It wasn't just the deal of the century, it was the deal of the new millennium: When America Online announced it was merging with Time Warner only 10 days into 2000, the world's newest and suddenly largest media goliath was hailed as the entertainment and communications entity of the future.
Three years later, the high-flying stock price that allowed new-media upstart AOL to swallow old-media behemoth Time Warner has collapsed along with the Internet bubble. From the beginning, know-it-all AOL executives had chafed the old guard of Time Warner, causing cultural clashes. Embittered Time Warner employees watched their company stock options become worthless as the stock crashed. Some now wonder whether "AOL" will soon be removed from the company name.
The astounding arc of AOL Time Warner is recounted in "The Big Heist: How AOL Took Time Warner," tonight at 9 on CNBC. It's hosted by David Faber, a reporter for the all-business cable network, which has seen its own fortunes rise and fall with Wall Street's.
The one-hour special, which includes interviews from media moguls Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner, never quite makes the case that AOL stole anything from Time Warner. Instead it paints the picture of Time Warner's chief executive, Gerald Levin, as a willing bride eager to marry Steve Case, boyish head of Dulles-based AOL, who was looking to get hitched himself.
Each had something the other wanted. Case coveted the "hard assets" of Time Warner -- the Warner Bros. film and studio properties, more than 100 Time Inc. magazines, HBO and its Turner Broadcasting, which included CNN, TNT and TBS. He dreamed of selling their programming on the Internet, through AOL.
Levin, the man who created HBO, was always searching for the next big deal that would transform the industry. After two costly and failed Time Warner attempts to move his company into the digital age -- one on cable and the other via the Internet -- he realized he needed an established Internet company. Enter AOL.
Possibly because the AOL Time Warner carcass has been so picked over in business publications during the past year, the special contains no news bombshells. Instead it does a serviceable job of bringing the lay viewer up to speed on what's happened to the biggest merger in U.S. history. And it does carry some surprising admissions from powerful media players who say that the enormous scope of the $165 billion deal spurred them to take hasty action.
"I didn't want to be the last one to the altar," says Edgar Bronfman Jr., who executed an ill-advised merger of his Universal motion picture and music businesses with France's Vivendi in response to the AOL Time Warner marriage.
The assertion that the AOL Time Warner megadeal was hammered out the weekend before it was announced -- and without the input of top Time Warner executives -- makes the union seem as much like a Levin vanity project as a viable merger. "Who did Napoleon talk to before he invaded Russia?" asks John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media Corp.
Perhaps the most telling quote about the vicissitudes of Wall Street comes from Richard Beattie, lead attorney for AOL in the merger. Asked by Faber whether at any time during the discussions the deal met with opposition -- even with anyone saying, "I don't get this" -- Beattie responds: "Of all the people I spoke to . . . I don't think I heard anyone say that."