Parsons lays out TW’s digital plans

Topper defends company's stock performance

Time Warner topper Dick Parsons defended his company’s stock performance and laid out its digital strategy at the conglom’s annual meeting Friday on the Warners lot.

Parsons spent nearly two hours answering shareholder questions and describing how initiatives such as HBO Mobile and the AOL-Time Inc. joint-venture TMZ would give the conglom an edge in the digital age.

Parsons gave call-outs to Warners execs Barry Meyer and Alan Horn, while also showing a highlight reel that featured soundbites from personalities as diverse as AOL chief operating officer Ron Grant and New Line marketing exec Gordon Paddison.

But Jeff Bewkes, who is expected to be named CEO of Time Warner, was nowhere to be found in Parsons’ presentation.

In fact, the only time Parsons mentioned the COO’s name was when the exec read off a list of the board of directors, who were all re-elected at the meeting.

While Parsons, as chairman-CEO, has typically presided over the annual meeting, move appeared calculated to stem talk, at least for the moment, about what would happen when Parsons turns over the reins to Bewkes.

Parsons was also likely aiming to prevent controversy over a 1991 incident at HBO — in which Bewkes reportedly approved a payout to an alleged assault victim of former topper Chris Albrecht — from flaring up again.

A spokesman did say that Bewkes was present at the meeting.

Bewkes is set to ascend to Parsons’ job when the exec retires next year; rumors have surfaced over the past few months that Parsons could step down even sooner, possibly in preparation for a run for the New York mayor’s office.

Parsons’ silence on Bewkes pointed up the paradoxical position in which Time Warner currently finds itself. On one hand, the company is aggressively prepping for the Bewkes era, with the exec taking on a larger private and public role over the last year.

Yet, with execs perhaps mindful of how much turbulence it has endured over the past several years, TW was also intent on making a show of stability in its presentation Friday at the Ross Theater.

For the first time in several years, the shareholder gathering was being held against a relatively muted backdrop in every part of the company except HBO. Last year’s meeting came on the heels of noise from corporate raider Carl Icahn, and the company had previously endured several years of criticism about the AOL merger, which had hurt its stock.

Pointing to a graph that tracked an increase in the stock price, Parsons said, “It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to show something like this.”

And speaking about the entire company’s operations, he said, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s all good. But it’s largely good.”

The move appeared to work: Among the nearly dozen questions shareholders asked about the present course of the company, none concerned a leadership transition.

Shareholders did not appear particularly concerned about HBO, with only one even mentioning the Albrecht scandal. Net remains one of the conglom’s crown jewels but is undergoing a transition as it searches for a new topper and is poised to retire the most successful show in its history.

Parsons did not address the Albrecht situation directly. But asked about how the company handles controversy ranging from the Albrecht matter to potential lawsuits between stars and photogs at its celeb mags, Parsons offered only, “We live in a time when things move so quickly,” and he said there are “specific mechanisms” in place to cope with scandal.

Shareholders do, however, remain concerned about executive compensation, citing $59 million in pay to top execs at a time when thousands of employees have been laid off at Time Inc. and elsewhere in the firm.

And they raised issues about the share price; while the stock has ticked up more than 10% over the last two months, shareholders grilled Parsons at the meeting on why there has been an annual average of less than 3% growth in the last five years under Parsons’ watch.

Parsons said that in the early 2000s, the company had been hammered by investor lawsuits and investigations from the federal government and that the last five years has largely been about rebounding from that. “The looking-ahead picture is better than the looking-back picture,” he said.

Still, shareholders approved two resolutions that would make it easier for them both to pass changes to bylaws and also to call special meetings of the board. Both resolutions had been opposed by the company.

At the meeting, Parsons also defended the sale of the Atlanta Braves, saying the team was not a strategic asset and would increase in value only over the long term instead of yielding short-term profits.

And despite criticism that the company hasn’t been active enough on the acquisition front, Parsons said, “Lost beneath all the headlines about (stock buybacks in the last year) is that we spent almost $20 billion acquiring things.”

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