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Time Warner Net executives moving on

Several involved in the company's online efforts resign or are reassigned following its announced merger with America Online, renewing questions about Time Warner's online plans.

Several executives involved in Time Warner's Internet efforts have resigned or been reassigned following the company's announced merger with America Online, renewing questions about the media and entertainment giant's online plans.

The most recent move involves Michael Pepe, who is no longer acting as chief operating officer at Time Warner Digital Media, according to sources in the company familiar with the decision. Pepe was named to the post last June in the midst of a major overhaul of the company's Web strategy.

These sources said Pepe may You've got Time Warnerremain with the company and is considering taking over as head of Time Inc.'s international division--a position vacated last month when John Marcom quit to join online movie distributor AtomFilms.

Time Warner declined to comment on matters relating to Pepe.

The company has seen a series of departures in recent weeks, including former CNN vice chairman and chief operating officer Steve Korn, as well as his planned replacement, Bill Burke.

In an internal company memo, Korn said he plans to leave June 1 to "take a break" and spend "several months with his family in Italy."

In January, Burke, a veteran of Turner Networks, also announced his resignation. "He left to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life," said Edna Johnson, a Turner Networks spokeswoman.

The spate of departures comes as America Online plans to acquire Time Warner in a multibillion-dollar deal. Executives from both companies have touted the merger as a way to use AOL's audience to boost Time Warner's online content, which includes news and digital music. The merger also gives AOL a foothold into Time Warner's cable broadband infrastructure, now the second-largest network in the country.

But Time Warner employees realized a generous perk in the deal. Upon board approval of the merger, all of Time Warner's employee stock options instantly vested. The long-standing provision has left many observers inside and outside the company wondering whether the deal might spark an exodus of executive shareholders.

Individual motives for the recent departures are not known. But sources inside the company said Korn's departure, for one, may have been influenced by the accelerated vesting schedule.

"The (stock option) package...certainly enabled him to more realistically pursue his personal interests," said one Time Warner source who requested anonymity.

The executive shuffle also has left questions regarding the future of Time Warner's online plans. Devised last spring, the strategy was to create five Web destinations, or "hubs," that would use Time Warner content for specific topics, such as news, finance, sports, entertainment and lifestyle.

The hub strategy arose after the company decided to shutter Pathfinder, the expansive precursor to Web portals produced by Time Inc.'s then-new media division.

Korn had been tapped to run the company's news hub and at one time led Time Warner's exploration into taking its Internet assets public.

With AOL's acquisition pending, Time Warner has remained quiet about its plans with the different hubs still in the works. In November, Time Warner launched Entertaindom, the entertainment hub produced by Warner Bros. Online. But since then, details about the company's other hubs have been relatively scarce.

AOL is considering ways to use its market leadership to boost Time Warner's Web sites. The online giant is mulling the use of Netscape's Netcenter Web portal as a starting point for Time Warner's sites. The companies announced yesterday that CNN would provide news for Netcenter and AOL's ICQ instant messaging service.

"The hubs are moving forward, and we're working closely with our partners at AOL in developing them," said one Time Warner representative.

Though no hubs have materialized since Entertaindom, analysts do not think Time Warner has thrown in the towel on the whole idea.

"I suspect they are still pretty serious," said David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "The hubs could theoretically live within AOL and on the Internet at the same time."