America Online, Inc.
The so-called boy wonder of broadcasting, Robert Warren Pittman earned his highly esteemed reputation by tapping into the collective mindset of the youth of America in the early 1980s, as he was instrumental in the 1981 launch and success of Music Television (MTV). The launch of MTV was only the beginning of the critically acclaimed and rapid ascent of Pittman in the American entertainment industry. He was also at the helm of Time Warner Enterprises, Six Flags Entertainment, Century 21 Reality, and America Online (AOL) between the late 1980s and the late 1990s.
Pittman was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 28, 1953. His father, Warren, was a Methodist minister and his mother, Lanita Hurdle Pittman, was a homemaker. Pittman's first foray into broadcasting came in 1968, when he began working part-time as a disc jockey at a Brookhaven, Mississippi, radio station when he was still in high school.
Pittman bounced between a number of universities throughout the early 1970s, including the University of Pittsburgh and Oakland University. Also during this time, he was continuing to hone his radio and broadcast management skills at various stations. He worked as a disc jockey in Milwaukee, and from there traveled to WDRQ, in Detroit, to work as the research director. Pittsburgh's WPEZ was his next port of call. Here he was the program director. In 1974 he started working for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio division in Chicago, where he stayed for the next three years. From there he went to WNBC, NBC's flagship radio station, in New York City. It was in New York that Pittman really started to leave his mark in the field of broadcasting.
In 1979 Pittman assumed the post of vice president and director at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company. Not long after this, he was made the senior vice president of the company. He was in charge of programming and was one of the key players behind the invention and implementation of MTV.
Pittman's success in radio not only gave him the necessary clout to get the job done well, but made him the ideal "father figure" and guiding force behind the soon-to-be-renamed MTV Networks. The idea was simple yet revolutionary—to establish and maintain a 24-hour all-music channel on cable television.
The brand-new network was to be run like a radio station that just happened to be televised. There were video jockeys who introduced the promotional song clips. The audience focus of the channel was on the primary fans of Top 40 radio, namely 12-24 year olds.
When MTV debuted, in stereo, on August 1, 1981, it reached 6 million cable subscribers. By 1984, the number of people who subscribed to MTV totaled over 25 million Americans. Advertisers, initially leery of MTV, were lining up to hawk their goods and services to the members of the young and rather affluent audience. Pittman even claimed to be able to ascertain the views and beliefs of the different segments of the youth population based on their individual musical choices.
MTV not only revitalized the record industry by opening up a new avenue of promotion; it also served as the cornerstone and flagship station for the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, which was then renamed MTV Networks. The newly renamed corporation quickly swallowed up its competition, namely Ted Turner's rival video channel, in the autumn of 1984. This ensured MTV's monopoly on music video programming in America.
Seeking to branch out and to increase record sales by older segments of the population, Pittman helped to launch MTV's sister station, Video Hits One (VH-1), in January of 1985. The new station was geared to older music listeners ranging in age from 25 to 45, who were not as interested in MTV's young, trendy tastes.
Pittman continued to rise swiftly through the ranks at MTV. In 1983, he was named executive vice president and chief operating officer. Two years later, he was named the president and CEO of the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company. The following year he spent time at Quantum Media before returning to Warner to act as an executive adviser in 1989.
After Warner's merger with Time, Pittman became the president and CEO of Time Warner Enterprises. It was a post he held from 1990 to 1995. Concurrent with this, Pittman also held the post of the CEO of Six Flags Entertainment, which was a subsidiary of Time Warner. In 1995, Pittman left the media business and took up a post at Century 21 Reality, where he served as a managing partner and CEO for a year, before the media industry lured him back.
Chronology: Bob Pittman
1979: Named senior vice president of Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company.
1983: Named executive vice president/chief operating officer for MTV Networks, Inc.
1985: Named president and chief executive of Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company.
1987: Went to work for Quantum Media.
1989: Became executive adviser to Warner Communications.
1990: Became president/CEO of Time Warner Enterprises.
1991: Named CEO of Six Flags Entertainment.
1995: Became managing partner/CEO of Century 21 Reality.
1996: Became CEO of America Online Networks.
1998: Promoted to president and chief operating officer of America Online, Inc.
In 1996, after his tenure at Century 21, Pittman was recruited by AOL to manage AOL Networks, the fast-growing consumer services wing of America Online. Pittman was brought into the fold at AOL because of his impressive track record at MTV and Time Warner. According to an article published in the Economist, Pittman's latest challenge was to turn "AOL, the world's largest on-line service and Internet-access provider, into a household name for more than its notorious service problems. He arrived (in October of 1996) to run AOL's consumer side, America Online Networks. His goal is to make AOL a mass media company."
Pittman focused on keeping present online subscribers while trying to attract new ones at AOL. The Internet subscription service was faltering because of the volumes of negative press it was receiving, due, in no small part, to the technical glitches of the system. AOL was adding new subscribers faster than its hardware could support, triggered by new competitive pricing that AOL introduced in 1996. Pittman's job was to assure the customers and general public alike that AOL was working through the problems to improve service and quality and to tout the many services of AOL.
How did Pittman think that he could bring new life to AOL? He felt that this was possible by emphasizing the convenience factor of the service. As he told Mediaweek's Cathy Taylor, "so for me to be convenient I have to say, 'Ok, you like to watch TV? Ok, so let me get you a great TV guide. You want to go to the movies? Let me get you great movie reviews all in one place.' All I have to do is have parity. Make sure that nobody has a killer application that we don't have access to. So, for us, we've got the easy job."
Social and Economic Impact
Pittman was credited with stabilizing the world's largest online and Internet service provider, AOL, improving its position as a mass-market service, and expanding the AOL brand. He cut AOL's aggressive marketing campaign to slow the rate of subscriber growth to a more manageable level, and inked new deals that diversified AOL's offerings and sources of revenue. In 1998 his efforts were recognized with a promotion to AOL's president and chief operating officer.
He has earned many accolades for his efforts in the broadcast industry. Performance chose him as Innovator of the Year in 1981, and Life named him one of its Original Thinkers of the 1980s. Pittman also received the Monitor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1993.
Sources of Information
Contact at: America Online, Inc.
2200 AOL Way
Dulles, VA 20166
Business Phone: (703) 448-8700
"Another Shake Up at AOL." Broadcasting and Cable, 4 November 1996.
"In Search of the Mouse Potato." Economist, 19 April 1997.
"Robert Pittman." Adweek, 26 August 1991.
"Robert W. Pittman." Contemporary Newsmakers 85. Detroit: Gale, 1985.
"Superboy's Further Adventures." Adweek, 11 June 1990.
"Welcome, 'You've Got Bob Pittman.'" Mediaweek, 2 December 1996.
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