One of the “big three” television and radio networks in the United States.
RCA had signed up many of the major radio stations in the country to affiliate with its NBC network, which went on the air on November 15, 1926. However, NBC made a crucial mistake by not signing up any of talent agent Arthur Judson’s clients to appear on its programming. Judson didn’t get mad, he got even, founding United Independent Broadcasters in early 1927. The country’s second largest record and phonograph manufacturer, Columbia, saw opportunities for promotion and invested in the venture, which was renamed the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System in April.
CPBS signed up 16 radio stations, planning to pay each one $500 per week for 10 hours of network air time, and on September 18, 1927, the first Columbia network programming was heard as far north as Boston, as far south as Columbia, South Carolina, and as far west as Council Bluffs, all originating from the network’s flagship station, WOR in Newark, where the men’s room served as a temporary network control room. (Within a year, WOR lost its network affiliation in favor of a station in New York City, first known as WABC, and eventually switching to the obvious call letters WCBS.) The first broadcast included performances by members of the Metropolitan Opera, plus musical numbers from the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Symphony.
However, with most major advertisers firmly committed to NBC, Judson and Columbia were losing money and sold the network to three men, Jerome Louchheim, Ike Levy, and Leon Levy. The three turned around and sold the network to William Paley, who happened to be Leon Levy’s fiancee’s brother. The Paley family had made its money as owners of the La Palina cigar company, and William Paley became interested in radio as a result of buying advertising time on various local radio stations.
Since the Columbia Phonograph Company no longer had any ownership interest, Paley shortened the name to the Columbia Broadcasting System and began to turn around the struggling network. Paley turned out to have a strong business acumen and an ear for talent. Musical stars signed by Paley included Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, and Morton Downey…all of whom were eventually lured away by NBC, which could pay them more money.
Although CBS was a perpetual number 2 to NBC in entertainment programming, Paley fought back with quality news and public service programming. The symbol of CBS came to be its chief European news correspondent Edward R. Murrow, whose reports before and during World War II, especially those from London during the Blitz, captivated the U.S. CBS came to be nicknamed “The Tiffany Network” denoting that its programming was of the same quality as Tiffany’s diamonds, due to the reputation of CBS News, as well as the highbrow entertainment that was carried on the network at Paley’s urging (because since CBS had trouble finding sponsors for certain time slots anyway, so they might as well put on something uplifting). One of those “highbrow” shows was responsible for the most notorious incident in CBS radio history, when the October 30, 1938 broadcast of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater of the Air” presented an adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” and inadvertently panicked thousands of people who had switched over from NBC and missed the disclaimer.
RCA’s NBC had begun to experiment with television broadcasting before the war, and in 1946, began a regular television schedule. CBS didn’t follow suit until 1948, because Paley had to be convinced by his appointed president Frank Stanton.
Then came the long-playing record. In 1938, CBS had acquired its old owner, the Columbia Phonograph Company. Columbia’s research and development department came too, and in 1948, division director Peter Goldmark and his staff developed the LP there. The invention meant big profits for CBS, thus allowing Paley to open the purse strings and steal some of NBC’s major stars, including Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen.
CBS suddenly found itself leading in the entertainment ratings, a position which continued through the decline of network radio and the rise of TV, thanks to stars that had made a successful transition from radio to television, plus a variety of new, popular TV drama and comedy shows, such as “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke.” CBS even had the most memorable logo for its television network, an eye drawn with two circles and a football shape; it quickly became the CBS corporate logo, and has been in use for over 50 years. (It was such a memorable logo that it either inspired, or was ripped off for, the logo of Britain's ATV, which was two eyes arranged vertically, with "A" and "V" replacing each pupil.)
CBS’s major misstep in television broadcasting was its support of the color TV broadcasting system developed by its own research team in the late 1940s. It was a mechanically operated system relying on a spinning wheel inside TVs and cameras, as opposed to the electronic system developed by RCA. The CBS system resulted in a better color picture than RCA’s, but it was incompatible with existing black and white TV sets and required bulkier equipment to make room for the big wheel inside. The FCC at first endorsed the CBS system, but then reversed the decision; instead of capitulating and switching to the RCA system, CBS instead defiantly broadcast very little color programming through the mid-1960s.
Even with only black and white broadcasts, CBS’s profits soared as the ratings did, and the company moved beyond broadcasting and records, buying other companies and becoming a conglomerate with interests in publishing (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston and Woman’s Day magazine), pianos (Steinway and Sons), guitars (Fender) and baseball (the New York Yankees). Even as CBS’s entertainment programming switched to the escapist fare of the 1960s with sitcoms such as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island,” Paley’s beloved news division was still the crown jewel of the network, with Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” and, later, the newsmagazine “60 Minutes.”
Ratings remained strong through most of the 1970s, with socially aware entertainment programming such as “All in the Family” replacing the shows from the 1960s. However, beginning in the late 1970s, CBS found itself being led in viewership by not only NBC, but also ABC, which had been forcibly split off of NBC in 1943 and which topped the ratings for the first time ever in 1977. CBS, still controlled by Paley, seemed vulnerable to a takeover attempt, especially after ABC was purchased by a large television station group owner, Capital Cities, and NBC was purchased by General Electric. CBS also floundered badly with a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get into the cable television business, with a highbrow channel called CBS Cable that drew few viewers. In the mid-1980s, CBS successfully fought off a takeover bid by CNN’s Ted Turner, but just barely; in order to defend against future attempts, CBS reorganized, selling a 25% interest to Loew’s, and its chairman Lawrence Tisch.
Tisch became the president of CBS in 1986, and quickly cut costs by eliminating personnel and slashing budgets, plus selling off all of the non-broadcasting companies, including what was by then called Columbia Records (to Sony). Paley had by this time given up day-to-day control of CBS, and he died in 1990.
In the 1990s, the upstart Fox network joined NBC and ABC as problems for CBS. In 1993, Fox managed to steal the rights to broadcast NFL games away from CBS, which had held them continuously for almost 40 years. The next year, Fox convinced a major television station group to switch all of its affiliations to Fox; included in that group were stations that had been CBS affiliates for 40 years or more in major markets such as Detroit, Atlanta, and Tampa.
Then, in 1995, CBS was purchased outright by Westinghouse for $5.4 billion. Two years later, after it had sold off most of its non-broadcasting businesses, Westinghouse changed its name to CBS, Inc. The new CBS managed to steal the rights to broadcast NFL games away from NBC and moved back into the cable business by buying an already successful network (TNN).
What happened next was the result of FCC rules in the early 1970s forcing the networks to get out of the syndication business. CBS spun its syndication division off into a company called Viacom, which spent years selling reruns of CBS shows to TV stations up and down the dial. Gradually, Viacom turned into a huge media conglomerate, and in 2000, Viacom bought CBS. Thus, the little fish had swallowed the big fish, or something like that.
- CBS history timeline at http://www.ketupa.net/cbs2.htm
- Radio history bullet points at http://history.acusd.edu/gen/recording/radio.html
- More radio history at http://www.westga.edu/~byates/radio.htm
- In-depth history of CBS at http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/C/htmlC/columbiabroa/columbiabroa.htm
- Personally, a lifetime of watching fine CBS programming, including "The Price Is Right" and "The Dukes of Hazzard," plus many fine reruns, some via Viacom and some not, including "Green Acres" and "What's My Line?"
- Thanks to JoeBaldwin for pointing out the ATV logo connection.