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Time Warner: Hiding AOL woes under Joker makeup

AOL's ad revenue is down and, unsurprisingly, it's continuing to lose subscribers. But when you can talk about The Dark Knight, it's easy to make financials sound brighter.

In an investor call Wednesday, Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes focused on the old media. You probably would have, too, if you could downplay AOL's dial-up business in favor of the late Heath Ledger's acclaimed performance in The Dark Knight.

Television and film at Time Warner are indeed beating Wall Street's expectations. The record-breaking Batman film, while its financials won't be reported until the third quarter, is on track to become the second highest-grossing movie of all time (behind 1997's Titanic). At the same time, HBO miniseries John Adams was a critically acclaimed hit, the presidential election battleground is doing great things for CNN, and TNT's original programming is succeeding.

Why so serious? Even though ad revenue on AOL's network is down, a certain summer blockbuster has meant that Time Warner has more colorful stuff to talk about. Warner Bros.

"Our goal at Time Warner is to create, package, and distribute high-quality, branded content across multiple platforms and all around the world--TV screens, computer screens, movie screens, magazine pages, anywhere that media content goes in the world," Bewkes said.

In other words, a dial-up Internet service and a cable provider are excess baggage--which is why it's chosen to hack off Time Warner Cable into a separate business and will separate the "access" and "audience" divisions of AOL." If you believe the widespread rumors, the company may be gearing up to sell one or both of them.

But, as Bewkes explained, the separation within AOL won't be completely clean. He described it as a three-way rather than two-way chop, cutting it into "access," "audience," and a "shared service group that will support both of the operating groups."

Around 604,000 people severed their AOL access subscriptions in the second quarter, a sign that the business is continuing to fade away. But on the bright side, it's the smallest subscription decline the company has seen since AOL announced its "refocus" two years ago.

"We will assess all of the options, and I think all of you have written or read about pretty much every conceivable one," Bewkes explained when asked what he would do with the access business amid speculation that he's packaging it for a sale. "One that ought to be thought about really as a benchmark, let's say...would just be operating it and seeing if the cash flow from that operation is superior to any yield we can get putting it into alignment with some of the usual suspects that they're mentioning."

The CEO said he has faith in the revamped, ad-centric AOL.

"There continue to be encouraging signs about the underlying health of the business," he said. Page views are up 6 percent year over year, there's been about a 60 percent growth in content, and recent relaunches have been a "success." He blamed some of the lag on "acquisition integration issues" and management reorganizations, referring obliquely to the handful of ad-industry acquisitions that have been rolled up into its Platform-A technology, as well as the $850 million purchase of social network Bebo. That acquisition closed in May.

Paying that much for Bebo, a teen-focused social network with a user base primarily in the U.K. and Ireland, raised some eyebrows. AOL has said that it will integrate it closely with its AIM and ICQ instant-messaging clients, and has indeed grouped the three into a "People Networks" division headed by former Bebo CEO Joanna Shields.

"Our third-party advertising business continued to deliver solid growth, even in a difficult advertising environment, which highlights the competitive position and the value of Platform-A." The ad platform is "fully integrated," he said, with once-disparate acquisitions worked into a single package for clients, and AOL has guaranteed revenue to software developers as an incentive to use it in social network applications.

Platform-A was assembled from just under a billion dollars in purchases.

But display advertising on AOL is down 14 percent, with noticeable pullbacks in industries like automotive, financial services, telecom, and travel--similar niches to the ones that have pushed the company's Time Inc. print ads down 9 percent.

Bewkes' predecessor, Richard Parsons, stepped down amid lukewarm stock performance at the beginning of the year. Thus far, Bewkes hasn't reversed that trend.

This post was last updated at 8:48 a.m. PDT.