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Turnaround Task at AOL

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 31, 1996; Page E01

America Online executives like to say they consider Jerry Seinfeld their major competition, and this week they hired a show biz impresario to help improve their ratings.

Robert W. Pittman, the man the company tapped to lead the nation's largest consumer online service, isn't the kind of computer programmer or techno wizard you're likely to find already hanging out at AOL's Dulles headquarters.

But the 42-year-old is a media pioneer and a corporate turnaround artist, and that's what the company may need most as it tries to revive its flagging fortunes and transform itself into a media powerhouse, some analysts say.

Pittman helped create the MTV, VH1 and Nick at Nite cable television channels. A hyperkinetic salesman who can talk fast and long, he's one of the people who brought you "Court TV," "Totally Hidden Video" and "The Morton Downey Jr. Show."

In another chapter of his eclectic career, he helped overhaul the Six Flags amusement parks for Time Warner Inc., introducing features such as Batman, the Ride, which capitalized on Warner's entertainment assets. Pittman left Time Warner last year with an exit package valued at $20 million, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Pittman likes to compare the fledgling online medium to the cable television industry he helped popularize. Like the cable business in the mid-1980s, "you had to convince people it was a real business," but it's destined to be a part of the American landscape, he said.

"I've seen this movie before," he said. "I've been here."

In a corporate reorganization Tuesday, AOL named Pittman chief executive of its new America Online Networks division, which encompasses the online service and its 6 million subscribers. In that job, Pittman will report to AOL Chairman Steve Case. Pittman had served on the AOL board for a year.

The appointment comes as AOL is fighting to reverse a steep decline in its stock price and rapid turnover among its subscribers.

Henry R. Silverman, Pittman's former boss, said Pittman's skills would serve AOL well. "Bob is a very skilled turnaround specialist," Silverman said. "Clearly this is a business which is in flux, which requires some experienced leadership besides Steve Case and [senior executive] Ted Leonsis to get going in the right direction."

"Bob has spent his whole life in changing industries, and he is really challenged by that," said another longtime colleague, Mayo Stuntz Jr.

Until this week, Pittman was chief executive of Century 21 Real Estate Corp., where he oversaw a corporate overhaul that included cutting 400 of 800 jobs, according to Silverman, who heads HFS Inc., the realty franchiser's parent company.

"All I really did was wake up the giant," Pittman said of his work at Century 21.

But you won't find Pittman in a yellow blazer. He's the man who purged them from the Century 21 corporate dress code.

They probably wouldn't have blended in at the New York City Ballet or the New York Shakespeare Festival, where this socialite serves as a board member.

Or behind the handlebars of the Harley Davidson motorcycle he's been known to take cruising with Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner, or the controls of his twin-engine plane. Friends said Pittman, who lost the use of one eye in an accident involving a horse, doesn't let that handicap interfere with his flying.

Pittman grew up in Mississippi, the son of a Methodist minister and a sometime schoolteacher. He began his career as a teenage radio disc jockey and hosted a weekly music video show in New York before joining in the creation of the MTV cultural phenomenon.

Pittman advised the late Time Warner chairman, Steve Ross, during the mega-merger that united Warner Communications and Time Inc. in 1989. In 1990 he became chief of a Time Warner unit devoted to new business ventures. In that capacity, he ran the Six Flags Entertainment theme park division.

After Time Warner sold Six Flags, Pittman last year moved to Century 21. During his brief tenure there, Century 21 established a business relationship with AOL, and Pittman joined the AOL board.

Century 21 essentially used AOL as a corporate computer network for its thousands of franchisees, supported by their fees. Century 21 also launched a site on the AOL service to provide information on neighborhoods for prospective home buyers.

AOL had been looking for a seasoned top executive since June, when former Federal Express executive William Razzouk abruptly left AOL after less than five months as chief operating officer. Razzouk had been recruited to infuse the young, rapidly growing company with more managerial discipline, but after his departure company insiders said they would seek another veteran executive more steeped in the culture of media and technology.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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