'Time Warner Should Buy Starbucks'

Unless, er, It Shouldn't

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In any conversation involving two or more media junkies, it doesn't take long for talk to turn to Time Warner, sparking rounds of speculation about its strategy and prospects. Should it spin off Time Inc.? (I'm against.) Sell AOL? (I waffle.) Buy NBC? (Sure.)

During a recent corporate offsite, my colleague Glenn Coleman, editor of Financial Week, introduced a new one: "Time Warner should buy Starbucks," Glenn said. "Think fat pipe." I was fascinated.

It wouldn't actually be much of a stretch. Starbucks has essentially built a global distribution pipeline that delivers millions of consumer contacts a day. The chain already sells music and movies, of course, and now allows customers to download in-store music directly to their iPhones. Why not add a magazine rack stocked with People, Fortune and Real Simple? Why not sell DVDs of HBO series? Have AOL as the wi-fi home page?

Forget (for now) whether such a merger makes financial sense. It's intriguing, worthy of fun debate, and it points to a bigger issue: whether Time Warner is ultimately a content company or whether it needs as well to control the pipelines through which its goods are delivered.

Most insiders I've talked to believe this is the biggest question Jeff Bewkes has to answer -- and will, when he takes charge. They also think he'll ultimately reveal himself to be a content guy, with a strategy to reflect that.

Ah, well. I guess we won't be watching Entourage on our laptops while sipping lattes, after all.