Sarnoff, eldest son of broadcasting mogul David Sarnoff, followed
in his father's professional footsteps throughout his career at
NBC and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Contemporaries attributed
Robert's corporate promotions to nepotism, and constantly drew comparisons
between his executive performance and style and that of his father.
During his years as company head, Robert practiced decision-making
by consensus, displayed an obsession with corporate efficiency,
and constantly sought to implement modern management techniques.
David's aggressive, imperial, dynamic manner of command often overshadowed
his son's practical, yet increasingly mercurial, character.
After a short stint in the magazine business, Robert Sarnoff joined
NBC as an accounts executive in 1948--at a time when David Sarnoff
had recently assumed chairmanship of electronics giant RCA, the
parent company of NBC. Robert served in a variety of positions over
the next few years, working his way up the business ladder. As vice
president of NBC's film unit he oversaw the development of Project
XX and Victory At Sea--the latter a pioneer in the documentary
series format that traced the naval campaigns of the World War II
through compilation footage. Passing as educational programming,
the series was well attuned to Cold War patriotism and earned Sarnoff
a Distinguished Public Service Award from the U.S. Navy.
television programming strategies during the first half of the 1950s
were largely determined by the flamboyant Pat Weaver. RCA funded
Weaver's extravagant experiments in the medium since it wished to
establish NBC's reputation as a "quality" network and was realizing
a return on its investment through increased sales of television
receivers. By mid-decade, however, RCA policy was modified: NBC
was now expected to achieve economic self-sufficiency and advertising
sales parity with arch-rival CBS. Weaver was first promoted to NBC
chair in 1955, and then forced to resign from the company several
months later. In turn, Robert Sarnoff ascended to fill both vacant
assumed leadership of the network's financial interests and general
policy decisions. Robert Kintner, who had shown a propensity for
budget-conscious scheduling at ABC, took over as head of NBC-TV
programming and was elevated to the rank of NBC president in 1958.
Together, the "Bob and Bob Show" (as it was known in the industry)
stabilized network operations and routinized programming. Sarnoff
established a clear chain of command by streamlining NBC's staff,
increasing middle management positions, and delegating more operating
responsibilities to department heads. In order to cut overheads,
in-house production was curtailed, and links with several dependable
suppliers of filmed programming were created. Program development
and series renewal became subject to ratings success and spot advertising
sales. Towards the end of the decade, westerns, action shows, sitcoms,
and quiz shows were regular prime time features. Gone, for the most
part, were the costly "spectaculars" and live dramas of the Weaver
years. NBC profits improved steadily.
most public phase came in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he
defended NBC programming policies against critics in the press and
in Congress. The public interest was best served by popular programming,
Sarnoff's reasoning went. He espoused the benefits of a "well-rounded
schedule," but clearly practiced a policy of programming to majority
tastes. Sarnoff insisted that competition for advertisers, audiences,
and affiliate clearance would ensure that the networks would remain
receptive to the multiple demands of the market. Ratings were the
economic lifeblood of the medium; "high brow" interests would have
to remain secondary to "mass appeal" shows in the NBC schedule.
Critics who lamented the disappearance of "cultural" programming
were elitist, he claimed. Neither the Federal Communications Commission
nor Congress should interfere in network operations or establish
program guidelines, according to Sarnoff, since this would encourage
political maneuvering and obstruct market forces. More effective
industry self-regulation and self-promotion, spear-headed by the
networks, would ensure that recent broadcasting transgressions (symbolized
by the quiz show scandals and debates over violence on television)
would not reoccur.
agenda did not dismiss "public service" programming entirely. Kintner
had turned NBC's news department into a commercially viable operation,
most notably with the Huntley-Brinkley Report. During these
years, NBC undertook various educational projects, including Continental
Classroom (the first network program designed to provide classes
for college credit) and several programs on art history (a particular
passion of Sarnoff). Sarnoff extolled television's ability to enlighten
through its capacity to channel and process the diverse fields of
information, knowledge, and experience that characterized the modern
age. He touted television's ability to generate greater viewer insight
into the political process, and is credited with bringing about
the televised "Great Debates" between Kennedy and Nixon during the
1960 presidential campaign.
general, NBC's public service record during the Sarnoff years was
disappointing. NBC did, however, become a serious ratings and billings
competitor to CBS. In marked contrast to the dismal results of the
previous decade, the network's color programming in the 1960s helped
to dramatically boost color set sales--and, consequently, RCA coffers.
On the first day of 1966, again thanks largely to his father's influence,
Robert Sarnoff became President of RCA. Two years later he assumed
also the role of chief executive officer. David Sarnoff remained
chairman of the board until 1970, when ill health forced him to
relinquish that position to his son. At RCA Robert inherited, and
exacerbated, problematic developments that would result in his forced
resignation in 1975. The younger Sarnoff continued to diversify
the corporation, but with some ill-chosen investments that yielded
poor returns. Most significantly, he over-committed company resources
to an abortive attempt to achieve competitiveness in the mainframe
computer market. During Sarnoff's tumultuous time at RCA he continued
to oversee operations at NBC. There he found little solace, as the
network lost ground to CBS and ABC in the early 1970s. NBC's weakened
performance contributed to declining RCA stock prices--a state of
affairs that resulted in Robert's displacement from the company
that had become synonymous with the Sarnoff name over the previous
Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center
SARNOFF. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 2 July 1918.
Educated at Harvard University, B.A. 1939; Columbia Law School,
1940. Worked in office of Coordinator of Information, Washington,
D.C., 1941; U.S. Navy, 1942; assistant to publisher Gardner Cowles,
Jr., 1945; staff member, Look, 1946; president, NBC, 1955-58;
board of directors, RCA, 1957; chair of board, NBC, 1958; chair
of board, chief executive officer, NBC, 1958-65; president, RCA,
1966; chief executive officer, 1968; chair of board, 1970-75. Member:
Television Pioneers, 1957 (president, 1952-53); International Radio
& TV Society; Broadcasters Committee for Radio Free Europe; American
Home Products, Inc.; director, Business Committee for the Arts;
chair and former president of council, Academy of TV Arts and Sciences;
vice president and member of board of directors, Academy of Television
Arts & Sciences Foundation.
Robert. "What Do You Want From TV?" Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania), 1 July 1961.
"A View From the Bridge of NBC." Television Quarterly (New
York), Spring 1964.
Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the
Communications Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Jr., Vance. "From 'Frontal Lobes' to the 'Bob-and-Bob' Show: NBC
Management and Programming Strategies, 1949-65." In Balio, Tino,
editor. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Unwin Hyman, 1990.
"Sarnoff of NBC: The Decision Makers, Part 5." TV Guide (Radnor,
Pennsylvania), 2 February 1963.
Robert. RCA. New York: Stein and Day, 1986.
Broadcasting Company; Kintner,
of America; Sarnoff,
at Sea; Weaver,