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.
2. Up From a Good Five Cent Cigar to Supermoney

He has lived a rich and full life, enjoying his money and getting the full benefit of it. His social accomplishments have been at least as considerable as his business ones. He married one of the three fabled Cushing girls of Boston, Barbara Cushing Mortimer, a lady at once beautiful, gracious, and social. That gained him Jock Whitney as a brother-in-law and Mrs. Vincent Astor as a sister-in-law. A whole new world opened to him; eventually, in his progress through it, he became president and subsequently chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. A man who wanted the best in everything, he now had the ultimate wife, a woman who was Vogue magazine sprung to life, who looked like Vogue and dressed like Vogue and lived in homes where Vogue would be at ease. If Bill Paley cared about taste, then the second Mrs. William Paley—Babe—was perfect because she was taste, she was an arbiter of style by instinct and by nature; where she went, taste and style followed. She was, pronounced designer Halston, "the number one fashion personality in America because all women notice her-and men too."

Not bad for William Samuel Paley, grandson of Isaac and Zelda Paley of Kiev, Russia, son of Samuel and Goldie Paley. Some thought the picture on the wrappers of Sam's LaPalina cigars looked very much like Goldie, and though Bill Paley insisted that it was just a coincidence, he conceded a certain similarity. Those two worlds, the world of Kiev and the Congress Cigar company, and the world of Babe Paley and Jock Whitney, contrasted sharply. Paley was part of that Long Island, but not entirely of it. He was not a member of Piping Rock, its exclusive country club, and he knew of the resentments provoked by his success and his profession and his religion.

In the late 1950s, Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, suggested to Paley that he join the F Street Club: the perfect club for him in Washington, said Graham, the right combination of good men, powerful, attractive, effective. He would be at home there. Paley, knowing the byzantine ways of clubs and of restricted apartment houses was nervous. He did not really like the idea of clubs, he told Graham; his experience was that he was better off without them. But Graham, a man of infectious enthusiasms, said not to worry about that, these were modern, serious, humane of the world, and he, Phil Graham, would personally lobby it through. Paley, encouraged by the idea of Phil Graham as his floor manager, reluctantly agreed to let his name be put up. Phil Graham was very nearly as good as his word. He lobbied with great vigor and intelligence. A few weeks later he met a friend on a Washington-New York flight and seemed almost desperate for companionship. Graham's customary enthusiasm was gone and he seemed somber. The friend asked what was wrong. "Oh, God," said Graham, "this is one of the worst days of my life—this is the day I’ve got to go to New York and tell Bill Paley he was blackballed at the F Street Club.”

Unattained WASP club memberships notwithstanding, Paley's has been an extraordinary life: his great network, his marvelous and gentle wife, his art collection, his entrè to almost anything and anyone—an instant American Rothschild in terms of status. And yet he possessed a quality that left many who knew him well with more than a small sense of doubt. He had acquired all that a man could acquire. ("Don't buy Matisses and Picassos, Davis,” he said in the late forties to the CBS man in Paris, David Schoenbrun, "they've gone too high on the market now. Buy Rembrandt, because Rembrandts are the best. They're the best buy now and they're always going to be great. You remember that and remember that Bill Paley told you." Schoenbrun, though not in the Matisse and Picasso league, remembered that, and remembered years later that Paley had been right, as usual. Rembrandts had gone up more than Picassos and Matisses.)

He had pioneered in an industry that was in a perpetual state of revolution, and mastered it and stayed on top. And yes, CBS was the best, but the doubts persisted, and what was more, they persisted among those who knew by far the most about CBS, those who had worked there and who knew the difference between the reality and the potential of network broadcasting, the difference between what was and what might have been. Of the two very powerful drives working on Bill Paley—the wish to make a profit, to drive CBS's stock and profit ever upward, and the sense of excellence and responsibility to the public—the second thrust had clearly diminished over the years. The dominant thrust, ever more powerful, was for greater profit, almost always at the expense of public time and public service or of willingness to experiment in quality programming in the arts or public affairs. What was lacking was a modest sense of balance. More, the trend was not good, for as television time became more expensive and thus more valuable, the cost of experimentation grew higher and the potential loss of revenue far greater.

The networks always had an excuse or a scapegoat for whatever they chose to do or not to do (the ratings, the affiliates, the FCC). The CBS public relations machinery was able to single out a play at Christmastime, or a documentary like The Selling of the Pentagon, or claim that the network was doing very daring things in its situation comedies (whites with blacks and blacks with whites). For if public affairs programs were sponsored and made a profit, that was not good enough; CBS demanded superprofit, the kind that came from dominating a key section of prime time, so that its share of a minute was worth two or three times as much as the (quite profitable) minute of the opposition. That was profit, that was the ratings, and no one was better at the TV supermoney game than Bill Paley and CBS.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In