CBS: The Power and the Profits

However the Toynbee or the Gibbon of the future adjudges what happened to American society, he will need to reckon large with the impact of radio and television. By the 1950s, TV had become the greatest new instrument of political and social influence in the nation. How that happened, how TV became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes, is most simply told as the story of one broadcasting network, of its founder and indomitable chairman, William S. Paley, and the men who helped make CBS into Paley's golden candy store. David Halberstam has written that story as part of a larger work in progress about centers of power in America and the ways they have been affected by science, technology, and modern communications. This is the first of two installments.
1. The Chairman's Tale: The Man Who Built the Candy Store
Also see:

"The Power and the Profits: Part II" (February 1976)
How three Presidents influenced and were influenced by TV, how TV made Vietnam into an electronic war, and how TV dealt with Watergate. By David Halberstam

In the fall of 1974, in his seventy-fourth year, William S. Paley, a lion in winter pretending it was Indian summer, took time off from running one of the world's great commercial empires to attend the funeral of a younger colleague. Bill Paley liked less and less going to funerals, but in this case the deceased was Hubbell Robinson, and Hub had been in programming. Above all else, programming was close to Paley's heart, the part of broadcasting he loved most. That Hubbell Robinson's second tour of duty at CBS had not ended entirely happily (very few major careers at CBS end happily) was forgotten. (Some ten years earlier Hub had been outlining a program schedule with Jim Aubrey when Aubrey had said, "Hub, you're through." Hub, a gentle soul by comparison with most CBS executives, mistakenly thought Aubrey meant he was through only with that day's planning session.)

On the day of the funeral, many of Paley's best qualities were on view—the sensitivity, charm, and quick flashes of warmth. He spotted Mike Dann, who had also worked in programming at CBS and who had left there sick at heart over what he had put on the tube for millions of Americans. (Worse, Dann had uttered words to that effect in public.) Dann was now doing a form of self-proclaimed penance, working in public broadcasting at the Children's Television Workshop. But whatever had passed between Dann and Paley, Dann had been in programming, and that meant that he too was special, and at the ceremonies Paley asked Dana to ride back to the city with him. As they left the cemetery Paley deftly moved the conversation from the funeral to the subject of programming, today's programming. Bill Paley did not like to talk about the past. The past bothered him. It might mean that he was old and near retirement (he was in fact nine years past retirement, the only person at CBS for whom the mandatory retirement age had been waived). The past was invoked only to make a specific point about the present.

So they talked about the present. Paley seemed as youthful and vibrant and domineering as ever, talking about the shows that bothered him (he never liked to talk about things that were going well, as if his outfit might become complacent if he or his people harped on their successes). What did Dann think about the fall lineup? There was an ape show that bothered Paley He had been dubious about the idea from the beginning, never enthusiastic about having a bunch of apes on his network, and his suspicions had been well founded. The only thing worse than having apes on your network was having apes with low ratings.

They talked about some of the older shows that had seen their best days, and Paley became excited. It was important to keep the old shows alive, perhaps infuse them with fresh ideas and material, make them more contemporary, but keep them alive. Here was vintage Paley, Dann thought. Disavowing an old show was like disavowing children, and he could not bear to do it. Years earlier, when Gunsmoke, once a giant among CBS programs, had begun to slip, the programming people wanted to kill the show and finally persuaded Paley to do it. The decision was agreed upon and ratified, and Paley had gone on vacation. Then he had an inspiration: the show should be rescheduled, in a softer time slot. There it once again prospered.

As he listened, Dann felt himself drawn to Paley once again. His charm and vitality were irresistible. Like many others who had worked at CBS, Dann knew the limits of Paley's charm, knew it could be turned off as quickly as it was turned on. The ride back to town, he thought, was like being in a programming session; he half expected Paley to blame him for the ape show. He complimented Paley on how well the ratings were going, and Paley, nervous as ever with success, said grudgingly, yes, the season was going well, and this young Arthur Taylor who had replaced Frank Stanton was doing very well. He was learning very quickly. Dann knew Paleyology well enough to translate that it meant that Arthur Taylor was doing well but the jury, composed of twelve Bill Paleys good and true, was still out.

The conversation went on to some brief discussion of what Dann was doing at the PBS Children's Workshop (though no one mentioned that Dann was there in part to exorcise feelings of guilt about his CBS days). As they neared the CBS building Dann knew what was coming. And it came. Restaurants, Bill Paley said. Had Mike Dann been to any good new restaurants lately?

He looked, Dann thought, and everyone else who knew him agreed, incredible. He was slim and trim. The talents of expert and expensive gymnasts had gone into keeping him lean and fit, and either gracefulness of aging or the benefits of modern medicine had spared him bags under the eyes and sagging skin.

He resisted time—mentally, physically, psychologically. He defied not only the actuarial tables but the legal rules for retirement at CBS, rules which he himself had written. At CBS he was known as the 800-pound gorilla (as in the joke "Question: How do you argue with an 8OO-pound gorilla? Answer: You don't") and more commonly as the Chairman, much as Mao Tse-tung (who has enjoyed a much briefer reign) is known in China as the Chairman.

William S. Paley was a man of exquisite tastes, not all of which he passed on to an awaiting public. He was a sensualist who, unlike most sensualists, had intense inner discipline. He was at various stages of his life a lover of great art, great food and great women. He was a man of no small inner professional ambivalence, who had given the country both Edward R. Murrow and The Beverly Hillbillies, more of the latter than of the former, though it was Murrow's photo that still hung on his wall. We remember what we like to remember.

