"He knows good content will always create value," Parsons says.

Warner Bros., which generated $2.7 billion in revenue in the third quarter, is wrapping up one of its strongest years ever. Its TV unit is the most powerful producer on television, making hits for CBS ("The Big Bang Theory"), NBC ("The Voice"), ABC ("The Middle") and Fox ("The Following"). But unlike studio competitors NBCUniversal, Walt Disney Co. or Fox, Warner Bros. does not own a major broadcast network. (It shares ownership with CBS of the tiny CW network.)

"If you bring us a movie or a show, we can make more money out of it than if you took the exact same movie or show and gave it to somebody else," Bewkes says. "That's the advantage of going to Warner Bros."

On the movie side, for the third time in the last five years Warner will be the No. 1 studio at the U.S. box office. Through November, it has taken in more than $1.6 billion in ticket sales, for almost 20% of the domestic market.

That was without a "Batman" or "Harry Potter" movie, two of the company's strongest franchises. Besides "Gravity," the studio got stronger-than-expected performances from "The Conjuring" and "We're the Millers." Coming up to bat now is "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."

As strong as Warner Bros. is, HBO and Turner, which combined had $3.5 billion in revenue in the third quarter, are Time Warner's real engines.

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"A lean, mean TV machine" is how Morgan Stanley analyst Ben Swinburne described the company in a recent report.

HBO is the prime example of that machine. Online rival Netflix Inc. has earned media attention and a sky-high stock price for rapid subscriber growth and original programming such as "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black." But Netflix's profit last year was $226.1 million. HBO's was $1.6 billion.

"Don't look at stock, look at earnings," Bewkes says bluntly when asked about Netflix. "We happen to have the biggest, most profitable SVOD [subscription video on demand] service. It's called HBO."

Time Warner stock has risen partly because of Bewkes' assurances that the fees that cable and satellite operators shell out for the Turner networks will increase dramatically over the next few years.

In 2013, subscriber fees for Turner are expected to hit $4.7 billion worldwide, according to a Morgan Stanley report. In 2017, Morgan Stanley projects, Turner's distribution revenue will reach $6.4 billion.

Some analysts say that TNT's and TBS' bright futures might be compromised as audiences continue to fragment, and that niche networks such as Discovery Channel and Food Network are better long-term bets.

"I get stuck on TBS and TNT being stuck in the middle," Juenger says. "Neither has the scale of a CBS, and both are getting eaten alive by the niche guys. I can see a world where they have to spend more and more on content chasing smaller and smaller audiences."

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Bewkes begs to differ.

"Nobody can drop our networks," Bewkes says. "You don't have a cable system if you don't have those networks."

Besides hit shows such as TNT's "Rizzoli and Isles" and popular reruns such as "The Big Bang Theory" on TBS, both channels carry valuable sports properties including the NBA, NCAA March Madness and postseason Major League Baseball.

Shedding AOL and Time Warner Cable and figuring out how to navigate the future may seem relatively easy compared to Bewkes' other big challenge — changing the corporate culture at Time Warner.

For decades, Time Warner has operated less as a cohesive unit and more as a collection of fiefdoms: Warner Bros. in Burbank, HBO in New York and Turner in Atlanta. Traditionally, the divisions have been run by executives who often viewed one another with suspicion. And they were not immune to petty squabbles, such as when Warner Bros. put the kibosh on Turner's Cartoon Network's plans to air some old politically incorrect Bugs Bunny cartoons.