those who do--the early adopters--are actually cutting into AOL profits. Every time one of its dial-up customers shifts to broadband, the AOL service goes from a nearly 40% profit margin to one potentially as low as 10%--mainly because it has to share broadband revenue with cable partners.

    Can Pittman put AOL back on track? His appointment was lauded among employees who view him as an impassioned leader with a down-home style that reflects his Southern roots and a long stint in the music business. (After an early spell in radio, Pittman went on to found MTV and VH1 and did a stint at Time Warner before joining real estate firm Century 21.) He flies his own jet and has houses in New York, Colorado and Jamaica. But unlike many other AOL millionaires who spend more time with their toys than at the office, Pittman is committed to the company (although his wife Veronique and their two young children were not thrilled that he will be working two jobs, one of them in Virginia).

    Both Parsons and Pittman have insisted that AOL's troubles are not as dramatic as the headlines suggest. Growth may have slowed, but it hasn't vanished. Pittman has told AOL division staff members to refocus on the service's core mission, "figuring out what's important to people and how to make it more convenient for them to do that online."

    But his immediate priority is to attract more advertising. If it weren't for the $130 million that AOL's sister divisions plowed into promoting their brands on the service during the fourth quarter, ad revenue would have plunged 26% instead of just 7%. In fact, AOL Time Warner is one of its own biggest advertisers. Many of the New Economy companies that used to advertise on the AOL service are either bankrupt or close to it. And although consumers are spending more and more time and money on the Internet, Fortune 500 companies and their agencies remain doubtful of the impact of online ads.

    AOL executives say that by using its online network to build buzz for such hugely successful Warner Bros. films as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the AOL service has proved its worth. Likewise, AOL's revamped music channel--one of its hottest content areas, drawing 9 million visitors a month--is fast becoming a key promotional vehicle in the record business..

    But to draw more advertising, the AOL division is going to have to change its notorious our-way-or-the-highway culture. The AOL service's business partners, suppliers and advertisers trade stories of sitting around tables listening to AOL executives yammer on about who is wealthier or has a nicer private jet. To his credit, Schuler had started an effort to inject a little humility. One might expect that a battered stock price had already done that. "They're still copping attitude and alienating people," says an ad executive. Managers at a telecom giant found AOL so uncompromising on a recent contract that they are shopping their business elsewhere.

    For all its troubles, the AOL service, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the media giant's cash flow, is a global leader whose 34 million subscribers dwarf the 8 million of its nearest competition, Microsoft's MSN. None of AOL's competitors offers a service that so successfully combines simple e-mail, instant messaging and chat. And no one matches AOL's unique system of parental controls, which makes it the family service of choice. But to keep its user base growing, AOL has been giving away more subscriptions--one reason its revenue per user has stayed flat, despite last year's $2 price increase. Kelly maintains that the trial offers are worthwhile because nearly three-quarters stay on as full-paying members.

    Though AOL says its members have never been happier with the service, independent surveys show that dissatisfaction is on the rise. In one by the Yankee Group, a Boston, Mass., research firm, AOL fared worse than the industry as a whole at "providing value for the money." Last fall, in a Consumer Reports look at Internet service providers, AOL came in last in connection reliability, far behind leaders EarthLink and AT&T WorldNet. To many, AOL seems more and more like a carnival barker, flashing pop-up ads in their faces. Pittman last week indicated to colleagues that he considers the pop-up ads out of control and will move quickly to fix the problem.

    AOL believes it can still count on users' loyalty. Plans are in the works to further segment AOL, so that "professional" subscribers would get more features for their money, while the budget-conscious would pay less. And AOL will soon introduce a variety of multi-user family packages. But so far, at least, subscriber "stickiness" may have less to do with satisfaction than with complacency. As Standard & Poor's analyst Scott Kessler puts it, "Nobody wants to change their e-mail address." The competition is working hard to get those AOL subscribers. Microsoft, which banished AOL from its Windows XP desktop last summer, is investing heavily in new features for its MSN service and generally getting good reviews.

