AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOL), the world's largest Internet and media company, said on Friday it has hired an executive search firm to find a new chief executive for its struggling America Online unit. 

The search has intensified speculation about the future of AOL Time Warner Chief Operating Officer Robert Pittman, who was sent this spring to again head up the online unit on an interim basis until it got back on track. He had headed AOL before the company bought Time Warner for $106.2 billion in 2000.

"It should come as no surprise, because when we announced that Bob was going down to AOL in April, we said it was an interim position," AOL Time Warner spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said of the company's decision to hire executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

"He's really become a scapegoat," said SG Cowen analyst Peter Mirsky. "To some degree, it's been out there to be interpreted ever since Pittman was sent down to AOL."

AOL Time Warner's shares were off 31 cents, or 2.3 percent, at $13.39 in morning dealings, after trading as low as $12.99.

The timetable for the search has not been disclosed, but many analysts said it would likely end sooner rather than later.

"Bob Pittman has been associated perhaps with the glory days of AOL's past," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Paul Kim. "Perhaps for longer-term replacement, a fresher face is probably a strategically prudent thing to do -- maybe someone with more broad-based media experience."

OUT WITH THE OLD GUARD?

The Internet unit has been suffering from the sharp decline in online advertising and the slower-than-expected migration of its Internet subscribers to high-speed Internet services.

Pittman, a savvy marketing executive, was seen as one of the best executives to help revive AOL.

Wall Street, however, is still waiting to see the results.

Many on Wall Street have been waiting for the company to host an analysts' day to discuss the progress in AOL's recovery. When it released its last quarterly results in April, the company had said it would host such a meeting but did not set a date.

"I think the company has been getting a lot of pressure. If they have a meeting, they'd better have something to announce," Kim said -- adding that it seems that is not yet the case.

Pittman was one of the executives most closely associated with the aggressive revenue and earnings growth targets that AOL Time Warner had hung onto before finally abandoning them last year, citing the economic slowdown and its devastating effect on the advertising market.

The company has now taken a conservative outlook in hopes of regaining investor credibility.

Analysts also said they would not be surprised to see Pittman leave, adding that such speculation has been building since he was passed over last year for the company's top job, which ended up going to his then co-COO Richard Parsons.

"He is COO and has been, and nothing has changed," Primrose said. "He's doing his job today. He's at a conference."

Pittman was attending a conference of media players in Idaho. Media executives said Pittman's future was one of the main talking points at the event.

Recent management shuffles -- such as the departure of Gerald Levin, the former chief executive and a key architect of the merger that created AOL Time Warner -- have suggested that the company might be phasing out the old guard and those most closely linked to the deal, analysts said.

Investor sentiment -- and morale within AOL Time Warner -- have soured as its stock has fallen about 70 percent since AOL bought Time Warner in Jan. 2000.

The stock slide has also led many to question the premises of the much-hyped megamerger, as new services and "synergies" from the combination of the Internet with television, movies, music and magazines have yet to make a big splash.