Founder and chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, William S. Paley (1901-1990) was called alternately a broadcast programmer par excellence, an impresario, a super salesman, and the father of modern broadcasting. Because of his instinctive understanding of what appeals to the popular taste, Paley was considered by many to be a genius of mass entertainment programming.
William S. Paley was born the son of a prosperous cigar manufacturer in Chicago on September 28, 1901. From an early age his father groomed him to take over the family business, the Congress Cigar Company. Determined that William would be prepared for his future role, Sam Paley sent his son to the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania and then had him work at every level within the company. William Paley quickly proved himself to be a knowledgeable tobacco buyer and a gifted salesman. While still a teenager he skillfully resolved a company strike in the absence of his father and uncle, who were away on a business trip.
During the summer of 1925 Paley was again left in charge of the business. This time he decided to experiment with radio advertising. He invested $50 of the company's money to sponsor the "La Palina Hour" on a local Philadelphia radio station, WCAU. A singer and an orchestra were included in the price. His uncle Jake was furious when he noticed the expenditure upon his return and abruptly canceled the sponsorship. Listener response to the cancellation was immediate, and a surprised Sam Paley decided to check the books. The sales of La Palina cigars, he found, had risen dramatically during the period that the advertisement had been on the air. The Congress Cigar Company became one of the largest advertisers on the station.
By 1928 WCAU had become affiliated with a new and faltering radio network called the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). On the brink of bankruptcy, the CBS owners approached Sam Paley, who decided to buy into the network and secure a position in this promising field for his son. As the new president of CBS, William Paley found his fledgling company in disarray and began the task of reorganization. Paley faced formidable odds. His chief rival, the NBC radio network, was already quite powerful and could draw on the enormous resources of its parent company, RCA.
Unlike NBC, CBS did not own any stations and had only 16 affiliated stations in its network. For Paley the challenge was invigorating. In a brilliant business maneuver he offered stations an irresistible enticement to join his network—free programming. Previously both NBC and CBS had charged affiliated stations for all sustaining (non-sponsored) programs supplied by the network. Under the new contracts affiliated stations would receive these programs free of charge in return for making available to the network certain time blocks for sponsored programs. This disarmingly simple plan revolutionized station-network relations, and CBS doubled the number of its affiliated stations by the year's end. In addition, advertisers found the network's ability to guarantee a fixed lineup of stations for the airing of their programs very attractive.
Within a brief span of time CBS became a viable network, but William Paley would not be satisfied until his company surpassed all of its competitors, particularly NBC. He understood that to accomplish this goal he would need to create the best programs and to attract the best advertisers. His abilities as a salesman were impressive. Paley relentlessly courted George Roy Hill, a tobacco industry executive and one of the largest sponsors on radio at that time, to advertise on CBS. Hill found CBS much more open than NBC to direct advertising. Paley allowed advertisers to say what they wanted about their products, including mentioning prices. As NBC followed suit, radio grew quickly into a full-blown commercial medium.
Paley's powers of persuasion extended to entertainers as well. They soon began to flock to the network. Paley personally discovered and hired singers Bing Crosby and Kate Smith. Realizing the importance of those who represented his network on the air, he carefully cultivated the star system at CBS. He was always well-briefed on the needs of his stars before he met with them. Partly as a result of this lavish treatment, Paley was able to include such vaudeville comedians as Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns and Gracie Allen in his 1933 CBS lineup.
As a programming strategist, Paley had few equals. Intuitively he knew what would appeal to the general public. Paley also recognized, however, that government watchdogs would hold broadcasters accountable for serving the public interest. He shrewdly devoted a portion of the CBS schedule to developing informative and experimental programs. Since two-thirds of the network's time was unsponsored, this prudent move was not costly and did much to promote the prestige of CBS. Thus, under his stewardship CBS became the center of most creative activity in radio during the late 1930s. A regular program entitled Columbia Workshop led the way in generating technical innovations in sound effects and the use of filters. It also produced some of the most critically acclaimed radio dramas of the time, such as Archibald MacLeish's Fall of the City, a verse play on the rise of fascism.
Since CBS could not for the moment hope to overtake NBC in entertainment programming, Paley gradually built up the CBS news and public affairs division. He sensed that area would be a potential minefield for the network. Biased coverage of the news or the expression of strongly worded opinions on controversial topics might open the door to government intervention. Thus in 1930 Paley hired Ed Klauber, a former newspaperman, to help him define and enforce broadcast news standards. Aside from stressing the importance of objectivity and balanced news reporting, they asserted that reporters were to be news analysts, not news commentators. Paley did not want his news people to express their opinions. As he saw it, their job was to clarify the news, giving equal weight to both sides of every issue. These high standards became the guidelines governing broadcast news coverage in the United States, and upon this basis CBS was able to build a reputation that lured some of the period's most talented journalists to join its news team. Later on, however, these same standards were to prove a source of endless contentions between the network and newspeople who argued that some issues were not always equally balanced.
