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VIEWPOINTS : CBS : How Can CBS Cut Static, Get Programmed for Success?

September 28, 1986|LES BROWN | Les Brown, editor-in-chief of Channels of Communications magazine, has covered the broadcast industry as a journalist since 1953. and

CBS, once called "the Tiffany of Broadcasting," has been tarnished in recent months. A year ago, the network began sliding into second place and it may be headed toward third in the ratings this year. Profits are down and hundreds of broadcasting jobs have been cut in recent months.

The myriad of problems at CBS didn't sit well with Laurence A. Tisch, the New York investor and self-made billionaire who recently bought nearly 25% of CBS stock. And two weeks ago, the festering turmoil in the top ranks of CBS became a widely reported public sore. Chairman Thomas H. Wyman was ousted, reportedly because of his rift with Tisch and because he sought a potential buyer for CBS without approval from the board of directors.

In the wake of Wyman's removal, Tisch has joined company founder and broadcast pioneer William S. Paley at the helm of CBS. Company directors have formed a committee to search for Wyman's successor. The winning candidate faces the challenge of boosting morale, cutting costs and attracting new talent to CBS.

The Times invited a variety of observers in or near the broadcasting industry to provide some insights into the beleaguered network--and to offer some advice.

In CBS' glory days, when William S. Paley and Frank Stanton were running the company that called itself "the Tiffany of Broadcasting," a lot of energy was expended on the look of things.

Burnishing the CBS public image was a daily obsession: Everything had to bespeak class. Executives who made it big were well dressed and manicured, had a certain swagger and knew how to impress a maitre d'.

Class mattered so much that Paley once fired a network president for refusing to act the part. Among the fellow's sins were wearing a sheepskin jacket to work instead of a topcoat and relieving the chauffeur at the wheel of his limousine while commuting to Connecticut.

Stanton bothered about the company graphics and the interior decoration of the sleek granite skyscraper designed by noted architect Eero Saarinen. One of America's leading graphic designers, Louis Dorfsman, was (and remains) on the full-time staff of CBS.

But it's possible to carry the obsession with appearances too far, so that form comes to matter more than substance. Some who worked with Paley cite that as the reason for the CBS founder's greatest failure--his inability, after four tries, to appoint a suitable successor.

Paley, they say, saw the image of the candidate before any other qualifications. Whoever would lead CBS into the future had to be a 42-long, sleek and lean, very presentable. He had to share Paley's appreciation of modern art and move about comfortably in social circles. And, of course, he had to be a dynamic corporate businessman.

What wasn't required, clearly--as was evident in Paley's four choices of an heir--was a flair for show business or a genuine feel for journalism.

Charles Ireland, who died nine months into the job, had come from ITT Corp.; Arthur Taylor from International Paper Co.; John Backe from the CBS Publishing Group, and Thomas H. Wyman from Pillsbury Co. Only Taylor dabbled in the broadcast function and, because he was on a learning curve at his high level, got burned.

Lee A. Iacocca, who doesn't look the classy executive, saved Chrysler Corp. because he knew an awful lot about the auto business.

Grant Tinker could hardly be surpassed for corporate good looks, but he didn't rescue NBC from the depths by anything but his knowledge of programming.

Paley himself succeeded, not because he had class but because he was a professional broadcaster, maybe the best ever. Is it possible that never occurred to him?

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