AOL scuffles, executive shuffles

Will former AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin finally get the poetry back in his life like he said he would the day he shocked the world with his resignation?

4 min read
NEW YORK--A suffocating blanket of humidity has settled into Manhattan's concrete canyons, signaling the season of parades and block parties, outdoor concerts and barbeques in Prospect Park, and wandering around the narrow streets of Greenwich Village with a can of brown-bagged Heineken, dodging street poets.

Makes me wonder if former AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin is finally getting the poetry back in his life like he said he would the day he shocked the world with his resignation. For a man who has seen his share of tragedy (his son was murdered in 1997), our hearts went out to the reclusive executive when he confessed to underling Lou Dobbs on CNN MoneyLine that the events of Sept. 11 accelerated his desire to leave.

It's ironic that his confession was made on CNN, whose brash founder--and AOL Time Warner's largest individual shareholder--Ted Turner reportedly opened the door for Levin's departure and gave him a swift kick in the derriere on his way out. According to this month's Vanity Fair, a fist-pounding Turner in the fall of 2001 demanded that the board remove Levin from his job after watching AOL Time Warner's stock--and his own sizeable fortune--plummet.

"Turner's direct attack on Levin that day forced AOL Time Warner's board of directors to see the obvious: Levin had to be replaced," wrote Vanity Fair correspondent Nina Munk.

Over eggs benedict one morning, an AOL Time Warner Skinformant wasn't surprised by what they read in Munk's article. Nor would our source be shocked if more changes were on the way.

In fact, it would be more surprising if, by the end of the year, AOL Time Warner's crestfallen COO Bob Pittman was still sitting in his corner office in Dulles, Va., where he's been put under house arrest until he turns around the struggling AOL division, we were Skinformed. Pittman could be considering a return to his natural talent for consumer branding by taking a high-profile position at a company like McDonald's or Coca Cola, another Skinsider outside the company speculated.

Then again, he might land at another media company. AOL Time Warner isn't the only content company suffering from massive losses, a sliding stock price and irate investors--all classic ingredients for a management shake-up. That means companies like Walt Disney, Viacom and Vivendi Universal may all be readying for a game of executive musical chairs. Just last month, Vivendi Chief Executive Jean-Paul Messier fended off calls for his ouster.

Was sending Pittman down to Dulles a classic bait and switch? One AOL Time Warner executive told me after the company's raucous shareholders meeting that he expected Pittman to return, but dismissed the idea that the company really needed a chief operating officer. After raving about his division's stellar financial performance, he glared in the direction of Steve Case and told me to talk to him to get some answers about why the company's stock was in the toilet.

Change has certainly been drastic at the world's largest media company. Now that Levin's dust has been swept out of AOL Time Warner's Rockefeller Center headquarters, he may indeed be taking action in his poetic aspirations. Mayor Bloomberg has made it known that Levin is one of his top choices for the city's schools chancellor.

"Jerry Levin's obviously available, and if he was interested and if we were in the market for a new chancellor, I would certainly be willing to talk to him," Bloomberg, a charity-circuit buddy of Levin's, said during a press conference last week.

The Lane less traveled
Also rumored to be considering a job change is Ray Lane, former Oracle president and current Kleiner Perkins VC. Numerous sources close to Larry Ellison's former right-hand man say that the post-bubble world of venture capital has a man--probably bored out of his mind--that most Silicon Valley dwellers consider to be CEO material.

In this environment, a rumor that he was joining his old friend Scott McNealy

at Sun Microsystems to take over from Ed Zander spread swiftly.

When contacted by the Rumor Mill, Lane expressed amusement at the buzz and denied any intent of jumping ship.

Still, the pairing makes sense considering Lane's close ties to Sun execs, and Sun's obvious need for someone with Lane's experience. Meanwhile, Kleiner Perkins VC John Doerr is on the Sun board and would have a say in the matter. While Lane admits to having discussed the possibility with Zander, he said it never got further than that.

Don't clash with Flash
Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, people are wondering what happened to Adobe's ambition to best Macromedia's Flash animation software with its own LiveMotion software.

Rumors grinding through the mill suggest that that ambition has clashed with reality in recent months, resulting in a major reorganization of the LiveMotion group, including deep layoffs.

Adobe said reports of LiveMotion's death were greatly exaggerated, but did allow that the unit had been subsumed by Adobe's digital video group and that some foreign-language versions of the product (Italian, Spanish and Dutch) were discontinued. As a rule, the company does not discuss layoffs, but one manager allowed that if the Rumor Mill had heard someone in LiveMotion had lost his or her job in recent months, "it was probably true."

Adobe has been sweating it out trying to chip in to Macromedia's market share in the Web authoring and animation arena. In an earnings call in March, CEO Bruce Chizen admitted that LiveMotion hadn't lived up to expectations, and called it more of an add-on to Flash, rather than a replacement for it.

"It's clear Macromedia has done a good job in creating a standard with Flash," Chizen said in the call. "Am I happy about that? No. But I'm a pragmatist."

Every week I try to be pragmatic. But without your rumors I'm merely phlegmatic.