Time Warner to AOL: It’s Not Me, It’s You
Time Warner appears finally to be quitting the AOL business:
Time Warner unveiled plans Thursday to spin off AOL as an independent company, an end to the massive media marriage formed in 2001.
“We believe that a separation will be the best outcome for both Time Warner and AOL,” said Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes, in a prepared statement.
The 2001 merger between AOL and Time Warner was applauded at the time as a visionary attempt to meld old media with new media. But synergies between the two never materialized.
The whole “synergy” argument always makes me giggle, because it’s been my long-held opinion that the real reason that AOL and Time Warner ever got together in the first place was that back at the turn of the century, AOL head Steve Case realized things were going to get bad, and that if AOL were to survive, it would need a host organism to feed off of during the lean years. And look, there was Time Warner, full of rich, life-giving nutrients. Done and done. If synergy were to happen, so much the better. But in the meantime, AOL would survive. And it did. So in this respect, well done, Steve Case.
The other thing I find amusing in this is that people seem to forget that it was actually AOL who bought Time Warner, not the other way around. Survival strategy or not, it’s an interesting thing for the purchasing organization to be spun off from the company it bought. But this is what I strongly suspect Steve Case didn’t account for, which is that the executive bench strength and organizational memory of Time Warner was much stronger than it was at AOL (which changed — and changes — its executive lineup as often as some people change socks). In other words, the host organism was easily latched onto, but then exhibited some impressive antibodies. Steve Case was gone as AOL Time Warner Chairman in January 2003, the company dumped the “AOL” part from their official title and that was pretty much that in the “who’s the boss?” sweepstakes.
Bear in mind I’m not a disinterested observer here; I was employed at AOL for two years in the mid-90s (i.e., its heyday, when it was seen as the universe-eating monster Google is today — which is a cautionary tale for Google) and I was a contractor and consultant for them up until the last day of 2007. I have generally very positive feelings about the company. Yes, AOL did lay me off once, but it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, and they did keep me on as a consultant for more money and less work, so I can hardly complain about that. Aside from that a number of people we met there continue to be close friends. So, in all, AOL’s a big part of my life.
Which is why I wish it well being spun off and continuing its life out there without Time Warner stepping on its head. What would be nice would be for AOL to get back a bit of its mid-90s “what the hell, let’s just do this and see if it works” zing; it’s never going to be that company again, but then, none of us are who we used to be. It doesn’t mean that who we are now isn’t interesting (or in some ways, better). Regardless, I see AOL as a long-term survivor; it’s not for nothing that I call it out in The Android’s Dream as “Earth’s oldest and largest continually active network.” Even if I do have it owned by Quaker Oats at the time. Hey, whatever works.