- Historic Sites
A Legendary Chairman
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
By 1930 Paley had dropped the word Phonograph from the name of his company and expanded the CBS network to seventy stations, but he continued to feel like a “perpetual underdog” in his competition with NBC, which had fancier offices, larger studios, better equipment, and stronger financing.
A little incident helped Paley to attack his giant opponent. One day in the early 1930s, walking down Broadway, he noticed that a few people were waiting to see a mediocre movie at the luxurious Capitol Theater, while across the street a great many people had lined up to get into a run-down theater showing a very good movie.
“The analogy struck me so forcibly that I never forgot it,” Paley reports in his autobiography. “‘You know,’ I said to myself, ‘for radio, it’s what goes into a person’s house that counts. The radio listener doesn’t know what kind of office I have, what kind of studios I have … I just have to put things on the air that the people like more.… I’ve got to find things that will be popular. …”
This insight led eventually to what may have been the single most important business decision that Paley made in his long career. Until the end of World War II most of CBS’s entertainment shows were created by advertising agencies and outside producers. CBS had merely sold the air time.
“The answer for CBS was to originate, produce, and put on some of its own shows and to sell them to some of the advertisers or to the sponsors directly! … I would grant NBC its greater reputation, prestige, finances, and facilities. But CBS had and would continue to have the edge in creative programming. That , I thought, would be the key to success in post-war broadcasting.”
CBS produced some good programs, but it continued to trail NBC in the audience ratings, in large part because the top radio stars stayed with the more prestigious network. Then, in 1948, Gen. David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, made a big mistake. Recognizing that good programming could be bought as well as developed, Bill Paley put in a bid for NBC’s biggest star, Jack Benny, and Sarnoff did not meet it.
Benny switched to CBS. The failure to bid for Benny set a precedent that Sarnoff could not easily reverse, so other stars switched, including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Amos ’n’ Andy, Burns and Alien, and Red Skelton.
It was a drama that Shakespeare might have relished—an episode of the War of the Roses in the CBS boardroom in New York.
Sarnoff, David Halberstam comments, “believed that he owned the best theater in the nation … so he felt he could put on whatever he wanted. …” Paley knew better.
Paley’s raid on NBC came at a critical time. The CBS television network began broadcasting in 1948, and by 1955 it had surpassed NBC to become the leading network in popularity and the world’s largest advertising medium. It stayed on top for twenty-one years.
Paley takes special pleasure in telling the story of CBS News. The first radio network news operation, the Columbia News Service, was organized by CBS Radio in 1933. Five years later CBS organized the first international radio news broadcast, the “CBS World News Roundup,” with Edward R. Murrow reporting from Vienna, William L. Shirer from London.
On March 12, 1938—the day that the German army marched unopposed into Austria—the CBS news staff in Europe consisted of those two men: Murrow and Shirer. An exceptional judge of talent, Murrow quickly put together a remarkable team of young reporters, including Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Robert Trout, and Howard K. Smith. In the decades that followed, “Murrow’s boys” became familiar to millions of Americans.
It is interesting to compare the image of himself that Paley presents in his autobiography with the less flattering portrait in The Powers That Be . For instance, responding to Halberstam’s critical account of Paley’s relationship with Murrow in Murrow’s last years, Paley quotes a warm letter from Murrow’s widow that deplores Halberstam’s “dratted article.”
On the other hand, the reader of Paley’s autobiography learns nothing about the turmoil that surrounded CBS’s coverage of the presidential conventions in 1964. After NBC’s coverage of the Republican convention had routed CBS in the ratings, Halberstam reports, Paley pushed his news department to replace Cronkite—replace Cronkite!—with a Roger Mudd/Robert Trout anchor for the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. Mudd/Trout also was routed, Cronkite’s anger cooled, and eventually, according to Halberstam, Paley could wonder aloud why he had allowed the top executives in his news department to force such a poor idea upon him.
Oh, well. You can’t expect a man to put every little detail into his own autobiography. Paley also leaves out the well-known comment made by Truman Capote when a young woman marveled at how healthy Paley seemed—bursting with energy—in his seventies. “Yes,” said the novelist, “he looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.” That was exactly the way Bill Paley looked, I thought, on the night he resumed command of the company he now had dominated for nearly six decades—the night he swallowed Thomas Wyman.