He was, in the savage, predatory world of network broadcasting, the best. He had swum for all those years among some of the nation's greatest sharks and there were no tooth marks on him. So he was tough, and, for better or worse, the best. His good people were better than the other networks’ people and his awful successful shows were more awful and successful than those of his competitors. He had the best people, the best ratings, the most money. He had written the rules and broken the rules, and then rewritten them so that no one else would ever break them as he had broken. He had managed again and again to perpetuate success, from a small radio station to a radio network, and then to a television network. He and his minions were less than generous in using their airwaves for public service, but they were expert in selling the idea that they were committed to public service. They sold, if not better shows, at least the idea that CBS was somehow classier than the competition. They were skilled at selling their ideals, even when they did not fulfill them. And in all of this Bill Paley became very rich and more: he achieved a power over American taste and an effect on American culture and sociology that had never been envisioned before.

Paley’s fascination with and attention to programming set him apart in broadcasting and made him more influential in our lives than David Sarnoff had been at NBC or Leonard Goldenson was at ABC. His devotion to programming and the criteria for programming he helped set affected daily what we saw and what we did not see on an instrument that was, in both overt and subliminal ways, more important and dominant in our lives than newspapers, radio, churches, and often, in the rootless America of the seventies, more important than family, and more influential and powerful than the government itself.

David Sarnoff had been a poet of technology, the protégé of Marconi, a visionary in a new and revolutionary field. In the early twenties he had dreamed of installing something called the Radio Music Box in every American home, and by the thirties, when radios were finally arriving in people's homes, he was already pushing for something called television. Radio competitors bought ads portraying Sarnoff as a gorilla wrecking the radio industry and labeled him (they meant it pejoratively) a "televisionary." He was the wireless operator who made good, a man more fascinated by his equipment than by the images, entertainment, or information it produced.

For the most part, NBC's parent company, RCA, dealt with matters that had nothing to do with NBC. ABC was the network stepchild, originally part of NBC until the government had demanded that NBC divest itself of its second network. ABC lacked a Paley or a Sarnoff and, despite periodic attempts to upgrade its quality, lacked a sense of broadcast tradition. Goldenson was the administrative officer of a vast entertainment conglomerate that had its real roots in Hollywood and dealt as much with movie theaters and popcorn sales as it did with radio and television broadcasting.

Bill Paley, by contrast, was a man totally of broadcasting. One man, one network for over forty years. He was not a man of technology like Sarnoff; technology intimidated him; he seemed more than a little allergic to Peter Goldmark, the extraordinary CBS scientist who invented the long-playing record and pioneered in color television. It was said of Paley that no matter how well and reliably a new invention tested out, when Paley touched it, it came apart. (Sarnoff used to gloat—not without reason—that Paley might be better and shrewder than be in business matters, but whenever Paley tried his hand at technology he always got his fingers burned.) But Paley did more to influence what America saw every night than anyone at the other two networks.

His preoccupation in the 1970s was very much what it had been thirty years earlier. He had been an owner of a radio station in Philadelphia before becoming a major shareholder in the embryonic CBS network in 1928, and his life has spanned the history of broadcasting. He never did as well at business ventures outside broadcasting as he did inside it; outside, his taste and smell often failed him. His company was born of broadcasting as the other two companies were not, and even in later years, as CBS grew and produced good guitars and bad baseball teams. Paley never lost sight of the fact that programming was at the heart of it all. No one could imagine General Sarnoff reading a script for an NBC series; but no one could imagine Bill Paley not checking scripts extremely carefully for a CBS series. Over the years, Paley rarely missed a major weekly programming meeting; that above all was of priority. Thus, before a show was locked in at CBS and made part of the schedule, it bore to an uncommon degree Bill Paley's imprimatur, his vision of broadcasting, and his sense of the national taste.

Paley was not a mere corporate figure but a total individual, a surviving original, a man who lived a life rich in its texture, who knew and enjoyed quality, and who demanded it in every aspect of his own life. If he had helped engineer a broadcasting system that used ratings as virtually the sole criterion for prime time shows, then that told us something not just about Bill Paley and broadcasting but about the mercantile pressures of our society, the limits of our freedoms, what they did to even the best and most interesting of men.

For the vehicle he dominated had a potential that staggered the imagination but disillusioned idealists, such as Sylvester ("Pat") Weaver. Weaver, one of the major figures of the early television days, the man who brought the Today Show and the Tonight Show to NBC television and Monitor to NBC radio, was not averse to profit, but he believed programming needed balance. He often talked of his special dream, television as a vehicle for turning the common man into the uncommon man. But it had worked out differently; dreaming at CBS had produced a slightly different vision, that of turning common profit into uncommon profit.

Bill Paley liked to deny that he was powerfu1. He was quick to say that he never tried to stop a political program that went against his own political beliefs. He was smart enough to know that his position and influence were resented by some and that any visible sign of his taking pleasure in his power would only make things worse. But the truth was different. He had in fact systematically exercised power, even when deciding what he was not putting on. The failure to make a decision is a kind of decision, the failure to lead is a kind of leadership. His power was real, the impact of his taste and his values far-reaching.

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