William S. Paley, hailed as the father of modern broadcasting, hasn’t been idle since his retirement 3 1/2 years ago from the CBS media colossus that he fashioned from a string of foundering radio stations.
He has dabbled in artificial intelligence and biogenetics, overseen large art and newspaper interests, and helped set CBS policy as a member of the board.
Nonetheless, “he felt like he was on the sidelines, watching the great institution he founded go downhill,” said his friend of 25 years, New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn. “It obviously was eating him up.”
So just 16 days away from his 85th birthday, Paley returned Wednesday as chairman of the company he founded and ran for 55 years. And he is clearly relishing the comeback.
“I’m just starting to come down,” Paley said in a brief telephone interview Thursday, the day after he was named CBS chairman and Loews Chairman Laurence A. Tisch was appointed chief executive, after a dramatic coup that saw the forced resignation of Chairman Thomas H. Wyman.
Paley, a polite and intensely private man who is clearly uncomfortable discussing his strategy and motives, wouldn’t otherwise discuss the startling closed-door actions taken by the CBS board on Wednesday.
But the view that emerged from discussions with former subordinates, friends and broadcasting analysts Thursday is that his new role at CBS will be as peacemaker and morale builder.
“His job will be to calm the troubled waters,” predicted John Reidy, a broadcast analyst with the Wall Street investment banking firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert.
He also, Rohatyn said, will try as chairman to restore the company’s tarnished reputation as the “Tiffany of broadcasters.”
“The company used to have a soul,” Rohatyn said. “Bill is the legitimate protector of that soul.”
How effective the Paley-Tisch management team will be is an open question, however.
“I’m not at all sure that any individual, no matter how committed to the news and to quality, could do a hell of a lot to turn this around and get away with it,” said Richard Salant, a former president of CBS News.
More worrisome to many observers is how Paley and Tisch, both strong personalities, will work together.
“Paley has never been No. 2 to anyone,” observed Salant, whose terms with Paley have been strained ever since he jumped ship in 1979 when he was forced by CBS’ mandatory retirement policy to retire. Salant says that when he advised Paley that he was joining NBC, he was treated “like a son joining the Confederate army” and has had few words with his former boss since then.
But, says Les Brown, editor of Channels, a monthly magazine that covers the TV business, “Paley is obviously concerned about the well-being of the company he built, and I sense he’ll do whatever it takes to work with Tisch, who clearly is the power, not Paley.”
Although by all accounts Tisch and Paley have vastly different management styles, “there is evidence that this new alliance just might work because Tisch shows Mr. Paley the respect he is clearly entitled to,” Reidy said.
Both men also recognize, Brown believes, that “if Tisch alone had been named to a position of authority, (CBS employees) would have been jumping out of windows” to leave the company. “People would have been saying here’s another money man who knows nothing about broadcasting.”
Wyman, while winning praise as an executive, had no broadcasting expertise, a shortcoming that many analysts and industry executives blame for CBS’ stunning ratings decline in recent years.
Paley, on the other hand, gained recognition and respect for CBS largely because of his entertainment programming genius and his insistence that a network should strive not only to be first in the ratings but to be the best.
Thus, under him, the news division got more than independence. It got special treatment. And industry observers say they expect him to move quickly to try to restore that favoritism.
In fact, it was Paley’s pride in his company that made it difficult for him to designate a successor during the 1970s. He went through several chief executives before designating Wyman as heir-apparent in 1980. Even after he retired as chairman in 1983, he continued to actively follow company developments as a director and consultant.
“This is a company that has always been proud of its image and a big part of that image was Bill Paley,” Brown said. “There is a feeling over there now that no one is in control, that no one cares. His return to leadership, while largely emblematic, is a signal that the great patriarch is back at the helm and people can feel proud again.”
That he has the enthusiasm for the job no one doubts.
“This is an intellectually brilliant man of extraordinary enthusiasm who is also very youthful (despite his age),” Rohatyn said.
Those who have seen him recently--both at CBS headquarters and earlier this week in the CBS box at the U.S. Open tennis tournament here--say he appears to be 20 years younger than his 84 years and as vibrant as he was in the mid-1970s, before his wife of 31 years died of a debilitating five-year illness. During the last five years of Barbara (Babe) Paley’s life, acquaintances of the couple say, Paley was preoccupied and virtually couldn’t function at work.
She was considered one of the most beautiful and elegant women in the world and, by all accounts, greatly enhanced Paley’s influence and brought him respect, both in business and social circles.
Some say his tastes also improved because of her influence. Today he has what is widely regarded as one of the most impressive collections of Impressionist paintings in America, has decorated his home in Southampton, N.Y., with furniture that friends say is exquisite and sets, Rohatyn said, “the best table in New York.”
Mrs. Paley’s death of cancer in 1979, Paley has acknowledged, was a tremendous blow to him, as was the death in 1983 of the man Paley regarded as his best friend--John Hay (Jock) Whitney, his brother-in-law.
Whitney founded Whitcom Investment Corp., a one-third owner of the Paris-based International Herald-Tribune newspaper, to which Paley has devoted a great deal of time over the last 3 1/2 years.
“I think he has put all of that behind him now,” one acquaintance said. “He’s vibrant again. He’s open to new things. He wants his company back.”
Times staff writer Robert E. Dallos in New York contributed to this story.
1934 With first wife, Dorothy Hart Hearst. They divorced in 1947.
1938 On the air at CBS radio, 10 years after he bought it for $400,000.
1947 He marries Barbara Cushing Mortimer, nicknamed Babe.
1962 Stepping from a limousine at Television City in Los Angeles.
1983 At 81, turning over the helm of CBS to Thomas H. Wyman, left.
1986 Paley returns to CBS as chairman after joining forces with Laurence A. Tisch, right, who owns the largest block of CBS stock. Thomas Wyman resigns under pressure from the CBS board and is replaced as chief executive by Tisch.