Time Warner plans to split up the internet access and audience businesses of its AOL segment to run each independently, Time Warner CEO and President Jeff Bewkes revealed on Wednesday.
The move comes as little surprise, as former CEO Dick Parsons acknowledged in September that Time Warner would at some point divest itself from the AOL access business, although he made no commitment to do so at the time.
On Bewkes' first quarterly financial conference call Wednesday since taking his position as CEO on January 1, he said Time Warner's plans to split AOL's businesses will help hasten the segment's business-model transition from "a declining ISP subscription business to a growing internet-ad business".
"This should significantly increase AOL's strategic options for each of these main business sectors," Bewkes said on a call to reveal Time Warner's fourth-quarter 2007 earnings. He made a distinction between AOL's paid-for internet-access service and its ad-supported audience business, which includes AOL's online services and content.
Bewkes did not give a specific timeline or other details for when and how the split will occur. AOL's internet-access business, which still provides for-fee service, continues to decline in subscribers even as Bewkes noted that Time Warner has reduced operating expenses at AOL by "well over a billion dollars".
Still, even as AOL's goal is to become a viable online advertising competitor against Google, Yahoo and Microsoft - the latter two of which may soon become a single and more formidable rival - advertising revenue for AOL has been growing less than the industry average for several quarters.
In the fourth quarter, ad revenue at AOL grew 18 percent, less than the current International Advertising Bureau's industry average of 25 percent. As a point of comparison, Google's ad revenue grew 51 percent in its fiscal fourth quarter.
AOL's ad revenue growth was below industry average for both its 2007 second and third quarters as well. It grew 13 percent in the third quarter, which ended on September 30, and 16 percent in the second quarter, which ended on June 30. The industry average was around 26 percent for those time periods.
Time Warner's financial results for the quarter overall met Wall Street expectations, but net income was down for the quarter. The company reported $1.03bn, or $0.28 a share, for the fourth quarter, down from $1.75bn, or $0.44, last year. However, the results for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2006 were bolstered by an income-tax benefit as well as income from the sale of AOL internet access businesses in the UK and France.
Quarterly revenue rose 2.4 percent, from $12.34bn in the year-ago quarter to $12.64bn, reported on Wednesday.
Bewkes on Wednesday also outlined other cost-cutting and strategic measures that Time Warner plans to take to make the business run more effectively. The company's AOL business is not the only one that will be affected; the company also is considering reducing its investments in its Time Warner Cable business, he said.
(Juan Carlos Perez in Miami contributed to this report.)