Gerald M. Levin, Time Warner CEO Who Oversaw AOL Merger Disaster, Dies at 84

Levin began his career as a programming executive for HBO in 1972

Gerald M. Levin
Gerald M. Levin in 2001 — Getty Images

Gerald M. Levin, the former CEO of Time Warner who oversaw the disastrous merger with AOL has since gone down as one of the worst deals in American corporate history, died Wednesday of undisclosed causes. He was 84.

One of his grandchildren confirmed the news to the New York Times and said that Levin had been fighting Parkinson’s disease and died in a hospital in Long Beach, California.

The merger that created AOL Time Warner, one of the most enduring symbols of the excesses and recklessness of the Dot Com era, could not have been more poorly timed. Announced on January 10, 2000 at the height of the dot com bubble, the deal was supposed to combine the then-leader in the still emerging internet service provider industry with the at-the-time largest media company in the world — whose assets included Time Magazine, Warner Bros. HBO and more — to create a powerhouse for the internet age.

But it took a full year before regulators granted final approval, a year during which there were nearly daily warnings of how bad an idea it was.

The dot com bubble burst in March of 200o. Near the end of the year a wave of recessions swept the global economy that caught up with the United States in March, 2001. Meanwhile, AOL was caught flat-footed by the rise of high speed broadband internet, which gutted the landline-focused AOL’s share of ISP market and cratered its value.

By the end of 2001 the company’s stock price dropped more than 50% and in the first quarter of 2002, AOL Time Warner set an unfortunate new record when it took a $54 billion write-down. The debacle permanently crippled the company, which changed its name back to Time Warner in 2003. Today, what used to be Time Warner is now part of Warner Bros. Discovery.

But the company’s increasing calamities were no longer Levin’s problem. In mid-2001 he was nearly ousted by a revolt within the company sparked by Vice Chairman Ted Turner and spearheaded by AOL co-founder Steve Case. In December he announced his retirement, effective May, 2022.

It was an ignoble end to an otherwise successful 30-year tenure that, prior to AOL Time Warner, was considered brilliant.

Levin joined then-Time, Inc in 1972 as a programming executive. Just 32 years old, he changed television viewing habits forever by pushing to make HBO a nationally available channel. The success proved there was a market for national cable channels and established the format as the future of TV. As a result, within the company Levin was regarded as a genius. He was named Time Warner CEO in 1992.

Born in 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Levin attended UPenn law school, graduating in 1963. He was married and divorced three times; he had 5 children.


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