William S. Paley Biography (1901-)

Full name, William Samuel Paley; born September 28, 1901, in Chicago, IL; sonof Samuel (an owner of a cigar business) and Goldie (Drell) Paley; married Dorothy Hart Hearst, May 11, 1932 (marriage ended); married Barbara Cushing Mortimer, July 28, 1947 (died, 1978); children: (first marriage) Jeffrey, Hillary; (second marriage) William Cushing, Kate Cushing; (stepchildren) Stanley Mortimer III, Amanda Ross. Addresses: OFFICE--CBS, 51 W. 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019.

Despite his advancing age, William S. Paley remains a primary helmsman of theColumbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the company he founded and ran for morethan fifty years. Paley is arguably the single most important creator of network television as viewers know it today; under his guidance, CBS was the premier network throughout the first twenty years of television's reign as an entertainment medium. In an Atlantic profile of January, 1975, David Halberstamcontended that Paley "was, in the savage, predatory world of network broadcasting, the best.... He achieved a power over American taste and wrought an effect on American culture and sociology that had never been envisioned before."Paley is more than an arbiter of national tastes, however--he is also an enormously successful businessman whose company's after-tax profits have exceeded $100 million every year since 1974. According to Harry F. Waters's March 5,1979 Newsweek piece, Paley "purchased a floundering little New York-based radio network and, over the next half century, transformed it into a $3 billion-a-year communications colossus. He may have been handed the financial means,but Paley also brought to his ends a relentless competitive drive, a high roller's daring and an instinct for divining America's mass-cultural appetite."Waters concluded, "Paley {created} standards for broadcast journalism and entertainment that uplifted the entire face of television."

Most accounts of Paley's life suggest that he grew up in Philadelphia. Actually he was born and raised in Chicago and moved east with his family when he was in college. The son of a highly successful cigar marker, he was accustomedto wealth; some observers have claimed he indulges too much in good food, fine automobiles, and stylish clothing. Paley was an indifferent student, but he graduated from the Wharton School of Finance in 1922 and entered the familybusiness as production chief. Within three years he had been promoted to advertising manager, vice-president, and secretary of the company. Paley was among the first businessmen to detect the potential of radio as an advertising medium. Radio commercials for "La Palina" cigars boosted sales of his productas early as 1924. In gratitude, Paley's father gave him slightly less than ahalf million dollars to buy the failing United Independent Broadcasters network that was based in New York City. In 1928 the twenty-six-year-old Paley waselected president of the company, which he renamed the Columbia BroadcastingSystem. In a New York Times magazine interview with Tony Schwartz, Paley remembered the confidence with which he attacked his new challenge: "At a very early age, I took it for granted that I would be rich and successful, so I wasprepared for it and I was not the least bit embarrassed by it. I just thought that if I put my mind to something I'd accomplish it. I wasn't going to have to worry, because I was going to be my father's heir anyway. If the gamblewith CBS hadn't worked out, my father had a very successful cigar business inPhiladelphia that I could have gone back to."

Needless to say, Paley never returned to the cigar business. Establishing offices at 485 Madison Avenue, he and his associates began to innovate "in a major and entirely new field, one unbound by tradition, unhampered by bureaucracy," according to Robert Metz (New York, July 21, 1975). Metz added that underPaley's guidance, "CBS, the upstart network, became a contender." The company's growth was unimpeded by the Great Depression; Halberstam reported that gross earnings went from $1.4 million in 1928 to $28.7 million by 1937 and thenumber of affiliated stations increased sevenfold. This steady rise in revenues and influence continued into the war years, as American listeners tuned infor the frontline broadcasts of CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Paley stepped away from CBS during World War II in order to serve in Europe as a top radio propagandist under General Eisenhower. He returned to the network in 1946,determined to make it number one in the nation.

Paley's method of achieving his goal revolutionized radio and set the precedent for the nascent television industry: he put his network into the programming field. Until then, most radio shows were produced by advertising agenciesor outside packagers for a specific product line being sold during commercialbreaks. Paley hired a team to create and produce shows right at CBS, then sold commercial time during those shows to a variety of advertisers. The idea was controversial, but eventually the advertisers came to appreciate that CBSwas bearing the costs of developing programs and they found other uses for their money. To cement his dominance over the entertainment field, Paley raidedother networks and bought away their talent--most notably Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Amos 'n' Andy, and Burns and Allen. By the time television was ready for commercial broadcast, Paley had the most popular stars in the nation working for him and their transition to the visual medium was accomplished with ease. As CBS burst into the lead as a network, Paley began to concentrate moreand more on programming. A few of his corporate acquisitions, including Hytron, a television manufacturer, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishers, werefinancial drains that eroded his confidence in his business acumen.

As he aged and CBS grew too large for any one person to participate knowledgeably in all its facets, Paley began to leave daily business operations to others while he poured his efforts into generating good Nielsen ratings, a measure of the network's audience size. In that realm he was both comfortable andextremely successful. The CBS program roster has included such standards as the Ed Sullivan Show, Playhouse 90, Sixty Minutes, All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, and M*A*S*H. But Paley did not spend his time on the hits; he told Tony Schwartz, "I'd rather watch the {shows} that aren't working to figure out why." The network's program directors could expect frequent calls from the chairman on so fine a detail as why an actor wore a hat in a given scene. Mike Dann, a former programming chief, remembered that Paley was receptive to discussing problems. "You could call him at home at 11:30 at night and he'd always talk to you," Dann said.

This close involvement has brought Paley criticism as well as praise. Alwaysa controversial figure in his field, Paley's reluctance to relinquish his corporate power keeps him one. In 1987, at the age of eighty-five, he was once again elected chairman of CBS after engineering the ouster of a fifth chief executive officer and heir apparent. Paley protests that his role in the company these days is that of an advisor, someone who "kibbitzes" and forces executives to look carefully at all decisions. But with his 1987 reinstatement, Paley became again the person who makes the final programming choices in an erathat has seen CBS lose some of its ratings share. A widower, Paley claims torelish the opportunity to continue his pioneering career, possibly into his nineties. "I thought about death more when I was younger than I do now," he told Schwartz. As Waters noted in Newsweek: "William Paley could have gone intohis father's business and, conceivably, someone else could have invented CBS. The cigar industry probably would not be drastically different from what itis today. But it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Paley exerting agreater influence over what the wired nation has seen and heard--or one whose exercise of that power has been, by and large, so salutary."

Birth Details
September 28, 1901
Chicago, Illinois, United States

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