A joke that periodically makes its way around the hallways of television networks last showed up during NBC's dark third-place days. A vice president leaving for lunch gives the telephone operator these instructions: "If my boss calls, get his name."
Few folks tell that story around NBC these days, but it might be heard a bit more frequently at CBS and ABC.
This fall's TV season may turn out to be more memorable for what viewers don't see on their screens than for what they do see. As network programmers once again engage in their annual rites of program imitation, vast, sweeping and doubtless permanent changes are engulfing the board rooms and corner office suites of the television business world. For instance:
--This season will mark the last hurrah for ABC as a corporate entity. By the tabulating of the final 1985-86 Nielsen ratings, the network will have passed into corporate history with the completion of the $3.5-billion takeover by Capital Cities Communications Inc. The new merged company, which marks the first acquisition ever of one of the three big television networks, will be called Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
--Still smarting from the sting of Ted Turner's unsuccessful takeover bid, a leaner but financially vulnerable CBS promises to go through this television year with one eye fixed on its financial situation and the other glancing warily over its shoulder. Last week, in a move prompted by the network's expensive battle with Turner, CBS announced a plan to induce nearly 2,000 employees to take early retirement. There also are persistent rumors of impending layoffs.
--Alone among the Big Three, NBC finds itself in the unaccustomed position of having both ratings successes and corporate stability, a combination rare at the network or parent company RCA since the death of founding patriarch David Sarnoff in 1971. Still, there has been some talk that RCA may be a target for a takeover bid or that NBC may be spun out as an independent company.
"We remember how it used to be," said Bud Rukeyser, an executive vice president of NBC, recalling the blood bath that occurred during the reign of Fred Silverman. More than half of all NBC executives at the vice president level and above left during Silverman's 1978-81 tenure, when the network also plummeted in the ratings.
Rukeyser, with more than 20 years at NBC, was one executive who left the company during the Silverman era. He returned after Grant Tinker took over the network in 1981.
"Since the day that Grant got here, this has been like the dullest business in America," Rukeyser said. "There's been no executive turnover."
Executives at the other networks insist that the changes overtaking their business will have little impact on the programming that they offer.
ABC Inc. President Fred Pierce downplayed the affect of ABC's impending merger with Capital Cities. In an interview with The Times last week, Pierce insisted that there will be no on-air changes this season or next as a result of the Capital Cities acquisition of the network.
"It will not have any effect on either the type or the nature of programming that goes on the air because I will remain in charge--as I was before," Pierce said last Wednesday, the day that ABC passed out pink slips to 350 employees at its operations across the country.
And at CBS, James Rosenfield, senior executive vice president of the CBS/Broadcast Group, insisted that entertainment divisions are carefully insulated from the machinations of Wall Street investors.
"CBS, as an institution, has a continuity that transcends financial changes," Rosenfield said, acknowledging, however, that in today's business environment network programmers "have to be concerned with being better businessmen than 10 years ago."
There was a time, of course, that network TV was a business thoroughly dominated by just three men, the founders of the networks: Sarnoff at RCA and NBC, William S. Paley at CBS and Leonard Goldenson at ABC. Each had different interests, but each left an indelible mark on the company he led.
Sarnoff's 1971 death was followed by a succession of weak leadership at RCA that only now, under the tutelage of Chairman Thornton S. Bradshaw, appears to be ending. Bradshaw hired Tinker, a successful and widely respected Hollywood producer, to run NBC.
At ABC, Goldenson, 79, is transferring the mantle to Capital Cities Chairman Thomas Murphy, and, CBS patriarch Paley, 84, has taken a much less active role in the affairs of the company in recent years.
Paley was well known for taking a personal role in the programming of CBS, once calling former programming chief Michael Dann to tell him that he couldn't stand that young Clint Eastwood fellow on the old "Rawhide" series.