October 26, 2005 10:14 pm

Time Warner board to discuss AOL future

Time Warner’s board of directors will hold crucial discussions about AOL’s future at a meeting on Thursday, focusing on whether to partner with Microsoft or Google, although a final decision is not expected immediately.

People briefed on AOL’s talks with potential suitors said a number of companies, including Yahoo, had approached the internet division of Time Warner about a possible tie-up, but “serious discussions” continued only with Microsoft and Google at this stage.

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The Time Warner board, which was recently criticised for its record by Carl Icahn, the activist shareholder who is pressing the media company to increase share buy-backs and spin off its cable business, is not expected to make a decision on AOL’s future for a number of weeks.

“There are very robust conversations going on with Microsoft and Google,” said a person familiar with the talks. “But any decision to pursue a deal with one or other is something that, at this stage, will not be decided for a few more weeks.”

Comcast, the US cable company, could be part of a Google bid for a stake in AOL. Time Warner and AOL declined to comment on the talks.

The interest in AOL marks a shift in sentiment towards the internet business, which has switched its focus to concentrate on building an advertising-driven portal to capture a share of the growing internet advertising
market.

AOL, which merged with Time Warner at the height of the internet bubble five years ago, continues to generate most of its cash from its traditional internet dial-up access business but this area is declining and less valuable than the advertising business.

Dick Parsons, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner, has recently stressed that he believes AOL is key to creating value at Time Warner and that unlocking this value is his top priority. Talks with Microsoft are believed to centre on forming a joint venture, whereas talks with Google are focused around selling a stake in AOL.

Other items on the board’s agenda include whether or not to increase Time Warner’s planned $5bn share buy-back programme.

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