In January 2000, America Online and Time Warner announced the largest merger in U.S. history, a deal that would create the biggest media company in the world. It was celebrated as the marriage of new media and old media, a potent combination of the nation's No. 1 Internet company and the country's leading entertainment giant, the owner of such internationally renowned brands as Warner Bros., HBO, CNN, and Time magazine.
But only three years later, nearly all the top executives behind the merger had resigned, the company had lost tens of billions of dollars in market value, and the U.S. government had begun two investigations into its business dealings.
How did the deal of the century become an epic disaster?
Alec Klein has covered AOL Time Warner for The Washington Post since the merger. His reporting on the company led to investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Stealing Time, he takes readers behind the scenes to show how a clash of cultures set the stage for a spectacular corporate collapse. AOL's Steve Case knew it was only a matter of time before the Internet bubble of the late 1990s would burst, grounding his high-flying company. His solution: Buy another company to keep his own aloft. Meanwhile, Time Warner's Jerry Levin was enamored of new technology but frustrated by his inability to push his far-flung media empire into the Internet age. AOL and Time Warner seemed like a perfect match.
But the government forced the two companies to make concessions, and during the yearlong negotiations technology stocks tumbled. AOL executives lorded it over their Time Warner counterparts, who felt they were being acquired by brash, young interlopers with inflated dollars. The AOL way was fast, loose, and aggressive, and Time Warner executives -- schooled in more genteel business practices -- rebelled. In the midst of clashing cultures and conflicting management styles, AOL's business slowed and then stalled. Worse yet, AOL came under government scrutiny, and when the company conducted its own internal investigation, it admitted that it had improperly booked at least $190 million in revenue. The Time Warner rebellion gathered momentum.
This is a riveting story of ambition, hubris, and greed set amid the boom-and-bust years of the technology bubble. It is filled with outsized personalities -- Steve Case, Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, Ted Turner, and many more. Based on hundreds of confidential company documents and interviews with key players in this unfolding drama, Stealing Time is a fascinating tale of the swift rise and even swifter fall of AOL Time Warner.
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Simon & Schuster
June 05, 2003
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Excerpt from Stealing Time by Alec Klein
Steve Case was blabbering on.
Or so thought some of the restless executives assembled in a conference room at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, the lofty Manhattan headquarters of the most powerful media company in the world.
It was the spring of 2002, and AOL Time Warner Inc. was descending into financial disarray. But Case, the company chairman, was still enamored of the unfulfilled promise of the $112 billion marriage of America Online and Time Warner, the largest merger in U.S. history.
The new company, barely a year old, boasted a staggering array of global brands on the newsstands, at the movie theaters, on television. Millions experienced the common denominator of life by reading its magazines, Time, People, and Sports Illustrated among them. Its movie studios regularly tossed off blockbusters like Harry Potter. From CNN to HBO, its cable programming extended across the far reaches of Earth, shaping public opinion and entrancing viewers. It even owned Mad magazine.
AOL Time Warner was an inescapable force: The Internet division, operating in seventeen countries in eight languages across Europe, Latin America, and Asia, counted more than thirty-four million on-line subscribers. Combined, AOL and Time Warner products and services reached consumers three billion times a month.
With all of this, Case argued, how could the company go awry
Internet-driven America Online, the Virginia company he helped build two decades ago, would inject new life into seventy-nine-year-old Time Warner, the esteemed New York media and entertainment company he had taken over. The two companies would work together to forge a future when technology merged with media, creating unimagined consumer products, like television, only better. Convergence, he called it. One side of the corporate house would fuel the growth of the other. The buzzword: synergy. America Online would promote Warner Bros. movies. Time Inc. magazines would sell America Online subscriptions. AOL would tout new albums by Warner Music Group artists, like Madonna and Jewel. The potential for what he believed was the media company of the twenty-first century was limitless.
Except for one thing: Somebody forgot to tell Case the dance was over.
Jeff Bewkes, the HBO chairman and chief executive, could not contain himself any longer.
"I'm tired of this," he erupted, glaring at Case. "This is bullshit. The only division that's not performing is yours. Every one of us is growing, making the numbers. The only problem in this construct is AOL."