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Steve Case: Media M&A Frenzy Reflects Original ‘Vision’ of AOL-Time Warner Merger

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Shari Redstone didn’t stop to talk. Nor did Brian Roberts or Rupert Murdoch offer any crumbs to reporters waiting Tuesday afternoon along the edge of the duck pond outside the entrance of the Sun Valley Lodge, where media and tech moguls are gathering this week for the annual Allen & Co. conference in this mountainous resort area.

The business world is waiting with bated breath for any hints of the mood inside the conference this year, what with so many high-powered CEOs in various stages of battle coming together in close quarters for inspiration from panels and speakers and a little perspiration via outdoor recreation options.

One CEO who did engage with the journos held at a distance from the invitation-only confab was Steve Case, the former AOL chief who now heads investment firm Revolution. With AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner still weeks old, Case opined that the media landscape is finally starting to reflect some of the vision that drove the deal widely considered one of the worst — if not the worst — mega merger in modern history, AOL’s union with Time Warner, completed in January 2001.

“Some of the things we were talking about then are happening, in terms of streaming. I’m not surprised that there’s another round of big mergers where companies are trying to position themselves for a future where consumers have more choice and more control and more convenience,” Case said. “It was clear it was going to happen. It’s taken longer than most of us thought before it did happen.”

Case was quick to acknowledge that the AOL-Time Warner merger was undone by “disappointing” execution. But he defended the vision that brought the pioneering internet service provider and content company together in the months before the first wave dot-com bubble burst.

“The idea of it made sense. The vision of it made sense. The execution wasn’t what we were hoping for,” he said. “The idea is important, the vision is important but ultimately it comes down to execution. That means (focusing on) priorities and people. It’s not just (about) what’s possible.

He cited a quote attributed to Thomas Edison that has helped him put the AOL-Time Warner experience into perspective: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Nearly 20 years later, AT&T is now absorbing a smaller Time Warner, Case noted, which should help make it a more manageable process. And AT&T leaders will surely make an effort to learn from Time Warner’s history.

“It’s 20 years later. Everybody’s wiser, having watched some of the things we tried to do and weren’t able to do. Time Warner is now a much leaner company….It will be a little easier for them now than it was 20 years ago, but sure, there’s going to be challenges.”

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