The Internet bubble is long gone, but AOL talk continues to dominate the agenda at Time Warner ( TWX). The New York media giant is due to post third-quarter earnings Wednesday morning. With investors tapping their collective foot, Time Warner's board met last Thursday to discuss America Online. A decision on AOL's strategic course isn't imminent, according to sources, but a new heading could be set within weeks. In the meantime, the company's slow growth continues to elicit groans. Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expect Time Warner to post earnings of 18 cents a share on $10.38 billion in revenue. That points to year-over-year revenue growth of just 4.2% and compares with a year-ago profit of 15 cents a share on revenue of just under $10 billion. "Third quarter results should mark the fifth consecutive quarter of single-digit (or worse) growth with every segment (ex networks) growing below double digits," said Goldman Sachs analyst Anthony Noto in a recent research note. Noto links Time Warner's soft numbers and the AOL decision, saying, "We continue to believe that the greatest swing factor for valuation is turning AOL into a growth business, which has limited visibility." Surprising just about everyone, AOL has in the past two months reversed its long fade into oblivion by emerging as the most sought-after property on the Internet. The company's cash cow dial-up business has been bleeding subscribers for years, but its string of online Internet Web sites has made AOL the favored partner of big rivals. Since September, AOL has held talks with Comcast ( CMCSA) and Google ( GOOG), Microsoft ( MSFT) and Yahoo! ( YHOO), as various players admire the company's vast reach and others seek simply to play spoiler to some of their foes. Last week, Time Warner
signed AOL chief Jon Miller to a new three-year contract. Under Miller's leadership, AOL's reputation has improved with investors, gaining advertising dollars as companies shift their spending online. AOL's second-quarter advertising sales rose 45% to $320 million. The unit also has put online many of the features that were once available only to AOL members. An advertising campaign for AOL.com began last month. On Monday, AOL's founder, Steve Case, left the Time Warner board , saying he wanted to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest with his new health-care venture, the modestly named Revolution.
One shareholder who has had enough of Time Warner's weak growth is the newly activist-minded Carl Icahn. He and his hedge fund buddies have banded together to take a decent-size stake in Time Warner with the stated intention of forcing management to do something and get the stock restarted. Where Icahn and backers such as SAC Capital have advocated a complete cable unit spinoff and a $20 billion buyback, CEO Dick Parsons has counseled patience for management's more measured plan, which would give shareholders 16% of Time Warner Cable and a $5 billion repurchase. The various to-dos have been both good news and bad in Time Warner's executive suites. On the one hand, the company now confronts a growing list of weighty decisions. On the other, says Noto, "News flow on Mr. Icahn's efforts as well as the various strategic alternatives for AOL are overshadowing TWX's sub-par growth." As always, Time Warner's results will hinge largely on cable gains. Analysts expect Time Warner Cable will show solid numbers. Noto expects the unit to show 9.4% growth in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, reaching $902 million. He sees basic cable subs being flat, but he expects Time Warner to show strong growth in high-speed digital subs for the quarter. Noto projects 195,000 new-user additions there. Filmed entertainment has weathered a tough box-office period relatively well, cashing in on three releases that met or exceeded expectations: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins and Wedding Crashers. Each cleared the $200 million hurdle at the domestic box office. Though the division faces tough comps with last year, the scene is expected to improve in the fourth quarter, when the studio releases the latest Harry Potter installment. Warner Home Video says it has outperformed the industry, grabbing a 19.1% share of sales. Time Warner Cable and General Electric's ( GE) NBC Universal Cable inked a renewal deal for USA Network, and a carriage agreement for Universal HD, mun2, Telemundo Puerto Rico and video on demand. Time Warner Cable will also include NBC and NBCU programming as part of its Start Over service when launched later this year, allowing customers to restart shows in progress. On Monday, Time Warner rose 25 cents to $18.