Media Executive

William S. Paley developed the CBS radio and television networks, and ran them for more than a half century. "A 20th-century visionary with the ambitions of a 19th-century robber baron," as The New York Times described him, Paley took over a tiny failing network with only 16 affiliate stations and developed it into a world-class communications empire. Delegating management details to others, he had a seemingly unfailing sense of popular taste and a resultant flair for programming.

Radio's commercial potential came to fascinate Paley early on. Using funds from his father's cigar company shares, Paley purchased working control of the struggling CBS network in September 1928. He was just turning 27. A year later, family purchase of additional shares gave him majority control.

Paley's insights helped to define commercial network operations. At the start of his CBS stewardship, he transformed the network's financial relationship with its affiliates so that the latter agreed to carry sustaining programs free, receiving network payments only for commercially-supported programs. Paley enjoyed socializing and negotiating with broadcast stars. In the late 1940s, his "talent raids" hired top radio stars (chiefly away from NBC) by offering huge prices for rights to their programs and giving them, in return, lucrative capital gains tax options. The talent pool thus developed helped to boost CBS radio ratings just as network television was beginning. At the same time, he encouraged development of CBS News before and during the war as it developed a stable of stars soon headed by Edward R. Murrow.

During World War II, he served as deputy chief of the psychological warfare branch of General Dwight Eisenhower's staff. Paley became chair of the CBS board in 1946, turning the network's presidency over to Frank Stanton who held the post until his own retirement in 1973. The television network first showed a profit in 1953 and from 1955 through 1976, CBS television consistently led in prime-time network ratings. Network profits helped expand CBS into many other lines of entertainment and education--including the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady" in 1956--as Paley acquired other businesses.

There were technical opportunities as well. CBS Laboratories' Peter C. Goldmark developed a mechanical system of color television that was briefly (1950-53) the nation's first standard before being pushed aside by a superior all-electronic RCA system. By then, CBS had traded a quarter of its stock to buy Hytron, a TV receiver manufacturer later sold for a huge loss. More successfully, Goldmark also pioneered the long playing (LP) record, introduced in 1948, which revolutionized the recording industry and made CBS Records (sold in 1987 to Sony for $2 billion) the leading record company in America for both classical and popular records.

As he stayed beyond CBS' compulsory (for others) retirement age of 65, Paley sought to delay his inevitable passing of control to others. Paley worked through several short-lived potential heirs in the late 1970s: he stepped down as chief executive officer in 1977, but retained the powerful chairmanship. Finally, he hired Pillsbury's Thomas H. Wyman to become president in 1980. Wyman succeeded Paley as the network's second chairman in 1983. Concerned with some of Wyman's decisions in the aftermath of an unsuccessful attempt by Ted Turner to acquire CBS in 1985, Paley allied himself with Lawrence Tisch (by then holding the largest single block of company shares) to oust Wyman and install Tisch as chief executive officer in 1986. Paley returned as a figurehead chair until his death in late 1990.

Paley is important for having assembled the brilliant team that built and expanded the CBS "Tiffany Network" image over several decades. For many years he had an innate programming touch which helped keep the network on top in annual ratings wars. He blew hot and cold on network news, helping to found and develop it, but willing to cast much of that work aside to avoid controversy or to increase profits. Like many founders, however, he stayed too long and unwittingly helped weaken his company.

Paley was very active in New York art and social circles throughout his life. He was a key figure in the Museum of Modern Art from its founding in 1929. He prompted construction of the Eero Saarinen-designed "Black Rock" headquarters into which the network moved in 1965. His was the primary donation that helped to create what is now the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City in 1976. The middle "S" in his name stood for nothing--Paley added it in his early business years. He had no formal middle name.

--Christopher H. Sterling



William Paley
Photo courtesy of William Paley

WILLIAM S. PALEY. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 28 September 1901. Graduated from Western Military Academy, Alton, Illinois, 1918; studied at the University of Chicago, 1918-19; University of Pennsylvania, B.S. 1922. Married: 1) Dorothy Hart Hearst, 1932 (divorced, 1947); one son and one daughter; 2) Barbara Cushing Mortimer (died, 1978); one son, one daughter, one stepson, and one stepdaughter. Served as colonel, United States Army, World War II; deputy chief, psychological warfare division, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers (Europe); deputy chief, information control division, USGCC. Vice president, Congress Cigar Company, Philadelphia, 1922-28; president, CBS, Inc., New York City, 1928-46, chair of the board, 1946-83, founder and chair, 1983-86, acting chair, 1986-87, chair and director, 1987-90; partner, Whitcom Investment Company, 1982-90; founder, and member of board of directors, Genetics Institute, 1980-90; Thinking Machines Corp., 1983-90; co-chair, International Herald Tribune, 1983-1990; president and director, William S. Paley Foundation, Greenpark Foundation, Inc.

Trustee: Museum of Modern Art, 1937-90, president, 1968-72, chair, 1972-85, chair emeritus, 1985-90; life trustee, Columbia University, 1950-73, trustee emeritus, 1973-90; North Shore University Hospital, 1949-57, co-chair, board of trustees, 1954-73; life trustee, Federation Jewish Philanthropies of New York. Member: board of directors, W. Averill Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of Soviet Union, Columbia University; Commission for White House Conference on Education, 1954-56; chair, President's Materials for Policy Commission, which produced "Resources for Freedom," 1951-52; executive committee, Resources for the Future, 1952-69, chair, 1966-69, honorary member, board of directors, 1969-90; chair, New York City Task Force on Urban Design, which prepared "The Threatened City" report, 1967; Urban Design Council City, New York, 1968-71; founding member, Bedford-Stuyvesant D and S Corp., director, 1967-72; Commission on Critical Choices for America, 1973-77, Commission for Cultural Affairs, New York City, 1975-78; founder and chair of the board, Museum of Broadcasting, from 1976; Council on Foreign Relations; Academy of Political Sciences; National Institute for Social Sciences; Royal Society of the Arts (fellow). Honorary degrees: LL.D.: Adelphi University, 1957, Bates College, 1963, University of Pennsylvania, 1968, Columbia University, 1975, Brown University, 1975, Pratt Institute, 1977, Dartmouth College, 1979; L.H.D.: Ithaca College, 1978, University of Southern California, 1985, Rutgers University, 1986; Long Island University: Southampton, 1987. Military honors: Decorated Legion of Merit; Medal for Merit; officer, Legion of Honor, France; Croix de Guerre with Palm, France; commander, Order of Merit, Italy; associate commander, Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Recipient: Gold Achievement Medal, Poor Richard Club; Keynote Award, National Association of Broadcasters; George Foster Peabody Awards, 1958 and 1961; Broadcast Pioneers, special award; Concert Artists Guild Award, 1965; Skowhegan Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Award; National Planning Association, Gold Medal; David Sarnoff Award, University of Arizona, 1979; Society of Family of Man Gold Medallion, 1982; Joseph Wharton Award, Wharton School Club, New York, 1983; TV Guide Life Achievement Award, 1984; Center for Communications Award, 1985; co-recipient, Walter Cronkite Award, Arizona State University, 1984; City of New York Medallion of Honor; First Amendment Freedoms Award, Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith; Robert Eunson Distinguished Service Award, Association of Press Broadcasters; named to Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame, 1984. Died in Manhattan, New York, 26 October 1990.

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

Halberstam, David. The Powers that Be. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1983.

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.


See also Columbia Broadcasting System; Murrow, Edward R.; Stanton, Frank; United States: Networks