AOL Names Falco CEO

NEW YORK Randy Falco is exiting as president and chief operating officer of the NBC Universal Television Group to become chairman and CEO of Time Warner’s AOL, where he succeeds Jonathan Miller, who departs after four years on the job.

Sources suggested that the switch wasn’t long planned and comes as the online company looks to move to the next phase of growth, which Miller’s work helped prepare.

AOL in September tapped roster shop Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos to craft its brand advertising following presentations from the Interpublic Group agency and Omnicom Group’s BBDO [Adweek Online, Sept. 20]. AOL spent nearly $300 million on ads last year. Boston-based Hill, Holliday is now tasked with touting the overall AOL brand and explaining its shift from a dial-up access provider to an ad-supported portal.

The transition of a veteran from the established media to a post leading one of new media’s most prominent brands could be seen as indication that for all the innovations transforming the business, it is revenue from old-fashioned advertising that will propel growth.

In Falco, AOL gains an executive with significant experience in all aspects of the media business, especially one with respect for blue-chip advertisers. The dismantling of AOL’s subscription business this year has put significant pressure on maximizing revenue from marketers interested in testing new forms of advertising online—which has been siphoning a steady flow of dollars from broadcasters like the one Falco is leaving.

His start date has yet to be finalized, a Time Warner representative said late Wednesday.

In more than 30 years at NBC, Falco has never risen beyond second-in-command. Sources said he might have realized he would not ascend in the future when NBCU chairman Bob Wright revealed a revamped management structure that installed Zucker as CEO of NBCU TV Group and Beth Comstock as president of NBCU Digital Media and Market Development.

While the breadth of Falco’s responsibilities were widened in that organizational shake-up to include areas such as the owned-and-operated stations and international assets, it might have been too little too late for him to hang on at NBCU in hopes of future ascension behind two other execs already in line for Wright’s throne.

Since joining NBC in 1975, Falco has had a hand in almost every element of the peacock’s growing business interests, including the expansion of NBC’s Olympics coverage, which brought him six Emmys, going back to 1992’s Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

The departure of Falco leaves a sizable hole near the top of NBCU TV’s management structure. Zucker, to whom Falco reported, will find no shortage of internal replacement candidates to choose from, and he might even divvy up Falco’s responsibilities among several execs.

Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons lauded Falco as “a top operating executive” who will be “leading AOL into its next stage of development.”

While Falco isn’t known as a manager with long-standing digital expertise, Parsons said, “Randy is a first-rate choice to ensure AOL realizes its promise.”

Added Time Warner president and COO Jeffrey Bewkes, “With his proven success in operations, business development, video programming and advertising-supported businesses, Randy brings the right tools to run AOL at this important time in its history.”

Said Falco in a statement, “AOL is clearly headed in the right direction, and I have full faith in its future as a leader among Time Warner businesses.” He described his challenge as being to “execute on the strategy that I believe will make AOL once again the leader of the online world.”

In his four years at AOL, Miller presided over a turbulent period where the once-dominant Internet brand continued to weigh down Time Warner’s balance sheet, even after much of the damage done from the conglomerate’s disastrous 2001 merger had been remedied. AOL was the subject of perpetual spinoff and sale rumors for much of Miller’s reign, though he was less of a lightning rod for criticism than Parsons.

Miller wasn’t available for comment.