Under William Paley, CBS became the gold standard of television programming in news and entertainment. Nicknamed the Tiffany Network, CBS fell under Paley’s patriarchy from the 1920s to 1990, when Paley died.
It was Paley who gave Edward R. Murrow an outlet to challenge Senator Joe McCarthy’s claims of communists working in government. Murrow’s 1965 obituary in The New York Times, highlighted the independence of Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly. “That autonomy was a singular thing in network broadcasting. It was based on Mr. Murrow’s immense prestige, initially gained when he became one of the first radio war correspondents and built a superb news staff for C.B.S. in Europe.”
Indeed, Paley’s CBS was liberating for journalists tackling controversial subjects that other institutions ignored, or at least moderately touched. The Times obituary added, “Mr. Murrow, one writer said, ‘has achieved a position at C.B.S. that is outside, and basically antithetical to, the corporate structure of authority’ and he thereby enjoyed a large measure of ‘freedom from authority of all kinds.’ He ran his own news island within the network for many years.”
It was Paley who gave Norman Lear a platform to showcase Archie Bunker, a character that did not merely push the boundaries of acceptability on prime time television. He destroyed them. Emily Nussbaum recounted the impact of Archie Bunker in All in the Family, a show that did not get beyond the pilot stage after two attempts, until the third time proved to be a charm. Emily Nussbaum recounted the impact of All in the Family, which debuted in 1971 and proved to be a juggernaut for CBS in the 1970s, in her article The Great Divide in the April 7, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“A proud liberal, Lear had clear ideological aims for his creations: he wanted his shows to be funny, and he certainly wanted them to be hits, but he also wanted to purge prejudice by exposing it. By giving bigotry a human face, Lear believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs.”
For a highly significant part of the audience, Lear’s creation had an opposition effect. Archie Bunker had fans of his conservative attitudes on society, politics, and race, even though he expressed them in a crude manner backed by ignorance. Throughout the years, the character softened.
It was Paley who gave Walter Cronkite the status of network news anchor. Cronkite informed the nation of President Kennedy’s death during a breaking news broadcast, nearly choking on his words as he read the story from the wires. “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago. Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th President of the United States.”‘
Cronkite’s ability to communicate during the nation’s first crisis in the television age cemented CBS as a major force in television news. In turn, Cronkite set the standard for television journalists.
The Paley family bought the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System in the late 1920s, primarily as a device to promote the Paley cigar business. The string of 16 radio stations in that purchase developed into a television icon. In 1976, the Museum of TV & Radio debuted in New York, thanks to the efforts of Paley. The CBS chieftain spearheaded the development of an archive for television programs and radio programs for scholars and fans alike. Its popularity ignited the development of a Beverly Hills branch. In 2007, the museum became The Paley Center for Media.
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