AOL-Time Warner Merger at 10: Lessons for Today

by on January 11, 2010 · 4 comments

“It was then, and is now, the largest merger in American business history,” notes Tim Arango of the New York Times about the AOL-Time Warner mega-merger, which happen ten years this month. And yet, as he points out in his essay, “How the AOL-Time Warner Merger Went So Wrong,” things didn’t end up going so well for this marriage:

The trail of despair in subsequent years included countless job losses, the decimation of retirement accounts, investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department, and countless executive upheavals. Today, the combined values of the companies, which have been separated, is about one-seventh of their worth on the day of the merger.

To call the transaction the worst in history, as it is now taught in business schools, does not begin to tell the story of how some of the brightest minds in technology and media collaborated to produce a deal now regarded by many as a colossal mistake.

Arango goes on to interview several of the principals involved in the deal to get their take on why things unfolded so miserably and, ultimately, came to an end this year. I highly recommend the essay because it should serve as a cautionary tale to those worrywarts who are constantly predicting that the sky is going to fall if we allow a truly free media marketplace–including freedom for firms to structure themselves as they wish.  Reality usually plays out quite differently.  As I argued in my recent paper, “A Brief History of Media Merger Hysteria: From AOL-Time Warner to Comcast-NBC,”

The point here is not that media mergers are inherently good or always make sense. Indeed.. mergers sometimes prove to be huge blunders. But the hysteria sometimes heard before media mergers are consummated rarely bears any relationship to reality once the deals move forward. Media markets are extremely dynamic and prone to disruptive change and technological leap-frogging. Mergers are often one response to that turbulence… Given how difficult it is to predict the future course of events in this chaotic sector, humility—not hubris—is the sensible disposition when it comes to media merger policy.

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