LA QUINTA, Calif. --
AOL Time Warner
has been downplaying speculation lately that the company's
unit will soon raise subscription rates.
But on Thursday, CEO Gerald Levin gave investors and users plenty of reason to wonder about rates in a keynote address at the
Goldman Sachs Technology Investment Symposium
Speaking to issues of a slowing economy, Levin said that the company's ability to raise prices could actually increase during a recession, because people need more information in those times.
"Our experience has been that retention is better in subscriptions when you have this kind of environment," Levin said. "That means that you have pricing flexibility. And the ability to monetize
those subscriptions is even stronger."
Levin referred to his company's ability to raise prices no less than four times during his approximately 40 minute talk, in which he also said, "We are in or about to enter the golden age of media and technology."
Speculation arose recently about AOL's prices currently $21.95 per month when
analyst Henry Blodget wrote a recent report about the possibility. (
Adam Lashinsky started
writing about the possibility last October.) Market observers have pointed to price increases as one way for AOL Time Warner to fend off a slower advertising market. At AOL's recent analysts' event, Chairman Steve Case said that while an AOL rate increase was possible, its timing would be "not smart" so soon after the merger of AOL and Time Warner, which closed in January.
But Levin seemed eager to float the idea of rising subscription prices on many of his company's offerings in front of influential analysts and investors here. Levin said that the company's 130 million subscribers for magazines, Internet access and cable television -- were the most valuable asset at the firm, and one that could make it lots of money.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a
magazine subscription or an
subscription or an AOL subscription or a
subscription," Levin said. "I have pricing flexibility to change my prices. I can upsell and cross sell and create premium services, and my intention is to create for the Street a valuation profile that builds on these 130 million subscriptions. In addition to suggesting we should command a premium multiple, operating these subscriptions in that way has enormous upside."
Levin acknowledged the skepticism that's been prevalent at this conference when companies have admitted to a slowing economy while simultaneously claiming immunity to it. But then he went and did exactly that.
"I know you hear form everyone that they're recession resilient," Levin said. "But these magazines and these brands are recession resistant rocks. There's nothing else like it."
He prefaced that by saying, "The subscriptions don't happen overnight, but once they're there, they become part of someone's habit structure."
During bad times, consumers not only need more information, but also they need to be entertained more, too, Levin claimed. At least, that's what slow economic periods showed the old Time Warner in the past.
"We have a lot of data because if I just take the cable subscription side I can go back to 1990-91, or on the magazine side 1973-74, but essentially, what happens is the value perception of
the information increases," Levin said. "It means that whatever
consumers are doing that day in the form of information, but also in the form of entertainment, if things are getting darker, they do it even more so."
At AOL Time Warner, then, bad times are really good. Soon, it may get a chance to prove that.