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Time Warner drops AOL name
Board of No. 1 media company votes to drop AOL from front of name; stock symbol changing.
September 18, 2003: 3:33 PM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The board of AOL Time Warner Inc. voted Thursday to drop "AOL" from its name, closing a chapter in the rocky marriage of two disparate companies joined in a 2001 merger.

The world's largest media company said the move was meant to better reflect the range of its businesses, which include movie studios, cable television, magazine and book publishing, music and America Online. CNN/Money is also a unit of the company.

"We believe that our new name better reflects the portfolio of our valuable businesses and ends any confusion between our corporate name and the America Online brand name for our investors, partners and the public," CEO Richard Parsons said in a statement.

Parsons said the New York-based company would also again use the "TWX" symbol of the old Time Warner rather than the current "AOL" symbol. Parsons told CNNfn, another unit of the company, that the change in name would take several months to accomplish.

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The board of AOL Time Warner Inc. voted to drop AOL from its name. CNNfn's Mary Snow reports.

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The change has been anticipated since last month, when America Online CEO Jonathan Miller told employees he wanted the parent company to shed the name to help rebuild the AOL brand and distance it from its parent's woes.

Investors see little change

Some investors and analysts said earlier this week that they saw relatively little change for the fortunes of the company or its stock due to a simple name change.

"From a fundamental basis, which is 99.9 percent of what we care about, it makes no difference," said Henry Berghoef, director of research at Harris Associates, which owns 42 million shares of the company's stock primarily in its Oakmark funds. "I'm not going out to buy more stock because of a change of name."

America Online
AOL Time Warner Incorporated
Media and Entertainment
Richard Parsons

Still, though it's not making him more bullish about the company, Berghoef sees a point to the change. "As silly as it sounds, it is healthy psychologically," he said.

Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif-Cohen, who has a "buy" recommendation on the stock, is stronger in her support of the move.

"I can't quantify it, but I think it can help," she said. "It makes clear to investors that AOL is only one division, and not the largest division."

Merrill does investment banking work for AOL Time Warner and owns more than 1 percent of its stock.

A troubled marriage of old and new media

The name and the company were formed with the 2001 purchase of old-media titan Time Warner Inc. by Internet service provider America Online.

Wall Street has generally seen the merger as a mistake, and the stock has lost about two-thirds of its value since the day before the deal, though it's well off its all-time low hit in February.

Shares of AOL Time Warner (AOL: up $0.15 to $16.46, Research, Estimates) were slightly higher Thursday.

The main architects of the merger from both sides of the company have left active management roles, though AOL co-founder Steve Case remains on the board. Most of the company's top executives, including Parsons, now come from the old Time Warner side of the company.

AOL unit faces challenges

The America Online unit faces federal probes into its accounting practices and it has been trying to reverse declining advertising revenue and the first loss of subscribers in its history, as customers are being wooed by lower-cost dial up services and higher-speed "broadband" connections to the Internet.

"We continue to be concerned with the weakness in the online business, particularly among dial-up customers," said David Mantell, an analyst at Loop Capital Markets who has a neutral rating on the stock. "A name change is nice, but does it mask the ongoing weakness? No. It's a cosmetic thing." His Chicago-based firm does not own any shares or perform any investment banking for the company.

But Mantell does not believe the name change is a sign that the company is looking to shed the America Online unit in a sale or spin-off that would essentially undo the 2001 merger.

"I don't think a name change answers the question about what the company will do," said Mantell. "It could be viewed as a preliminary step (toward a spinoff), but we don't see it portending that at this point."

Still, despite the problems at America Online, Reif-Cohen and Berghoef both say they are pleased by the changes going on at the Internet unit.

"The company had had its head in the sand regarding broadband," said Reif-Cohen. "They've developed a product for that."

One critic of the media conglomerate said Thursday that the name change did little to end concerns about concentration of media power.

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"Clearly Parsons and top management are desperate," said Jeff Chester, executive director of Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group focused on the Internet, which opposed the merger.

"Dropping the AOL from its corporate name is their version of joining a federal witness protection program where you're given a new identity. But playing the name game won't help the company. If there is such a thing as conglomerate bad karma, AOLTW is getting what it deserves."  Top of page

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