Falco clicks as AOL exec

Exiting NBC Uni TV to succeed Miller as CEO

Randy Falco is exiting as president and chief operating officer of the NBC Universal Television Group to take the reins of chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL unit from Jonathan Miller, who has to depart his job after four years, in a development that surprised industry insiders.

Falco's hiring had been expected most of Wednesday after the New York Times reported that he was in talks to take a senior post at AOL.

However, early industry chatter focused on Falco likely taking the president and maybe CEO role, with Miller remaining AOL's highest-ranked executive.

Sources said that the switch at the top of AOL 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 has concentrated on growing its free user base and online advertising revenue.

Miller's contract wasn't up, and his next career step isn't clear at this point, according to company officials and sources.

AOL officials couldn't be reached for comment via telephone or e-mail Wednesday.

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 will have 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 TW spokesman said late Wednesday.

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

While the breadth of Falco's responsibilities were widened in that organizational shake-up to include such areas as the owned-and-operated stations and international assets, it might have been too little too late for him to hang on at NBC Uni 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. His impact on the network can be felt everywhere from "Today's" "Window on the World" studio, the creation of which he oversaw, to 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 NBC Uni 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 many responsibilities among several execs. NBC Uni's TV ranks already are in a state of flux because of the NBCU 2.0 initiative intended to reorient the company for digital-media opportunities.

TW 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 TW president and chief operating officer 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." Overall, Falco said he sees "tremendous opportunity for meaningful growth" at AOL.

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 came to the helm at AOL from USA Information and Services, where he was president and CEO under Barry Diller. Miller also has served in key posts at Nickelodeon and the NBA.

Miller wasn't available for further comment about his future Wednesday. "Rarely do you come into an organization with as many challenges as AOL faced when I arrived and then have the great satisfaction of putting it on sound footing," he said in a statement as part of the announcement of Falco's hiring. "I deeply appreciate the unwavering effort and support from the wonderful people at AOL, and I wish them, Randy and Time Warner all the best in the future."

Georg Szalai reported from New York; Andrew Wallenstein reported from Los Angeles.