The Last Emperor: William S. Paley 3

The man who had the most to say about the way in which televi¬sion was to enter the culture was not Paley but Paley’s rival, NBC’s David Sarnoff. NBC was the broadcasting arm of RCA, of which Sarnoff was the president. RCA also had a manufacturing arm, which produced television sets—sets engineered, as it happened, to receive twelve VHF channels and show a black-and-white picture. A color-picture technology had been developed by CBS in 1940; but Sarnoff, though he knew of this achievement, was not interested in color television. RCA had not pursued it, and CBS color technology was incompatible with RCA sets. In 1947, after Sarnoff promised that RCA was working on a color technology that could be used with its own sets, the FCC refused to approve the CBS—or any other—color system. (Several months after the decision was an¬nounced, the FCC’s chairman left to become a vice president of RCA.) By 1953, when the commission lifted the ban on the manu¬facture of color sets, RCA, which had evidently not been working on a color picture, had flooded the market: there were twenty-three million black-and-white sets already in use.
The licensing freeze left the UHF market permanently underde¬veloped. The networks’ programs were designed to be broadcast on VHF, since their affiliates were VHF stations; and most sets could not receive UHF signals (which, incidentally, transmit color pic¬tures better than VHF signals do). In 1953 the FCC began licensing UHF stations, but television manufacturers were reluctant to equip their sets to receive the signal—as late as 1960, only 7 percent of the sets in the country had UHF reception—for the simple reason that many set manufacturers owned VHF broadcasting stations (which might possibly explain why the UHF dial was such a nuisance to use). And cable, far from being a recent refinement, is a technology that predates broadcasting itself: transmitting electronic signals through wires is more rudimentary than transmitting them through the air (or through the ether, as the pioneers of radio imagined it). There were subscriber-supported cable systems for radio as early as 1923, and television networks have always used coaxial cable, leased from phone companies, to transmit their pictures to broadcasting stations.
In short, almost the only technologies used by television in the 1990s which could not have been used in the 1950s were satellite transmission and the VCR, and even those were not recent inven¬tions. Video recorders went on the market in 1957 (though they were expensive, and did not use cassettes), and Telstar, the first television satellite, was launched in 1962. (The networks undertook to control development in those areas, too, for obvious reasons.) What we might have had for the last forty years is what, almost everywhere, we have had only since around 1990: a mixture of local and national programming and commercial-free pay services on a hundred chan¬nels—and all in living color.

The danger to network broadcasting during the forty years of its su¬premacy was therefore always a clear and present one. Any politi¬cian who felt that his toes had been stepped on by a news show, any FCC commissioner jealous of his high-mindedness, any president inclined to wage war against the “media establishment” might pull some regulatory stunt that would crack the industry wide open and let a hundred channels bloom. The networks made a lot of money in their day, but they looked over their shoulders all the way to the bank, because they never knew when the elaborate system of ac¬commodations on which their fortunes had been built might col¬lapse. Network television was constitutionally neurasthenic: the slightest potential change in its environment induced a precaution¬ary frenzy.
The networks’ commitment to news and other public-affairs programs, for instance, has historically been a function of their apprehension about government meddling: the higher the level of official concern in Washington about exploitative programming or monopolistic practices, the greater the number of shows devoted to enlightening the public. Paley understood from the start the impor¬tance of maintaining a public-affairs profile: in 1931, all CBS press releases bore the slogan “Columbia—The News Network,” even though CBS did not have a single news employee. CBS’s reputation as a prestigious news organization predated any actual news gather¬ing. Though it was desirable to be identified with a commitment to the news, the networks did not think it desirable to be identified with the sorts of controversies a genuine commitment to the news could create. By the accident that Edward R. Murrow, a CBS em¬ployee, was in Europe (though not as a reporter) when the Nazis entered Austria, CBS radio was able to carry dramatic firsthand coverage of the event. Murrow’s radio broadcasts during the Blitz (as noncontroversial a news event as one could hope for) made him a great celebrity, his fame helped promote the network, and CBS thus inadvertently began to acquire a prestigious news organization.
Paley made it a point not to socialize with his employees—even with Stanton—but Murrow was an exception, and after Murrow’s return to New York at the end of the war the two men became friends. When, in 1954, Murrow undertook to broadcast two shows about Senator Joseph McCarthy on the news program See It Now, though, Paley was careful to establish for his company what later ex¬ecutives would call “deniability.” CBS refused, for instance, to buy newspaper advertisements for either of the McCarthy broadcasts; Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, had to pay for ads out of their own pockets (something Smith unaccountably fails to men¬tion). And after the first show had been broadcast, it was Babe Paley, not her husband, who placed the congratulatory call to Murrow. In the end, the response to the McCarthy broadcasts was favorable for CBS, but not universally so, and as Paley began to see the dan¬gers that an unfettered investigative newsman invited, he began quietly to shut Murrow and Friendly down. By 1958, See It Now was off the air. That same year, Murrow publicly criticized the networks for their “escapism,” and he and Paley did not have a civil conversa¬tion again until just before Murrow’s death, in 1965. As it turned out, in 1959 the quiz-show scandal, which had attracted the attention of the FCC, gave CBS a fresh reason for demonstrating its commit¬ment to public affairs, and the network promptly unveiled a new in-vestigative series, CBS Reports.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*