Time Warner gets back to its core assets

Jeffrey Bewkes can’t wait for the day when Time Warner is evaluated strictly as a content company.

As Sumner Redstone did with Viacom, Bewkes has steered Time Warner into de-consolidation mode in the past few years. The conglom completed the long-gestating spinoff of Time Warner Cable in March and is on track to unload its AOL albatross by year’s end.

Bewkes was famously skeptical of the merits of AOL-Time Warner merger from the get-go in 2000, so there must be a measure of satisfaction for the exec to preside over the official dismantling of the mega-merger that was supposed to change the face of media forever.

Now, even as cable giant Comcast Corp. plots a purchase of a major ity stake of NBC Universal, there’s clearly a back-to-basics movement among showbiz congloms.

Disney is focused on brands, brands, brands — businesses that make sense within the core operations of Disney, ABC or ESPN. Marvel and its vault of characters made perfect sense in this context. News Corp. isn’t bragging so much about the wonders of MySpace as it is about those “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” DVD sales. John Malone’s Liberty Media is taking steps to separate its DirecTV satellite biz from its Starz Entertainment cablers and production-distribution operations.

Redstone spurred the breakup of Viacom and CBS because the entirety of the conglom’s far-flung operations was too disparate for Wall Street to easily value. CBS would fare better as a more nimble operation with local TV and radio balancing the network operations of the Eye and Showtime. Viacom would rise or fall on the strength of Paramount Pictures and MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and other cablers under the MTV Networks umbrella.

During Time Warner’s third-quarter earnings call earlier this month, when Time Warner execs went so far as to produce earnings estimates for what the company will look like post-AOL, Bewkes noted that even in a rough economy, revenue for what he called Time Warner’s “content group” was off just 3% for the quarter.

The split from Time Warner Cable left Bewkes with $9 billion in cash burning a hole in Time Warner’s pocket. But don’t look for Bewkes to go on an acquisition spree. Time Warner was very public about its lack of interest in joining the NBC Universal bidding fray — even Rupert Murdoch and Malone kicked the Peacock’s tires.

In talking up the company’s prospects for 2010, Bewkes emphasized the strength of Warner Bros. film, TV and homevid operations, as well as the reliable profits delivered by HBO and the Turner cablers.

“Warner Bros.’ consistency and return (on investment) profile may not be fully appreciated,” Bewkes told the Wall Streeters during the Nov. 4 earnings call. But it sure will be, for better or worse, going forward in the streamlined Time Warner.

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