AOL ad surprise to bolster Time Warner results

Seems the boom in Internet advertising has finally reached America Online.

NEW YORK--Fears of another costly buying spree and a looming Securities and Exchange Commission probe have clouded Time Warner earnings over the past few quarters.

But when the media conglomerate reports second-quarter results on Wednesday, Wall Street will look for good news from an unlikely source--AOL.

The world's largest online service is expected to report double-digit percentage gains in advertising revenue to about $200 million, up from $179 million in the comparable year-earlier quarter, its first gain in three years.

"The question is how strong will Internet advertising, which is expected to increase year-over-year, be?" said Richard Greenfield, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners. "It's something it hasn't done in 10-plus quarters."

AOL has watched on the sidelines as online advertising sales roared back at a rate unseen since the days of the dot-com boom.

Media buyers Universal McCann expects online advertising to rise 20 percent this year to $6.78 billion. A recent Jupiter Research report forecast online ad sales would surpass sales at magazines by 2008.

Sales at competitors Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN have reflected this upswing. Yahoo doubled its net profits in the first two quarters of the year, thanks largely to ad sales.

Now, AOL is finally catching up, analysts say.

"They should mimic the growth rates experienced by MSN and Yahoo," said Paul Kim, an analyst at Tradition Asiel.

Ad sales comparisons have been difficult, executives have said, because the company has been working through a backlog of multiyear ad deals. AOL has said in prior quarters that about $200 million in long-term contracts remain to be booked as revenue.

The company has also made strides in attracting new advertisers since updating software this spring to conform with Web HTML standards. AOL had in the past been limited by its proprietary software, which placed restrictions on the types of ads it could display.

In June, AOL agreed to buy online marketing company for $435 million as part of a company-wide plan to take a larger piece of the online ad pie, executives said at the time.

Early signs for the quarter look optimistic.

"Premium inventory is beginning to sell out months in advance and CPMs (cost per thousand views) have been rising quickly," said Douglas Michelson, an analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities, referring to AOL's advertising space and rates in a recent report.

Some analysts cautioned sales could actually be down slightly on a sequential basis, due in part to the seasonal slow summer quarter. AOL posted ad revenue of $214 million in the first quarter.

This is just a drop in the bucket for a global media conglomerate, which is expected to turn up more than $10 billion in quarterly revenue. Still, bullish analysts and many investors are hoping to find any clues of a recovery at the service, which lost about 2.2 million members to less-expensive rivals and higher-speed offerings elsewhere in 2003.

AOL is expected to lose nearly a million more dial-up subscribers in the quarter, which will be offset by expectations that it will add about 400,000 new members to its high-speed offering.

"Will that mute any concerns around subscriber numbers? I think it will," said Greenfield, referring to a potential ad sales surprise.

Time Warner is expected to post second quarter earnings per share of 15 cents, on revenue of $10.44 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

Analysts expect profits in the quarter to be driven by gains in ad sales at its cable networks and a more tempered rise in new high speed Internet customers at its cable service operations.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.

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