AOL Time Warner ( AOL), which has recently pulled back from predictions of spectacular synergies, reported results Wednesday morning that edged past its scaled-back expectations. For the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, the company said that earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization -- a common bottom-line yardstick for media firms -- grew to $2.8 billion, up 14% from the fourth quarter of 2000 and slightly better than the company's early January forecast of $2.7 billion.
"Adjusted diluted cash earnings per share" -- the earnings-per-share stand-in used by AOL Time Warner and the sell-side analysts who follow the company -- exactly met expectations of 33 cents, as surveyed by Thomson Financial/First Call, up from 28 cents a year ago. Revenue grew 4% year-over-year to $10.6 billion, better than the $10.5 billion the company told analysts to expect. AOL Time Warner said subscription revenue increased 16% to $4.4 billion year-over-year, and content and other revenue increased 4% to $4 billion. Advertising and commerce revenue declined 14% to $2.2 billion. AOL Time Warner's publicized EBITDA and EPS numbers exclude certain one-time charges of $45 million in pretax merger-related costs and a pretax writeoff of $1.7 billion reflecting "other-than-temporary declines" in the value of the company's investments in Time Warner Telecom ( TWTC) and DirecTV marketer Hughes Electronics ( GMH). The company had warned analysts of about $50 million in merger-related costs and $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion in writedowns. The company defines adjusted diluted cash earnings per share as pretax income excluding noncash amortization expense, after subtracting cash paid for taxes and ignoring merger-related costs and other one-time charges. Including all expenses and charges, AOL Time Warner reported a loss of $1.8 billion, or 41 cents a share, larger than a net loss of $1.1 billion, or 25 cents a share, in the fourth quarter of 2000. On Tuesday, AOL's shares fell $1.20, or 4.3%, to close at $26.70, a new 52-week low for the firm. The stock has fallen more than 16% after the company guided down estimates on Jan. 7 in a move that surprised few, if any, analysts following the company. In early premarket trading on Wednesday, the company's shares changed hands at $26.60. For full-year 2001, the company is reporting EBITDA of $9.9 billion, up 18% from pro forma figures for 2000. That's not bad on an absolute basis, but well below the $11 billion EBITDA figure that the company had long forecast for its first year of operation following the January 2001 merger of America Online and Time Warner. The company officially scaled back full-year expectations in late September. On Wednesday, the company reiterated the 2002 forecasts it made earlier this month: Building off a new set of 2001 pro forma numbers, the company expects first-quarter revenue and EBITDA to be "essentially flat" with year-ago levels. For the full year, the company expects revenue growth of 5%-8% and EBITDA growth of 8%-12%. Those numbers exclude an expected writedown of goodwill of $40 billion to $60 billion slated for the first quarter.