Time Warner’s Gerald Levin

He’s being overlooked again. He likes that.

During the AOL Time Warner orgy, the media have anointed Steve Case as the official visionary of the new media age, ruminated about how Ted Turner (Time Warner’s first wife) will handle this second marriage, and lavished attention on AOL President Bob Pittman, the presumed heir to the empire.

But they have written scarcely a word about the person who will actually run the joint: Gerald Levin, Time Warner’s current CEO and AOL Time Warner’s future CEO. The Wall Street Journal’s historical review of the two corporations included images of Case, Turner, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, and the late Time Warner CEO Steve Ross—but not Levin. News coverage of the opening announcement mentioned Levin’s joke–flanked by the nattily clad Case, the casually dressed Levin welcomed “the suits from Virginia to New York”–but reporters have otherwise dismissed Levin as the dutiful manager who will execute the brilliant strategies devised by Case et al.

Levin is being overlooked again, and he is surely enjoying it. He has turned being underestimated and misunderstood into a career strategy. He has always seemed the dreariest of moguls. He may control the largest media company in the world, but he is gray next to the vivid crimsons of Rupert Murdoch, Edgar Bronfman Jr., and Sumner Redstone. He hardly rates a mention in Ken Auletta’s infoworld chronicles. Levin seems to have given himself a “charisma bypass,” as a Time Warner executive quipped to the New York Times. He is willfully invisible: He eschews limos and luxuries, avoids the press, and makes the most mundane of public statements.

Levin is a survivor. He has not only endured but won two decades of brutal corporate war. No executive has been fired so often in the press, and none has been so often declared a genius. Levin joined Time Inc.’s HBO division in the early ‘70s after a decade in corporate law and international development. Jewish, frumpy, and intellectual (he studied the continuity between Jewish and Christian theology at Haverford), he did not mesh with Time’s polished WASP culture. But he won a reputation as the house Einstein when he revolutionized the cable TV industry in the mid-’70s. Levin conceived the idea of distributing HBO movies to cable providers via satellite. This revived the struggling cable channel and allowed the creation of national cable brands.

The next decade was rockier for Levin, as he supervised fiasco after fiasco. (Two of his failures—a news-on-demand “teletext” service and a subscription television experiment—foreshadowed his technological derring-do.) He was leapfrogged in the corporate hierarchy and dropped from the Time board. Then, in the late ‘80s, Levin recognized that staid Time needed to transform itself into an entertainment company. He engineered a merger with Ross’ Warner Communications, the deal that invented the ‘90s media company. A couple of years later, Levin helped topple co-CEO and ally Nicholas Nicholas in a sly coup. When Ross died in 1993, Levin took control of Time Warner.

The dry, solemn Levin remained overshadowed by the titanic Ross, but he demonstrated a gift for holding on. During the mid-’90s, Levin invested in cable as that industry tanked, dragging down the company’s stock price and prompting calls for his head. In 1992 and again in 1995, Time Warner was savaged by critics for distributing violent music, especially gangster rap. Levin was particularly ridiculed for his self-righteous defense that Time Warner was trying to spread provocative ideas. Then Levin lost $100 million on a disastrous experiment with interactive television in Orlando.

Time and time again, Levin has seemed on the verge of losing his job. The stock stagnated; the money magazines called for his sacking. But his bets paid off. The cable industry began to recover in 1996. The gangster rap scandals blew over. When Levin acquired Ted Turner’s empire in 1996, it was taken for granted that flamboyant genius Turner would bulldoze Levin and rule the new company. Instead, Turner moseyed off to Montana. The booming economy boosted movie, music, and magazine publishing. Time Warner’s stock rebounded: It has now climbed about 700 percent during Levin’s tenure.

Levin has been underestimated in part because he has cultivated such a diffident style. He is a man without a shadow, affectless, egoless. He burned his own papers in college because he thought it would be arrogant to keep them. He avoids opportunities to draw attention to himself—opportunities that Redstone or Barry Diller would seize. Last fall, for example, Time Warner announced that it would stop contributing soft money to political parties because soft money corrupts politics. Time Warner then gave its news operations several million extra dollars for election coverage. Levin could have grandstanded as a champion of political reform, but he did not say a word. (Since his son’s 1997 murder, Levin has been especially self-effacing.)

His enigmatic nature has won him the reputation of a “philosopher-businessman.” For decades he has dazzled and baffled colleagues with cryptic statements, more Zen koan than management advice. “Print is our soul and heartland,” is a typical Levinism. The air of rumination can seem studied: Levin told reporters this week that he decided on the AOL merger after “a walk in the woods.” In 1992, Levin said he decided that Nicholas had to leave Time Warner after “a walk in the woods.” There is nothing like walking in the woods to make a man a thinker.

Levin’s opaqueness actually masks a savage toughness. If he is a “philosopher-businessman,” his inspiration is Nietzsche. On the day Ross died and Levin replaced him, Levin sacked nine members of Time Warner’s 20-person board. When Bronfman acquired 15 percent of Time Warner and seemed poised to take it over, Levin foiled him with a “poison pill” and barred him from the Time Warner board. Levin ruthlessly sacked his own protégé and heir-apparent Michael Fuchs when it appeared Fuchs was questioning the Turner merger.

All this may suggest that Levin survives only for survival’s sake. But in fact, he has been guiding Time Warner toward a very specific and ambitious goal. He has been ruthless because he knows exactly what Time Warner should be.

Levin once said that the most important lesson he had learned was not to be afraid of complex technology. He is a tech enthusiast, and he has educated himself rigorously about its possibilities. His career has been defined by deep and early understanding of how technology would change media and entertainment. He recognized much earlier than his colleagues the importance of broadband and consumer choice. (He pioneered ultra-choice cable with a 150-channel experiment in Queens.) He has been right frequently—putting HBO on satellites, merging Time’s news with Warner’s entertainment, investing in cable. And he has been wrong frequently—experimenting with teletext years before there was demand, investing in interactive television rather than the Internet, sinking millions into the clunky Pathfinder Internet venture. But he has always pursued a coherent and prescient set of principles: distributing the richest variety of content with the most customer interactivity through the fattest pipes. When he was questioned about his “old media” company this week, Levin noted, perhaps peevishly, that “I am a broadband guy … I’m an interactive guy. I have been building networks all my life.”

The AOL merger culminates Levin’s decadelong campaign to reinvent the media company. He turned staid magazine publisher Time Inc. into news-entertainment conglomerate Time Warner; turned that into news-entertainment-cable kingdom Time Warner (Turner); and is turning that into news-entertainment-cable-Internet empire AOL Time Warner (Turner)—the largest, most diverse media company in the world.

The press and Wall Street are assuming that AOL Time Warner will belong to the 41-year-old Case and 46-year-old Pittman, and that the 60-year-old Levin will clock a few years as CEO, cash a billion in options, and shuffle off to Florida. But Levin outlasted and outmaneuvered the largest personalities in his industry–Ross, Nicholas, Bronfman, Fuchs, and Turner—and kept Time Warner headed where he wanted to go. Soon we may be talking not about how Case got Time Warner, but how Levin got AOL.