Here at The Motley Fool, we believe individual investors should have the same access to information that Wall Street has. In that spirit, we've listened in on some investment-bank conferences with major companies and are giving you the rundown. We call this feature "Fool on the Street."
Can a company lose its soul? As media companies face an increasing onslaught of disruptive forces, Time Warner
In opening the discussion, Bear Stearns' representative asked Bewkes about how media companies' economic models might adapt to remain vibrant in a world of changing technologies. Given his responses, I'm not sure I'm sold on Bewkes' vision of the future.
When you think of Time Warner, you probably envision its well-known brands in media content and distribution. However, I got the nagging impression that Time Warner may be losing sight of its content roots. Traditional media companies and its revenue-fueling advertising obviously go hand in hand. But media firms increasingly risk losing sight of consumers' wishes, and alienating them with a glut of advertising, in pursuit of a heftier bottom line.
During a discussion about AOL, Bear Stearns' representative asked what such portal sites can bring to customers going forward. After all, most people now know how to navigate the Internet without portals' assistance, and it stands to reason that they'll continue to branch out further in the future. The question is especially intriguing, because it relates to one reason why AOL lost its cool: Many people stopped needing the service's "Internet training wheels" to guide them around the World Wide Web.
I'm not sure whether Bewkes got confused about exactly which "customer" the representative meant, but I thought his response seemed to ignore average users.
His discussion of "functionality" initially made sense from an average user's point of view. But he then started talking about now-hot sites like Google's
So what? Internet users may want well-constructed, useful sites, but they don't care if a site doesn't deliver "monetization." In fact, they may often prefer it. I suppose Bewkes may have also been referring to studying users' behavior to better adapt to their needs, but given the potential privacy issues involved, that seems a risky endeavor.
I was hoping for more detail on how AOL plans to keep Internet users excited for the decade to come. Although Wall Street is obviously interested in how Internet companies will make money, they're also interested in how many users will want those services to begin with. YouTube users aren't flocking to the site for its banner ads -- though they may hit the site for clips from an especially clever ad campaign. Garmin's
Time Warner's brand awareness
Granted, Time Warner seems to understand the various ways it can use its powerful brands: Time Inc., Warner Bros., AOL, New Line Cinema, and a slew of cable networks, including TNT, TBS, CNN, and Cartoon Network.
For example, the Adult Swim division of Cartoon Network has found success in broadcasting late-night shows designed for 15-to-30-year olds, a difficult demographic for advertisers to reach. For younger viewers, Cartoon Network provides online games -- another good example of ways Time Warner can cater to niche audiences with ancillary content.
Consider also CNN, which has woven its TV and Internet offerings into an interlocking web of content. Bewkes also highlighted the People magazine empire; its Web site garners 5 million to 6 million unique visitors every month, and 350 million to 375 million page views. With 41 million households reading the print version on a monthly basis, most of these readers aren't even in the digital system yet. Time Warner might also establish related online communities to further strengthen these brands.
Bewkes also discussed Time Warner's innovations in program scheduling, in an attempt to give consumers what they want, when they want it. Time Warner, like other TV network owners, has begun to notice that viewers prefer to watch their favorite shows on their own schedule, rather than being bound by traditional broadcast times. Bewkes also dismissed advertisers' fears that viewers may fast-forward through commercials, suggesting that when people hit the fast-forward button on their DVRs, they're still exposed to a quick blip of the ad, akin to a billboard.
Time (Warner) marches on
I understand that content and advertising have become intertwined in media companies' fates and business models. But I felt that Bewkes discussion of the company's future plans highlighted a problem, not a solution. I'm concerned that Time Warner views itself as more of a marketing vehicle than a media company.
In the real world, consumers don't care whether advertising helps fund the services they use -- unless it becomes heavy-handed or annoying, in which case their DVR remotes' "fast forward" buttons may get a workout. Consumers are primarily concerned with content and services that matter to them. Nowadays, those things can be found in many places, beyond the traditional establishment of major networks, publishing houses, movie studios, and such.
Maybe Time Warner's got a lot more up its sleeve than its presentation implied. But if I were a shareholder, I'd want to see more ways Time Warner plans to innovate, and less of an obsession with advertising. While the company's brands may be strong for now, it may have long way to go in developing creative new strategies to counteract the disruptive influences of an increasingly digital and user-defined world.
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