The Last Emperor: William S. Paley 4

The networks were anxious not just about politicians. They were anxious about everybody. Advertisers might take offense: “There should be no statement or situation in conflict with One-A-Day multiple vitamins,” decreed the advertising agency for Miles Labo¬ratories. (Miles Laboratories was sponsoring The Flintstones.) Pow¬erful interest groups might take offense: for years, the American Medical Association advised the networks on medical dramas to en¬sure that doctors were portrayed in a favorable light; and the scripts, the casting, and the sponsorship of The F. B. I., which was on the air from 1965 to 1974, were overseen by (sensibly, for who would want to make those people unhappy?) the FBI. Then there were the self- appointed watchdog groups, like the National Television Beview Board, based in Chicago, which in the mid-1950s condemned Howdy Doody because it considered the show “loud,” “confused,” and “senseless” and the clown’s role “too feminine.”
The networks always had a headache, and each time they moved to cure the pain some other part of their vast constituency gave them a new one. Efforts to design programs appealing to eighteen- to-thirty-four-year-old women, beloved of advertisers, led, for exam¬ple, to the relatively sexy and violent television of the mid-1970s, which produced complaints from people who were (evidently) not eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old women, which aroused the interest of the FCC. Panicked by the threat of regulation (or, much more alarming, deregulation), the networks proposed a “Family Hour,” agreeing to broadcast between seven and nine o’clock in the evening only programs appropriate for “family viewing.” That ap¬peased the FCC, but annoyed independent producers of “mature” shows, such as All in the Family, which were being bumped to a later time. They sued the networks, and in 1976 a federal judge de¬clared the Family Hour unconstitutional. It was enough to make anyone feel persecuted. When the networks pursued profits, they were told that the airwaves belonged to the public, and that their programming was not protected by the First Amendment; when they tried to regulate themselves in the name of the public interest, they were convicted of abridging the freedom of speech.
Where everyone must be pleased, even an autocrat can use some help, which is why, for instance, the creation of PBS was a welcome event for the networks: it excused them from the unremu- nerative duty of educating the public. The story of television pro¬gramming in the network era is the story of what in another context might have seemed a utopian effort: the creation of something that millions of people would watch but that not a single person would be offended by. No wonder that almost half of all new shows were off the air within a year; few things that are bland enough to pass the test of everyone’s sensibility have much flavor left. It was like trying to reinvent milk.
You do not have to think well of the results to appreciate the or¬deal that the quasi-monopolistic nature of the broadcasting busi¬ness condemned the networks to. Here were enterprises that were operated on purely commercial principles, but that could never seem cheap or sensational, that always had to give the appearance of being enlightened without ever taking a position on an issue on which people differed, that needed to attract the largest possible audience without being suspected of pandering. In those circum¬stances, it was obviously a great advantage to have at the head of the company a man as noted for his taste as William Paley. “I am not a highbrow,” Paley once said. “I do not look down on popular taste. Oftentimes popular taste is my taste.” It hardly mattered whether this was true. What mattered was that government regulators and commercial sponsors were persuaded that the programs on CBS were compatible with the image Paley projected. A man who col¬lected Picasso and Matisse, and whose wife was regularly named one of the most fashionable women in the world, might be trusted not to offer the public shabby cultural goods. It was not egomania (or not merely egomania) that inspired Paley, even after he had ceased to make decisions about other matters, to play a conspicu¬ous role in his company’s yearly programming meetings. It was smart business. In her biography of Paley, Smith presents him as a world-shaper, but the details of his story make it plain that he was only a man ideally suited to an industry whose prosperity depended on slavish adherence to a standard of utterly respectable mindless¬ness. There are suggestions throughout In All His Glory that if we could somehow get to the bottom of Paley’s personal feelings we would understand something important about our culture; but the most important thing about Paley’s feelings—as the sad episode with Murrow shows—was how easily he could set them aside in or¬der to obey the commercial and political imperatives of his business.
A note of disapproval runs through Smith’s biography of Paley, as it does through many books on the television industry. “The net¬works never allowed television to be all it might have been,” as a leading historian, J. Fred MacDonald, puts it. Though the problem quite clearly was too much regulation—tying up the industry in a way that prevented alternatives to the networks from developing— these writers would apparently have preferred more regulation still. Had the government been willing, in the early days of radio, to im¬pose “tighter regulations on commercial operators,” Smith suggests, “broadcasting might have been a tool for greater enlightenment,” and MacDonald echoes this sentiment. It is an easy chorus to join, for there is no doubt that television, considering its power to influ¬ence, has not been a particularly uplifting medium. But television’s power to influence is just what makes one feel certain that active government interest in exploiting the medium’s “educational” possi¬bilities would have had regrettable consequences. In a way, the ba¬nality of network television was the best thing about it—just as the best thing about contemporary television is probably the sheer sen¬sory confusion. Some powers are better left unchanneled.

The empire of the networks finally collapsed, at the end of the 1980s, in part because the pressure from rival technologies could no longer be resisted, but also because the networks lost the protection of the one federal regulation that seemed most restrictive: the rule that they could own only seven television stations apiece. In 1985, in the deregulatory spirit of the Reagan era, the FCC permitted each network to own up to twelve stations—which, since the ownership of a television station is effectively a license to print money, in¬creased the networks’ profitability and immediately made them can¬didates for takeovers. Paley’s 1983 retirement had been a reluctant one, and some of the most engaging passages in Smith’s book are devoted to a lengthy but lucid account of his conniving to regain at least the trappings of power. After Lawrence A. Tisch, the head of the Loews Corporation, acquired a controlling interest in CBS in 1985, he and Paley orchestrated the removal of the man Paley had named as his successor, Thomas H. Wyman. In 1987, when Tisch assumed the presidency of CBS, Paley returned to the chairman¬ship, and he remained active in company affairs until his death, in 1990, at the age of eighty-nine.
The power at CBS passed, though, to Tisch, who proceeded, af¬ter the manner of most takeover victors, to sell off some of the spoils, getting rid of two of the company’s divisions, CBS Records and CBS Publishing, for cash. The cash was then used by CBS to buy back a portion of its own stock—some of which belonged to Tisch, who was thus able to recover much of his original invest¬ment, and some of which had belonged to Paley, whose estate re-portedly needed the money to pay its taxes. All that remained of CBS was, essentially, the broadcasting network, which now had to make its way in a world no longer disposed to respect the preroga¬tives of broadcasting networks, or to glorify their emperors.

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