    To help turn things around, the AOL service has forged a few promising partnerships with hardware and software powerhouses, including Sony and Apple. Online retailer Amazon has contracted to provide AOL with its powerful shopping search technology, beginning this fall. But AOL hasn't yet made the most crucial kind of deal--with another cable provider. After investing billions to upgrade infrastructure, rival cable providers aren't ready to hand over their lucrative customer relationships. AOL will soon enjoy access to all of Time Warner Cable's 13 million homes, but that's less than 20% of the total market. Its high-speed service, now offered as an option on the Baby Bells DSL service and 20 of Time Warner Cable's markets, has garnered only around 500,000 paying customers, about 5% of the 10 million U.S. residential broadband users. Part of the problem is that AOL charges around $55 a month, compared with $30 to $50 for rival cable and telephone companies. Even on Time Warner's cable systems, the cheaper high-speed isp that the cable guys built before the merger, called Road Runner, has nearly 2 million customers and is reportedly still outselling AOL.

    The AOL division's quest for rapid growth overseas, meanwhile, has been slow and costly. AOL Europe lost $600 million last year, even as AOL was forced by contractual obligation to buy out the 50% stake in that business owned by German media giant Bertelsmann. The price--$7 billion--had been set at the height of the Internet bubble and represents about twice what the Bertelsmann stake is worth today.

    That sort of liability is just part of a debt burden that, combined with the current ad recession, hampers AOL Time Warner's ability to pay for new cable assets or another TV network. In fact, analysts are concerned that its balance sheet may put the company at a disadvantage when competitors like Microsoft are hoarding cash to fight tomorrow's new media battles.

    Throughout AOL Time Warner, morale is slipping along with the stock price. People gossip about Pittman's stock sales--he sold 1.5 million shares last year for $70 million and now holds only about 13,000--and wonder how he will handle two full-time jobs. Company sources say there may be more executive moves as early as May, when Parsons formally succeeds Levin; while some speculate that if Pittman is successful he could be back at corporate full-time in a matter of months, others say that if he can't show progress at AOL by year-end, he may leave the company altogether.

    For his part, Steve Case is confident in his former deputy and their joint vision. "The AOL business is still the crown jewel in the AOL Time Warner portfolio," Case says. "It will surprise the world yet again by raising the bar and inspiring imagination."

  • Sheesh, take an accounting class or something!

    Check out page #44:
    http://www.aoltimewarner.com/investors/annua l_repo rts/pdf/2001ar.pdf

    Basically the FASB 'used' to allow for amortization (e.g. 'writing-off') good-will over a period of many, many years (40 I think). Remember that goodwill basically is an asset on a purchaser's balance sheet and has the value of the excess paid over the net worth of the purchased company. That is to say if AOL paid $100B for Time Warner and all of Time Warner's assets etc. added up only accounted for $46B then the 'excess' paid would be goodwill (stuff like trademarks, that stupid Road Runner 'beep beep', other intangibles, etc.).

    Naturally almost every buyout includes that sort of thing. Before the accounting change, however, this excess paid (goodwill) would be written off as an expense over a period of 40 years. However, the new accounting change by the FASB says "No more!", so now AOL/Time-Warner must write off the ENTIRE amount. Again, this is a NON-CASH write-off and says NOTHING to the value of Time Warner, AOL, etc. -- if we were going on past FASB declaration this $54 billion would have been written off over a number of years anyway -- and no one would've cared.

    But, since it is the largest 'loss' by a company in US history everyone is jumping on it as some sort of a monumental failure. Granted AOL probably overpaid, but traditionally this overpay was smoothed out over the amortization period. Now they had to take it all at once, but to say that somehow the merger should have 'never taken place' or that AOL is now '1/3rd the company it was' is pretty wrong.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday April 30, 2002 @01:12AM (#3434035) Homepage
    There's so much nonstandard material in their financial statement that my financial statement parser can't parse it properly. [downside.com] Trying to make sense of it manually is also tough. This is one of the most confusing financial statements I've encountered. They have columns labelled "Historical" and "Pro forma" in the main balance sheet in their SEC filing. They have something called a "backlog securitization facility", which sounds like something Enron would have tried. AOL used to capitalize the costs of AOL disks, until the SEC made them stop. Now they seem to be capitalizing something else. There's other wierd stuff, too.

    The press release touts "Normalized EBIDTA" instead of net income, always a bad sign.

    I have no idea what's really going on with this company. I doubt that anybody else on the outside does, either. There's too much "creative financing" involved.

  • As much as I would love to gloat at the incompetence of two evil corporate giants like AOL and Time Warner, did anyone else feel uneasy about reading a scathing analysis of the financial fortunes of one corporate juggernaut from a news source that is owned by another corporate juggernaut that is in direct competition with it? The tone of the article seemed rather smug and self-serving -- even by Fox News standards.

An elephant is a mouse with an operating system.