COLUMBIA BROADCASTING SYSTEM

U.S. Network

The network CBS, traditionally referred to as the "Tiffany network" among major television broadcasting systems, has in recent years come more and more to resemble Wal-Mart. Ironically, this often prestige-laden television institution began almost as an afterthought. In 1927, when David Sarnoff did not see fit to include any of talent agent Arthur Judson's clients in his roster of stars for the new NBC radio networks, Judson defiantly founded his own network---United Independent Broadcasters. Soon merged with the Columbia Phonograph Company, the network went on the air on 18 September 1927 as the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company. Within a year heavy losses compelled the sale of the company to Jerome Louchheim and Ike and Leon Levy, the latter the fiancee of the sister of William Paley. Paley, who had become enamored of radio as a result of advertising the family's La Palina brand cigars over a local station, bought the fledgling network, then consisting of 22 affiliates and 16 employees, for $400,000 on 18 January 1929, and renamed it the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Relatively untested as a business executive, Paley immediately showed himself a superb entrepreneur. He insured the success of the new network by offering affiliates free programming in exchange for an option on advertising time, and was extremely aggressive in gaining advertising for the network. Paley's greatest gift, however, was in recognizing talent. He soon signed singers such as Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Morton Downey for the network. Unfortunately, as soon as some of them gained famed at CBS they were lured away by the far richer and more popular NBC.

This was not to be the case with news. Starved for programming Paley initially allowed his network to be used by the likes of the demagogic Father Charles Coughlin. But by 1931, Paley had terminated Coughlin's broadcasts, and under the aegis of former New York Times editor Edward Klauber and ex-United Press reporter Paul White, began building a solid news division.

CBS news did not come of age, however, until Klauber assigned the young Edward R. Murrow to London as director of European talks. On 13 March 1937 at the time of the Anschluss, Murrow teamed with former newspaper foreign correspondent William L. Shirer and a number of others to describe those events in what would become the forerunner of The CBS World News Roundup. Subsequently, during World War II, Murrow assembled a brilliant team of reporters, known collectively as "Murrow's Boys," including Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, Richard K. Hottelet, and Larry LeSueur.

In 1948, Paley turned the tables on NBC and signed some of its premier talent such as Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Burns and Allen. He also stole a march on his rival in what they considered their undisputed realm--technology---when his CBS Research Center, under the direction of the brilliant inventor Peter Goldmark, developed the Long Playing phonograph recording technique and color television.

Even with this success Paley was still loathe to enter television broadcasting. But with prodding from Dr. Frank Stanton, whom he had appointed CBS president in 1946, and his growing awareness of how rapidly television was expanding, Paley began increasing CBS investment in television programming. Indeed with the talent that CBS had taken from NBC and homegrown artists and programming such as I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey, and Gunsmoke, CBS dominated the audience rating system for almost twenty years.

The post-war years were hardly an undisturbed triumphal march for CBS. The network found itself dubbed the Communist Broadcasting System by conservatives during the McCarthy era. Nor did it distinguish itself by requiring loyalty oaths of its staff, and hiring a former FBI man as head of a loyalty clearance office. These actions were, however, redeemed to a large extent by Edward R. Murrow's 9 March 1954 See It Now broadcast investigating Senator McCarthy. Unfortunately, Murrow's penchant for controversy tarnished him in the eyes of many CBS executives and shortly thereafter, in 1961, he resigned to head the United States Information Agency.

More and more the news division, which thought of itself as the crown jewel at CBS, found itself subordinate to the entertainment values of the company, a trend highlighted at the end of the 1950s by the quiz show scandals. Indeed Paley, who had taken CBS public in 1937, now seemed to make profits his priority. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this development occurred when Fred Friendly, one of Murrow's closest associates and then CBS News division president, resigned after reruns of I Love Lucy were shown instead of the 1966 Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.

This tendency was only exacerbated in the sixties when, despite almost universal critical disdain, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction were CBS's biggest hits. However, an abrupt shift away from these programs occurred in the early 1970s. Programming executives Robert Wood and Fred Silverman inaugurated a series of sitcoms such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and M*A*S*H.

 

 

These changes had less to do with any contempt for the rural idiocy of the "barnyard comedies" than the need to appeal to a younger-urban audience with larger disposable incomes. But the newer programs, with their socially conscious themes, garnered both audience and critical acclaim.

During these years profits increased to such an extent that by 1974 the Columbia Broadcasting System had become CBS, Inc., and consisted not only of radio and TV networks but a publishing division (Holt, Reinhart and Winston), a magazine division (Woman's Day), a recording division (Columbia Records), and even for a time The New York Yankees (1964-73). Nevertheless, CBS, Inc. was hardly serene. Indeed it was quite agitated over the question of who would succeed William S. Paley.

In violation of his own rule, Paley refused to retire. He did, however, force the 1973 retirement of his logical heir, Frank Stanton. He then installed and quickly forced the resignation of Arthur Taylor, John Backe, and Thomas Wyman as Presidents and chief executive officers of CBS, Inc. Anxiety about the succession at CBS began to threaten the network's independence. Declining ratings left the company vulnerable. The biggest threat came from a takeover bid by cable mogul Ted Turner. To defend itself against a takeover CBS turned to Loew's president, Lawrence Tisch, who soon owned a 25% share in the company and became president and CEO in 1986.

Within a year Tisch's cuts in personnel and budget, and his sale of assets such as the recording, magazines, and publishing divisions had alienated many. Dan Rather, who had succeeded the avuncular Walter Cronkite as the anchor on the CBS Evening News in 1981, wrote a scathing New York Times opinion editorial called "From Murrow to Mediocrity." By 1990, the year of Paley's death, The CBS Evening News, which had led in the ratings for eighteen years under Cronkite, and for a long period under Rather, fell to number three in the rankings.

After what seemed a brief ratings resurrection resulting from the success of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and the 1993 coup of wresting The David Letterman Show away from NBC, CBS was outbid for the rights to NFL professional football by the fledgling Fox network and watched the defection of twelve choice affiliates to the same company. Despite repeated denials that the company was for sale, Tisch shopped it to perspective buyers such as former Paramount and Fox President Barry Diller. In November 1995 CBS was sold to the Westinghouse Corporation for $5.4 billion, effectively bringing to a close CBS's history as an independent company.

-Albert Auster

FURTHER READING

Benjamin, Burton. Fair Play: CBS, General Westmorland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Gates, Gary Paul. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Goldmark, Peter C. Maverick Inventor: My Turbulent Years At CBS. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.

Joyce, Ed. Prime Time, Bad Times. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

McCabe, Peter. Bad News At Black Rock: The Sell-out Of CBS News. New York: Arbor House, 1987.

Murray, Michael D. The Political Performers: CBS Broadcasts in the Public Interests. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994.

Paley, William S. As It Happened: A Memoir. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Paper, Lewis, J. Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Slater, Robert. This--Is CBS: A Chronicle of 60 Years. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, The Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Winans, Christopher. The King of Cash: The Inside Story of Laurence A. Tisch and How He Bought CBS. New York: J. Wiley, 1995.