AOL Time Warner declined to make Mr. Pittman available for an interview. But Mr. Pittman, who has repeatedly denied in published reports that he intends to leave, is a hot commodity.
One plausible scenario: replacing Michael Eisner as CEO of Walt Disney Co. Disney's stock has stumbled for months, and if Mr. Eisner leaves, as some have speculated, Mr. Pittman-who has run theme parks (Six Flags), cable networks (MTV) and now will oversee Warner Bros. studios-would be a natural to shake up the floundering giant.
"Disney seems an obvious one in that regard, but I would be surprised because [Mr. Pittman] seems to genuinely believe in the upside of AOL Time Warner," said a Wall Street analyst who declined to be identified. "He's still No. 2 and in line to be No. 1."
The bulk of Mr. Levin's net worth is tied up in AOL Time Warner stock, and observers say he knows how crucial Mr. Pittman is to the multi-faceted company. So it is unlikely Mr. Levin, 62, would have elected to step down now if he felt Mr. Pittman would feel slighted and be likely to leave.
"[Mr. Pittman's] a great, great operating executive, and having all the operating divisions report to one person is probably the best case for the company. I think he'll bring down any remaining barriers between the divisions," said Jessica Reif Cohen, an analyst at Merrill Lynch.
Still, Mr. Pittman was passed over. "It's obviously a slight," said Steve Gundersen, who heads an eponymous executive search firm. "Would he leave? There's always a great chance when a No. 2 doesn't get the nod."