Nineteen years ago, Jerry Levin led media conglomerate Time Warner Inc. into its illfated $164 billion megamerger with AOL Inc. — an ordeal that the former chief executive officer says resonates today in another tumultuous era for entertainment.
Time Warner and its HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. assets have been controlled by AT&T Inc. since an $85 billion combination last year. While Levin cautioned that his words shouldn’t be taken as advice to Randall Stephenson, his experience attempting to navigate an unwieldy new company could be instructive to the AT&T CEO.
The AOL-Time Warner merger, now seen as one of the greatest failures in M&A history, came as the rise of the internet threatened older media businesses. The catalyst nowadays is streaming, with new offerings from AT&T, Walt Disney Co., Comcast Corp. and Apple Inc. set to take on Netflix Inc. and other existing services within a year.
Heading a large company as a digital threat looms, “you know in your strategic heart that the world is changing,” Levin said in an interview. The advent of video on demand and other technological advancements was unstoppable — just like streaming today.
But “if that’s the way it’s going to happen,” Levin said, then “you’d better not only get into it real fast but redesign the existing businesses. And for me, that was the challenge.”
A public dispute between AT&T and activist investor < href="https://www.bloomberg.com/quote/978325Z:US" target="_blank">Elliott Management Corp., which has called into question Stephenson’s priorities, underscores the need to get ahead of the struggle Levin faced in revamping Time Warner’s legacy assets.
“To this day it’s not clear that all companies with a legacy business are totally in tune” with fully committing to online streaming businesses, Levin said. “And if they don’t, they’re going to have a problem.”
While streaming is the format du jour, Levin sees creating and promoting high-quality content as the ultimate key to success in the new era. “You can buy a lot of product, but you have to have a culture that believes in the ability to market something different that no one else is going to have,” he said.
Levin pointed to “Game of Thrones,” the HBO epic that just nabbed its record-tying fourth Emmy Award for best drama series
More than 17 years since stepping down after the AOL-Time Warner merger, Levin now struggles with kidney failure and Parkinson’s disease at the age of 80. His personal pains from out-of-home dialysis have motivated him to take on the role of chief missions officer at kidney-care company Dialyze Direct LLC.
Fixed on revamping the standard procedure, Levin said he is moved “to address the change that really counts.”