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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

AOL Chairman Bridges Cultural Gap




NEW YORK -- When Gerald Levin, Time Warner's chairman and chief executive, urged the assembled press corps earlier this week to look at the body language among the executives on stage as proof of how harmoniously his company would blend with America Online, the row of men in the spotlight fidgeted in uncomfortable silence.


Then Robert Pittman, president of America Online, leaned back and put his arms around his Time Warner neighbors. If the gesture did not necessarily provide assurance of a happy cultural mesh, it did draw laughter and managed to defuse an awkward moment.


Pittman, 46, once a high-profile figure in New York's elite media scene who began his corporate career running the Movie Channel at a predecessor company to Time Warner, now carries around a Libretto notebook computer and conducts business through America Online's instant message feature.


With a foot in both worlds - and an affinity for the limelight - he is expected to be a key figure in stitching together the old media with the new.


"Think of me as a forward scout," Pittman said Tuesday from Palm Springs, Calif., where he and Richard Parsons, who are to share the job of chief operating officer at the merged company, to be known as AOL Time Warner, were speaking to a group of investment bankers from Salomon Smith Barney.


"The truth is these two companies are a lot alike. What we both think about is the consumer, what are people doing, and how do we serve them and create new value."


Indeed, by most accounts, the two companies are more similar than they appear.


America Online has long fancied itself a mass media company, and many of its top executives have been drawn from the ranks of traditional media companies.


The people who run Time Warner's entertainment properties, particularly in Los Angeles, pride themselves on being quick to make deals. And the dress code has relaxed even at the company's more buttoned-down editorial offices in New York, where 10 years ago men were virtually required to wear ties.


Apparently, Time Warner has casual dress five days a week, one America Online senior executive said Tuesday with some relief.


Indeed, at AOL this week, the buzz held that the merger with Time Warner would be easier than had been that with Netscape Communications, the Silicon Valley software company America Online acquired in 1998.


Many of Netscape's star programmers have since departed.


Time Warner executives in turn said they expected the merger with America Online to run far more smoothly than Time Inc.'s notoriously prolonged integration with Warner Communications after they merged in 1989 to form Time Warner.


"These are Dockers guys," said a senior executive at Time Warner from the Time Inc. side of the business. "Latte-drinking nice guys. These are not Hollywood killer types."


Still, the melding of an Internet company at which jobs change weekly and employees are compensated largely in stock options and a corporate hierarchy known for its devotion to tradition may run into difficulties.


At America Online, where instant messages hyperlinked to the company's stock price flit across computer screens all day, there was off-the-record dismay Tuesday at the performance of the company's stock, which closed down $6.75, at $64.50.


At Time Warner, there was a David-and-Goliath issue, the sense that an august old-media institution had been felled by a smaller, more agile competitor.


"There is a recognition that new media is big, that this is a sea change, that this is momentous," said one executive, who insisted on anonymity. "And somehow this company with a fifth of our revenues and far less cash flow came along and took us over. We've seen it before. How did WorldCom buy MCI? But it's a little different when it happens to you."