CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) is a major television network and radio broadcaster in the United States. One of the pioneer radio networks, from its earliest days CBS established a reputation for quality; prior to the fracturing of the market under cable television, CBS's television network was one of three which dominated broadcasting in the United States.
The network is owned by the media conglomerate Viacom (itself once a subsidiary of CBS).
CBS can trace its origins to the creation, in 1927 of the "United Independent Broadcasters" network. Begun by New York talent agent Arthur Judson, it went on the air in October of that year with 47 affiliates. The first year was a struggle, and United soon looked for additional investors; the Columbia Phonographic Manufacturing Company (also owners of Columbia Records), rescued the company in 1928, and as a result, the network was renamed "Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System." Later in 1928, another investor, Paramount Pictures, bought shares in Columbia stock, and for a time it was thought the network would be re-named "Paramount Radio". Any chance of further Paramount involvement ended with the 1929 stock-market crash; the near-bankrupt studio sold its shares back to CBS in 1932.
With the infusion of cash from these investors, in November of 1928 Columbia paid $390,000 to A.H. Grebe's Atlantic Broadcasting Company for a small Brooklyn station, WABC, which would become the network's flagship station. WABC was quickly upgraded, and the signal relocated to a stronger frequency, 860 kHz. (In 1946 WABC was re-named WCBS; the station moved to a new frequency, 880kHz, in the FCC's 1941 re-assignment of stations.) As the network's flagship, WCBS was where much of CBS's programming originated; other owned-and-operated stations were KNX Los Angeles, KCBS San Francisco, WBBM Chicago, WJSV Washington, DC (later WTOP), KMOX St. Louis, and WCCO Minneapolis.) Those stations remain the core affiliates of the CBS Radio Network today, with WCBS still the flagship, and all but WTOP (a Bonneville Broadcasting property) owned by CBS's Infinity Broadcasting unit
Even with increased backing, the network continued to lose money, and on September 25, 1928, (some sources say January 18, 1929), Columbia Phonographic sold its half-interest for $500,000 to William S. Paley, son of a Philadelphia cigar manufacturer. With Columbia Phonographic's removal, Paley streamlined the corporate name to "Columbia Broadcasting System". Paley believed in the power of radio advertising; his family's company had seen their "La Palina" cigar become a best-seller after young William convinced his elders to advertise on Philadelphia station WCAU.
As the third national network, CBS soon had more affiliates than either of NBC's two, in part because of a more generous rate of payment to affiliates. David Sarnoff, proprietor of NBC, believed in technology, so NBC's affiliates had the latest RCA equipment, and were often the best-established stations, or were on "clear channel" frequencies. But Paley believed in the power of programming, and CBS quickly established itself as the home of many popular musical and comedy stars, among them Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Kate Smith.
In the hard times of the early 1930s, radio broadened its offerings; refused an AP franchise for news, Paley launched an independent news division, shaped in its first years by Paley's vice-president, former New York Times man Ed Klauber, and news director Paul White. Another early hire, in 1935, was Edward R. Murrow, brought in as "Director of Talks." It was Murrow's reports, particularly during the dark days of the London Blitz, which contributed to CBS News's image for on-the-spot coverage. As European news chief and later head of the news division, Murrow created a team of reporters and editors that propelled CBS News to the forefront of the industry.
On October 30, 1938, CBS gained a taste of infamy when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre broadcasted an adaption of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Its unique format of telling a contemporary version of the story in the form of faux news broadcasts had CBS listeners panicked that invaders from Mars were actually devastating New York City, despite 3 disclaimers during the broadcast that it was a work of fiction. CBS would later revive the format for television in the 1990s to tell the story of asteroids crashing to Earth, but the television format allowed for disclaimers to air at every commercial break, avoiding a replay of what happened in 1938.
As long as radio was the dominant advertising medium, CBS dominated radio. All through the 1930s and 1940s, CBS programs were often the highest-rated. A much-publicized "talent raid" on NBC in the mid-1940s brought Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Amos 'n' Andy into the CBS fold. Paley also was an innovator in creating original programming; since broadcasting's earliest days, time had been sold to advertising agencies in half- or full-hour blocs. The ad agencies, not the networks, would then create the program to fill the time, thus it was " 'The Johnson's Wax Program', with Fibber McGee & Molly", or " 'The Pepsodent Show', with Bob Hope." At Paley's urging, beginning in the mid-1940s, CBS began creating its own programs; among the long-running shows that came from this project were "Our Miss Brooks," "Gunsmoke" and "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." In time this idea was carried further, selling ad time by the minute, so that ad agencies no longer had any control over what went out over Mr. Paley's air.
CBS was slow to move into television; as late as 1950 it owned only one station; radio continued to be the backbone of the company. But gradually, as the television network took shape, the big radio stars began to drift to television. Burns & Allen made the move in 1950; the high-rated Jack Benny show ended in 1955, and Edgar Bergen's Sunday-night show went off the air in 1957. Smaller-budgeted dramatic shows and daytime serials lasted until the early 1960s. But when CBS announced in 1956 that its radio operations had lost money, while the television network had made money, it was clear where the future lay.
