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.
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12. So, Who Controls the News?

The possibilities of nationwide advertising on television transformed the nature of American communications. Afternoon newspapers began to atrophy and die. Large-circulation magazines, which up until then had been the main conduit of mass advertising—for razor blades, beer, tires, cars, main household goods—could not compete with television for advertising or audiences. Within a few years many of them were dead. A new mass audience was eager for mass entertainment: along with it came new dimensions in hard-sell mass advertising. It was all bigger, and reached more and more people, and the quality was pitched just a few notches lower. Dramatic changes in the relationship of programs to sponsors marked the trend.

Having raided Sarnoff of his talent, Paley moved to make sure that something like this would never happen again, in particular that it would not happen to him, and that the stars or people representing stars would have less leverage against a network. He moved now to take control of programming. In the past in radio, and even in the early days of television, the networks had not produced their own shows, but rather had bought them from the advertising agencies.

At first there was some resistance to Paley's initiative. Gradually it began to change. In the old days one company had sponsored a show completely, but now it was all too expensive. No single company could afford a show, given soaring production costs on television. No one could sponsor Cronkite news, as for example Pall Mall had by itself sponsored Douglas Edwards. (It now costs about $18 million a year to sponsor the Cronkite news.) First companies alternated sponsorship on different weeks; then gradually they began to share given programs. It was a tense moment. Would the American people accept a program brought to them by both an auto company and a floor wax? Then there were a number of commercials on the same program. And then the cruelest blow of all, back-to-back commercials. All of this because the costs were always going up.  CBS was no longer a pipeline for the work of others; now it was producing and scheduling as it chose.

Bill Paley loved programming. He had no wild, adventurous policy; he was not a great innovator. He was content to let others experiment and make mistakes while he studied how to improve it. The ratings were the ultimate measure of success, not taste, nor any sense of balance between commercial harvest and public accountability. That one way no one was responsible. The advertisers wanted the highest ratings because they wanted the biggest numbers. So the networks had to give advertisers what they wanted, which was (they could say to themselves) the same as giving the people what they wanted. A kind of golden prison.

The early CBS reporters loved the simplicity and the freedom of radio. Journalism at its best is a highly personal art, and radio encouraged individualism. The technology of radio was not complicated or expensive; if a correspondent had a story, he simply went on the air. Very little was required of producers or technicians. And there was little bureaucratic interference from the home office. Murrow did not want his radio men to mimic the wire services; he wanted more reflective reporting. He wanted thoughts and ideas, a sense of the issues at play. He also warned against tricks and against hamming it up on the radio. "I want personalities," he said. "If you're a reporter you'll become a personality. Just be intelligent and informed." In the postwar era it was a point of pride with the CBS foreign staff that the CIA's chief intelligence experts began their day with the New York Times and a transcript of the CBS Morning News Roundup.

Murrow returned to America after the war with some misgivings. He told his wife that they were going home "to fight the same kind of things we've been fighting here," an odd and dark remark. Paley's attempt to make Murrow an executive was ill-fated, and he lasted little more than a year. Rather than give Murrow the power to make the news section better, the company used Murrow's name to make decisions, not necessarily his, appear more palatable.

The most delicate problem turned out to be Murrow's old friend Bill Shirer. Shirer was doing a Sunday afternoon radio news show and his sponsor decided to drop him and hire another broadcaster. Murrow reassigned Shirer to another time slot, though without a sponsor and thus at a considerable reduction in income. Shirer was bitter. He had sixteen months to go on his contract. Murrow tried to make him stay, but Shirer was hurt and felt he had been gagged. Since Shirer was the furthest left of the major commentators at the time—he opposed the Truman Doctrine and in general was less of what would come to be known as a Cold Warrior than his colleagues—many thought that CBS, Murrow included, was buckling under to political pressure. (Among those who felt that way was Shirer himself, who later wrote a novel, entitled Stranger Come Home, dealing with the McCarthy Era and singularly unflattering to a character seemingly modeled on Murrow.)

The incident underlined the question of who controlled the news, the network or the sponsors. Did the sponsors for example, have the right to control the tone of the news by deciding whose voice should be heard? Murrow said that a sponsor could select a broadcaster, though it could not control content. It was, he knew, an unsatisfactory answer because a newscaster defined the tone and style of a show; there was no such thing as pure content. In addition, it meant that sponsors, rather than CBS News, had the right to advance or thwart a broadcaster's career, and that very quickly the least offensive journalist, rather than the most talented, might rise and be rewarded.

The corporate role was not one that Murrow relished; the voice he spoke with was not necessarily his own. By 1947, he was back to broadcasting, awaiting the arrival of television, which he regarded with suspicion and ambivalence. But he was a communicator; and whatever else television was, it was clearly a powerful forum for communication.

Murrow was not sure that television was a good conduit for the transmission or translation of ideas, and he was ill at ease with its sheer force. He saw in it a tendency toward overdramatization and away from appreciation of subtleties. In particular he was wary of doing any kind of hard-news broadcasting for television. He had never really been a hard-news man; he was always more interested in interpretation. Some who knew him well thought that Murrow was keenly aware of being Murrow, of being a little different from the rest of the pack. He was by no means eager, they suspected, to let the impersonal mechanics of being a television anchorman dilute that impact. So his moves toward television were slow. When he returned to broadcasting, it was to radio, an evening news show. He did some reporting and commentary for television at the 1948 presidential nominating conventions. But he was wary. Television required so much contrivance. It was a team art, involving producers, cameramen, sound men, levels and levels of technicians, all of whom might distort the effect of the individual journalist.

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