This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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by Jim Cox © 2007
(From Radio Recall, February 2007)
Powerbrokers William S. Paley and David Sarnoff and the Competing Broadcast Empires They Fashioned
(Part two of a two part series -
click here for Part One)
CBS president Frank Stanton proclaimed: “I never heard Bill [Paley] talk about using the stars for television at all. For him in those days it was all radio. His postwar idea was simply to get control of radio programming. He never talked about television…. He didn’t pick stars with any idea about leaping into television.” Paley’s intents notwithstanding, an incisive biographer exclaimed: “He may have thought he was building radio, but his gut—the visceral, even primitive, love for stars and shows that figured in every move he made—was to give his fledgling television network an advantage Sarnoff would never match.” A contemporary website labels Paley “the best-known executive in network television,” a fascinating prospect considering for much of his career his interests and expertise were unmistakably focused elsewhere.
One of Paley’s primary methods in achieving his unintended feat was witnessed in the infamous talent raids he conducted in 1948 and 1949. Swooping in on personalities at other chains over which the listeners had long fawned, his exercise was dubbed “Paley’s Comet” for the lightning speed with which it was completed. A handful of star legends were offered extraordinarily profitable long-term tax-savings incentives for signing with CBS, putting considerably more bills into their pockets than they were accustomed to.
When the dust settled Paley had attracted Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx from ABC. Beyond those notable gains, however, he scored his most impressive coup d’état against NBC and his old archrival. From him he took venerated legends—Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (Amos ‘n’ Andy), Red Skelton, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. Along with them went Ozzie and Harriet Nelson plus Harold Peary (The Great Gildersleeve) who headlined a new CBS sitcom. It was “the biggest upheaval in broadcasting since Paley bought CBS in 1928” one wag pontificated.
For the first time in two decades CBS occupied the pinnacle of the ratings heap. Moreover, the web boasted full sponsorship of 29 programs that it owned outright, a reversal of prior circumstances. By the start of 1950 CBS owned 80 percent of radio’s top 20 Nielsen-rated shows while NBC could do little but lick its wounds. Not the least among the atrocities it suffered was a $7 million loss in ad revenue in one year, to say nothing of millions of listeners who defected to CBS, still following their favorite stars.
A Paley biographer offered readers a number of comparisons between the two czars running CBS and NBC. “Although Sarnoff had the superior intellect, he was deliberate and methodical and in his eyes, everything Paley achieved came too easily. To Sarnoff, Paley was a child of privilege,” wrote the chronicler. “Sarnoff never appreciated that Paley was a creative and shrewd entrepreneur who leaned on and learned from his top administrators…. Paley was not in charge all the time as Sarnoff was.” Identifying Sarnoff as “a starched shirt who remained aloof from NBC executives,” the author furthermore claimed: “Sarnoff surrounded himself with a tight circle of loyal RCA yes-men. He was a visionary, and did not absorb ideas from others as Paley did.” At the same time, “Paley shared some of Sarnoff’s traits—an enormous ego, a hunger for publicity, a growing contempt for underlings. Yet Paley’s strivings were nearly invisible, his actions always veiled in gentility. Sarnoff was harshly despotic, and fairly bristled with cockiness and authority.”
Sarnoff also lacked Paley’s feel for popular culture. The RCA executive enjoyed nothing better than listening to classical music, maintaining contempt for comics such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, Benny, Fred Allen, Bergen, Skelton and Bob Hope, all of whom had made his radio empire prestigious and him an utterly wealthy man. An ex-aide revealed that Sarnoff saw broadcasting as “a means of bridging cultural differences, bringing people together in greater understanding of one another.”
Paley, on the other hand, had a genius for mass programming, primarily because it reflected his personal tastes. Sarnoff, the broadcasting pioneer and idealist, was perceptibly vexed that his opposite number was lauded publicly as “radio’s restless conscience.” In his view, Paley was an opportunist devoid of any long-range vision for the business. “Paley needed to see how something worked before he could embrace it,” a journalist admonished. “Paley reaped where Sarnoff sowed—which rankled Sarnoff no end.”
Although Paley won the biggest battle that the two men fought in their radio sparring when he carried out his blitzkrieg talent raids, he didn’t win every time. He struggled doggedly to acquire aircasting rights to the Metropolitan Opera when that distinguished performing group was entering the ether in 1931. Despite his rigorous efforts to capture the esteemed prize, he lost it to the craftier Sarnoff when NBC bid $122,000 for broadcast rights. That chain supposedly didn’t know what CBS had proffered earlier, $120,000. Paley was enraged when he failed, nonetheless. “It was a bitter blow and one that I resented for a long time,” he freely admitted.
He at last consoled himself in the knowledge that he was shelling out only $35,000 annually for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a battle for which he was the victor over Sarnoff the year before. Sarnoff, meanwhile, saw the Met’s fees for keeping that body happy rapidly skyrocket to $191,000 annually. Paley, who was often on a cost-cutting kick, may have exhibited a wide grin when he thought about that good fortune.
“To Paley,” suggested one wag, “Sarnoff was a hardware man in a software business.” Neither man genuinely respected the other; both saw qualities in their adversary that they despised. Yet they could become friendly in public when a situation called for it, and certainly did so when they appeared together in Washington to lobby for common purposes that supported collective advancement of mass communications. Yet neither was the kind of individual who could call the other indiscriminately and invite him to a social occasion. It wasn’t in their natures to desire spending much time with their antagonists.
Sarnoff retired in 1970 and the following year, at age 80, he died in his sleep of cardiac arrest on December 12, 1971. His contributions to radio were passed over in a eulogy at his funeral, which praised his visionary work leading to television. Paley, meanwhile, was president of CBS from 1928-46 and chairman of the board from 1946-86, acting chairman a year thereafter and chairman again from 1987-90, finding it difficult to relinquish and find a successor who pleased him. Death overtook him at last; he succumbed to kidney failure on October 26, 1990 at 89. He had remained active for two decades following the retirement of his former nemesis.
Paley and Sarnoff offer an interesting contrast in the beginnings of broadcasting. While they were frequently at odds with one another, at the same time they accomplished great purposes which paved avenues we travel now in modern communications. Despite the methods of those magnates, their legacies will not likely be soon forgotten or abandoned.
About the author: "Genial Jim" Cox is a prolific author with an established track record for excellence in research and writing. His nine books on broadcasting can be found at his publisher's web site, www.mcfarlandpub.com and his newest is called Radio Speakers.