After the retirement of talk-show pioneer Arthur Godfrey in the early 1970s, CBS radio programming consisted of hourly news broadcasts, occasional news features and commentaries, and the nightly "CBS Mystery Theater", the lone holdout of old-style programming. The CBS Radio Network continues to this day, but offers primarily newscasts and news-related features like "The Osgood File" and "Harry Smith Reporting."
The Television Years: Expansion and Growth
CBS's first television broadcasts were experimental, often only for one hour a day, and reaching a limited area in and around New York City. To catch up with rival RCA, CBS bought Hytron Labratories in 1939, and immediately moved into set production and color broadcasting. Though there were many competing patents and systems, RCA dictated the content of the FCC's technical standards, and grabbed the spotlight from CBS, DuMont and others by introducing television to the general public at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The FCC began licensing televsion stations on July 1, 1941; the first license went to RCA and NBC's WNBT; the second license, issued that same day, was to WCBS. CBS-Hytron offered a practical color system in 1941, but it was not compatible with the black-and-white standards set down by RCA. In time, and after considerable dithering, the FCC rejected CBS's technology in favor of that backed by RCA.
During the World War II years, commercial television broadcasting essentially shut down; only in 1946 did CBS and others resume regularly scheduled service. But as RCA and DuMont raced to establish networks and offer upgraded programming, CBS lagged. Only in 1950, when NBC was dominant in television, did CBS begin to buy or build stations. The "talent raid" on NBC of the mid-forties had brought over established radio stars; they now became stars of CBS television as well. One reluctant CBS star refused to bring her radio show, "My Favorite Husband," to television unless the network would re-cast the show with her real-life husband in the lead. Paley and network president Frank Stanton had so little faith in the future of Lucille Ball's series, re-dubbed "I Love Lucy," that they granted her wish and allowed the husband, Desi Arnaz, to take financial control of the production. This was the making of the Ball-Arnaz Desilu empire, and became the template for series production to this day.
As television came to the forefront of American entertainment and information, CBS dominated television as it once had radio. By the late 1950s the network often controlled seven or eight of the slots on the "top ten" ratings list. This would continue for many years, with CBS bumped from first place only by the rise of ABC in the mid-1970s.
William Paley was a buyer of art, and a backer of New York's Museum of Modern Art. CBS offices were filled with original works, and Paley carried this belief over into the design elements surrounding his network. When CBS bought Los Angeles station KNX in 1936 for a west-coast production headquarters, it was at Paley's instigation that architect William Pereira was hired to create a distinctive, modern broadcasting center on Sunset Boulevard. Similarly, when CBS commissioned Eero Saarinen to design a new corporate center in New York in the 1960s, Paley supervised every aspect of the project, even dictating what could be displayed in employee offices and on desk-tops. This belief in art, graphics and branding carried over to such things as the CBS Television's logo, the unblinking eye logo (designed by William Golden and introduced in 1951). An example of CBS's graphic-design particularity: on all official CBS letterhead, a tiny dot (at most a point in diameter) was pre-printed to indicate to a secretary where the typewriter carriage should be positioned for the salutation of a letter.
During the 1960s, CBS began an effort to diversify, and looked for suitable investments. In 1965 it acquired Fender Guitars from Leo Fender, who agreed to sell his company due to health problems. Between 1965 and 1985 the quality of Fender guitars and amplifiers declined significantly; outraged Fender fans banded together in 1985 to buy Fender back and create FMIC, the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation.
In other diversification attempts, CBS would buy (and later sell) sports teams (especially the New York Yankees baseball club), book publishers, map-makers and other properties. It made a brief, unsuccessful move into film production in the late 1960s, creating Cinema Center 100; this profit-free unit was shut down after a year-and-a-half. Yet in 1982, CBS was talked into another try at Hollywood, in a joint venture with Columbia Pictures and HBO called Tri-Star Pictures. CBS' duty was to release some of the movies by Tri-Star under the CBS-FOX Home Video label.
As William Paley aged, he tried to find the one person who could follow in his footsteps. Over the years any number of accomplished, successful businessmen were recruited, loudly praised to the press, only later to be summarily dismissed. By the mid-1980s, the investor Laurence Tisch had begun to acquire substantial holdings in CBS; eventually he gained Paley's confidence, and then his blessing, taking control of CBS in 1986. But Tisch had no dreams of quality or of "Tiffany" networks; he expected a return on his investment. When CBS faltered, under-performing units were given the axe. Among the first properties to go, and among the most prestigious, was the CBS Records group, which, as Columbia Records, had been part of the company since 1938. Sold to Sony in 1988, the company which had given the network its name, was re-christened "Sony Music" in 1991.