As World War II broke out in Europe, the popularity and prestige of such exceptional CBS reporters as Edward R. Murrow, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Eric Sevareid raised the CBS image to new heights. Paley's support for his news division was seemingly boundless. When he went to England in 1944 as the chief of radio broadcasting with the Psychological Warfare Division he became a close personal friend of Murrow. Following the war, Paley strongly encouraged Murrow's pioneering efforts as he virtually invented the television documentary. The result was See It Now, a program which permitted Murrow to explore a different issue every week. The Murrow-Paley friendship waned as Murrow took on a growing number of controversial topics. When Murrow went after Senator Joseph McCarthy, Paley did not intervene, but was careful to distance himself from the broadcast. By 1957 Paley decided to edge the program out. It occupied a valuable time slot, and he told Murrow that he could not take the stomach pains it gave him anymore. After the game show scandals of 1959, Paley moved to repair the tarnished CBS image by scheduling a similar program called CBS Reports. This time, however, Murrow was out. Paley would not allow a strong voice like Murrow's to man the helm again.
The climate of broadcasting had changed after the war and so had Paley. At CBS the number of sponsored programs had doubled by 1945. Commercial considerations slowly became paramount to Paley. He hired Frank Stanton from the audience research arm of CBS to become its new president, and Paley was named chairman. In 1949, as the shadow of television loomed over radio, Paley raided the NBC Sunday night lineup of stars, a coup which finally gave him the lead in the ratings he had long desired. The news division went into a slow decline at CBS as it was forced to take a back seat to entertainment programs.
Paley also moved to protect his network on other fronts. With the onslaught of the communist scare in the early 1950s, Paley instituted a loyalty oath among his employees. He was the first network executive to bow to the pressures from advertising agencies to establish a blacklist of performers and other artists believed to be communist sympathizers. During this period the agencies were extremely powerful, since they produced a sizable portion of television programs. Paley disliked this dependence on the agencies and was gradually switching the burden of production over to the network. The other networks soon followed his lead.
A man with refined taste, Paley collected paintings and art objects from all over the world. He served as president and later chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. When CBS headquarters—or Black Rock, as it is known—was constructed in the mid-1960s, Paley became deeply involved in the choice of materials and the details of design. The dark granite structure later won several architectural awards. In programming, CBS offered some of the most outstanding dramas and documentaries on television and broke new ground in the early 1970s with such daring situation comedies as All in the Family and Maude. Yet Paley never allowed his personal taste to interfere with his business sense. He believed that the public taste would only accept a limited number of high quality programs. A large percentage of CBS programs, therefore, were aimed at what has been termed the "lowest common denominator, " a concept developed by a CBS programming vice-president. The strategy was an enormously successful one, as CBS consistently outdistanced its rivals in the ratings until the mid-1970s when Paley became remote from the details of programming.
Under Paley's leadership CBS Inc. grew from a floundering company in 1928 to a giant corporation that surpassed $4 billion a year in revenue when he retired as chairman in 1983. Acquiring more than 40 other companies during his 50-year tenure as chief executive officer, CBS branched out into various fields of communication and education. Only two years after taking over CBS, Paley formed the Columbia Concerts Corporation, a talent and booking agency that also helped recruit performers for its radio programs.
In 1938 he bought the American Record Corporation, which was to become his most lucrative venture outside of broadcasting. The record company, later known as CBS/ Records, received a tremendous boost in its rise to the top of the industry when CBS Laboratories developed the revolutionary 33-1/3 long-playing album in 1948. CBS diversification increased rapidly in the 1960s after Paley agreed to expand the company's base beyond broadcasting as a precaution against government intervention. After that its interests included manufacturing television sets, publishing books and magazines, distributing toys, and for a time CBS owned the New York Yankees baseball team. After his retirement in 1983 Paley continued on as a director and chairman of the executive committee of CBS. His stock holdings in the company amounted to nearly two million shares in 1985. After a corporate shakeup the following year, Paley returned to CBS as interim chairman of the board.
By 1987 Paley's health was failing and his CBS empire was shrinking. The network was losing about $20 million a year and its program ratings were in last place. Laurence Tisch took firm control of the network in January 1987 when he became chief executive officer. Although Paley was infirm, he was determined to remain active at CBS. Until the end of his life he continued to make public appearances and report to his office at Black Rock headquarters.
William S. Paley died of a heart attack on October 26, 1990, at the age of 89. After learning of Paley's death, CBS news anchor Dan Rather said of him, "He was a giant of 20th-century business, a man committed to excellence."
Paley's contribution to broadcasting is best understood within the context offered by the most complete account of the development of radio and television, Eric Barnouw's three volume masterwork A History of Broadcasting in the United States (1966, 1968, 1970). For more in-depth biographical information, two books with divergent judgments on many of his decisions as chairman of CBS are David Halberstam's The Powers That Be (1977) and William Paley's As It Happened (1978). In addition, Fred Friendly's Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control … (1967) and Les Brown's Television: The Business Behind the Box (1971) are recommended for their insight into television programming at Paley's CBS. An insightful look at Paley and his network is in Lewis J. Paper, Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS (1987).
Smith, Sally Bedell, In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley (1990).
Macleans (November 5, 1990).