BoomTown Plea to Jeff Bewkes: Free Jon Miller!

Published on August 1, 2008
by Kara Swisher

Yesterday, in what feels to BoomTown to be a deeply petty move, Time Warner said that it had blocked former AOL head Jon Miller from being considered as a possible Yahoo board member.

The reason is a noncompete Miller (pictured here) signed, part of a severance agreement he reached with the media giant after it unceremoniously tossed him out in late 2006.

A Time Warner spokesman said Miller was barred from working “for a variety of competitors, including Yahoo, until March of 2009.”

Like it matters.

According to sources at Time Warner (TWX), the decision came from on high at corporate and not from the AOL unit. And it is not due to jealousy over attention Miller has received of late–Microsoft was also interested in hiring him to take over for departing exec Kevin Johnson.

Miller, sources said, was called by Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes (pictured here) last night and told by him, “We’ve changed our mind.”


Well, to be sure, Miller is no Time Warner favorite, even after being gone for almost two years.

But Miller, whom Time Warner and AOL execs never miss an opportunity to bash, off the record, is also no threat to AOL, which he actually helped revive from the ruins of the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger.

While working on my second book about AOL in 2002, I will always remember visiting Miller at AOL HQ in Dulles, Va.–where he took up residence in former AOL exec Bob Pittman’s office–and finding him unusually calm after he got the thankless job of following Pittman and AOL icon Steve Case.

Time Warner forces, in the form of new CEO Dick Parsons, had finally managed to take back control of the company and–in a fit of misguided pique–brought holy hell down on the AOL unit.

It was a profoundly emotional reaction, which cost Time Warner precious years and much, much money, as the Internet business revived itself and AOL largely sat on the sidelines.

Miller was in the unenviable position of cleaning up the mess, while also having to listen to endless griping from his bosses.

And, despite the line being put out by Time Warner, he did a pretty good job.

While he might have dumped the dial-up business sooner and been more of an organized manager (the two big complaints about him), Miller did strike AOL’s lucrative Google search ad deal and also bought (He also tried to buy YouTube, to no avail.)

That purchase should be reason enough for Time Warner to erect a small altar to him, given that it is one of AOL’s only truly valuable assets and the reason Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo (YHOO) have been interested in possibly buying the unit.

But no.

Instead, there is the usual he-said-she-said wrangling about whether Miller got approval for being let out of the noncompete clause.

Time Warner apparently claims Miller never got an official waiver, and Miller forces say Bewkes okayed the issue weeks ago, when it was first announced that Miller was one of the board picks being put forth by activist investor Carl Icahn.

It defies belief to go with Time Warner version, given everyone and their mother’s mother knew Miller was the likely pick of both Icahn and, especially, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang.

More interesting is why Time Warner would choose to speak now, especially on the day of Yahoo’s board meeting.

At the meeting, the Yahoo board approved expanding its number of directors from 9 to 11 and formally voted to let Icahn take over the seat being vacated by Robert Kotick.

Miller was the shoo-in, with other likely choices. including former Nextel (S) exec John Chapple, media exec Frank Biondi and former Grey Global Advertising head Edward Meyer.

Perhaps Bewkes imagines somehow that Miller will be a leverage point in talks Time Warner has been having with Yahoo to be acquired. But the smooth exec is an expert negotiator and that seems unlikely.

More likely is that those talks, like AOL’s talks with Microsoft, have gone a little cold of late as everyone shuts up and stops making ill-conceived moves, to show Wall Street that they have their forward-leaning Internet strategies figured out.

No one does. Not Yahoo. Not Microsoft. And, most definitely, not Time Warner’s AOL.

That’s why Bewkes should stop the saber-rattling and free Miller to serve on the Yahoo board.

Yahoo could benefit and, as it stands now, Time Warner just looks silly–it does not want Miller, but it doesn’t want anyone else to have him.

My three-year-old knows how to share better than that.

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