By the early 1990s, profits had fallen as a result of competition from cable companies, video rentals, and the high cost of programming. CBS ratings were acceptable, but the network struggled with an image of stodginess. Laurence Tisch lost interest and sought a new buyer.
In 1995 Westinghouse Electric Corporation acquired CBS for $5.4 billion. Moving away from its industrial beginnings, Westinghouse sought to transform itself into a major media company with its purchase of CBS. This was followed in 1997 with the $4.9-billion purchase of Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, owner of more than 150 radio stations. Also that year, Westinghouse acquired two cable channels, Gaylord's The Nashville Network (TNN), (now Spike TV), and Country Music Television (CMT). Following the Infinity purchase, the remains of the CBS Radio network was handed to Infinity 's Westwood One subsidiary.
Still more activity in the busy year of 1997: Westinghouse changed its name to CBS Corporation, and corporate headquarters were moved from Pittsburgh to New York. And to underline the change in emphasis, all non-entertainment assets were put up for sale. Another 90 radio stations were added to Infinity's portfolio in 1998 with the acquisition of American Radio Systems Corporation for $2.6 billion. A year later CBS paid $2.5 billion to acquire King World Productions, a television syndication company whose programs include The Oprah Winfrey Show and Wheel of Fortune. By 1999, all pre-CBS elements of Westinghouse's industrial past were gone.
Though CBS had become a broadcasting giant, it was not immune from other buyers, and in 1999, entertainment conglomerate Viacom, a company long-before created to syndicate old CBS series, announced its was taking over CBS in a deal valued at $37 billion. Following completion of this effort in 2000, Viacom was ranked as the second-largest entertainment company in the world.
A.C. Nielsen estimated in 2003 that CBS can be seen in 96.98% of all American households, reaching 103,421,270 homes in the United States. CBS has 204 VHF and UHF affiliated stations in the U.S. and U.S. possessions.
Having assembled all the elements of a communications empire, Viacom found that the promised synergy was not there, and in June, 2005 announced it would split itself in two. Under this plan, CBS is to become the center of a new company, CBS Corporation, which will include the broadcasting elements, Paramount Television's production operations, Viacom Outdoor advertising, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, and Paramount Parks. The second company, keeping the Viacom name, will include Paramount Pictures, assorted MTV Networks, BET, and Famous Music.
CBS, Inc. announced on November 3, 2005 that they had acquired College Sports TV (CSTV) for $325 million. CEO of CSTV Brian Bedol will continue to run that network and report to Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS.
As an industrial power in technology-driven businesses, Westinghouse had been accused over the years of violating various environmental laws. Such was the company's reputation in some quarters that an exaggerated claim was made on the comedy-show Saturday Night Live that Westinghouse was guilty of dumping nuclear waste in playgrounds.
In 2004 the FCC imposed a record $550,000 fine on CBS for its broadcast of a Super Bowl half-time show (produced by sister-unit MTV) in which singer Janet Jackson's breast was briefly exposed. It was the largest fine ever for a violation of federal decency laws. Following the incident CBS apologized to its viewers and denied foreknowledge of the event, which was broadcast live.
CBS suffered another embarrassment in September of that year, when the network aired a controversial episode of its newsmagazine, 60 Minutes, which questioned U.S. President George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. Later, it was revealed that the documents CBS used were forged. CBS News eventually acknowledged that it could not verify the authenticity of the documents it obtained, although it maintains the other overall findings in relation to Bush's military service. The following January, CBS fired four people connected to the preparation of this news-segment. CBS Evening News anchor and 60 Minutes reporter Dan Rather resigned before the announcement of these firings, though he claimed that his decision had been made prior to the forged-documents matter.
The Eye Device
CBS unveiled its Eye Device logo on October 17, 1951. The Eye device was designed by William Golden based on a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign as well as a Shaker drawing. First drawn by graphic artist Kurt Weiss, it made its broadcasting debut on October 20, 1951. The following season, as Golden prepared a new logo, CBS President Frank Stanton insisted on keeping the Eye device and using it as much as possible ("just when you're beginning to be bored by what you've done is when it's beginning to be noticed by your audience").
The CBS eye is now an American icon. While the symbol's settings have changed (with the CBS reference outside the pupil since 1990), the Eye device itself has not been redesigned in its entire history. It has frequently been copied or borrowed by television networks around the world.
- List of programs broadcast by CBS
- List of United States television networks
- List of CBS affiliates
- List of assets owned by Viacom
- List of CBS slogans
- CBS Evening News
- CBS News
- CBS Sports
Notes on Sources
- Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
- Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
- Paley, William. As It Happened, a Memoir. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.
- Kisseloff, Jeff. The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. New York: Viking, 1995.
- CBS website
- History of the CBS Eye
- Background on CBS
- Columbia Broadcasting System page on museum.tv
- Screen captures of CBS logos past and present, as well as footage of vintage promos
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