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Frank Stanton, 98; TV pioneer who helped brand CBS `Tiffany Network'

December 26, 2006|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

Frank Stanton, a pioneering executive in early television who was a major force in branding CBS as "the Tiffany Network" while also defending its news division against 1st Amendment assaults, died Sunday afternoon at his home in Boston. He was 98.

Stanton, who had lived in Boston for the last eight years, had been in declining health for some time, according to Elizabeth Allison, a longtime friend who had been coordinating Stanton's medical care.

In a career at CBS that spanned his early days as a researcher for the radio division in the 1930s until his retirement as president of CBS Inc. in 1973, Stanton won five Peabody Awards for distinguished achievement and public service in broadcasting and made several lasting contributions to the industry.

He pioneered efforts to analyze audience responses to programming; instituted such innovations as block programming, bundling similar programs in blocks of time during the day; led the way in persuading Congress to suspend the equal-time rule as it applied to presidential debates, opening the door for today's familiar format of presidential debates between the leading candidates; and pulled the plug on CBS' quiz shows after it was found that several of the programs, which were produced independently of CBS, had manipulated the results.

"Stanton came to be regarded as broadcasting's foremost statesman, and more than anything else, it was his vigorous and admirable response to the 1959 quiz-show scandals that elevated him to that stature," Gary Paul Gates wrote in "Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News" (1978).

Perhaps most notably, however, Stanton in 1971 risked jail for contempt of court rather than turn over to a House subcommittee the outtakes from a controversial CBS production sharply criticizing Pentagon spending. Stanton avoided jail when the full House refused to back up the citation.

"Broadcast journalism thrives today, to a large extent, because Frank Stanton defended our rights under the 1st Amendment.... " said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, in a statement released by the network.

"If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton," said Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes." "If CBS is the Tiffany Network, Frank Stanton deserves a lion's share of the credit."

Stanton worked with William S. Paley -- the man who, with his father, had bought a fledgling radio network called Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928 and turned it into one of the most successful businesses in broadcasting.

Although Paley was definitely in charge at CBS and was the master of the strategic picture, Stanton for nearly 30 years was his right-hand man and carried out the network's day-to-day management.

Together with Paley, Stanton practically invented the idea of "branding" the network. They oversaw the creation of the CBS "eye" -- the William Golden design that is one of the most effective graphic identities ever developed for a corporation. And they directed the construction of the company's distinctive corporate headquarters -- the Eero Saarinen-designed "Black Rock" in midtown Manhattan.

Stanton also was to a great extent the public image of CBS, particularly when CBS was under attack for news programs that raised the ire of politicians in Washington.

"As president of CBS, Frank Stanton stood up for the broadcast press and resisted government efforts to intimidate it," former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite wrote in the foreword to Corydon B. Dunham's 1997 book about Stanton, "Fighting for the First Amendment."

Richard S. Salant, who was hired by Stanton to be president of CBS News during the 1960s and '70s, wrote in his 1999 memoir that Stanton insulated the news division from outside political pressures and did not interfere with his decisions.

As the years went by, Stanton became almost a more visible symbol of CBS than Paley. As Sally Bedell Smith wrote in her 1990 biography of Paley, "In All His Glory," "To much of the outside world, Frank Stanton, not Bill Paley, was Mr. CBS."

"He was better prepared and more eloquent than his counterparts at the other networks," Smith wrote of Stanton. "He knew every senator and congressman. His speech, conduct and look gave CBS a personal dignity that had little to do with what was appearing on living-room TV screens. Stanton's contribution to CBS' image was incalculable."

It is probably no surprise, then, that the seemingly all-powerful Paley began to grate at the attention Stanton was getting.

Even Stanton himself recognized this. Speaking in a 1994 interview with Arthur Unger for Television Quarterly, Stanton said that Paley at one point complained to him that his own friends "don't think I have anything to do around here anymore."

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