Pfeiffer, Jane Cahill

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Pfeiffer, Jane Cahill

National Broadcasting
Company, (NBC)


Jane Cahill Pfeiffer made headlines between 1978 and 1980 as the first chairwoman of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Her NBC career ended suddenly after only 22 months when a rift developed between her and other management.

Personal Life

Jane Cahill Pfeiffer was born in Washington, D.C., on September 29, 1932, to John Joseph and Helen Cahill. Jane's father died suddenly when she was only seven, leaving her mother to raise Jane and her brother Jack alone. Helen Cahill started working hard on her own career and eventually became the highest-paid woman in the federal civil service as chief nutritionist for the Veteran's Administration. Her mother's efforts to advance her career impressed Jane deeply.

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a BA in speech and drama and in mathematics in 1954, Jane Cahill took graduate courses in philosophy at Georgetown University and at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., from 1956 to 1957. She then entered a Roman Catholic novitiate to become a nun, but left after only six months and started her career as a trainee at IBM.

On June 3, 1975, Cahill married Ralph A. Pfeiffer Jr., senior vice president of IBM's World Trade Corporation. Nine months after her marriage, however, she gave up her IBM position. Jane Cahill Pfeiffer believed that two top managers being married and working for the same company could cause serious problems, and she had already planned to resign from IBM.

Pfeiffer has received many awards. The University of Maryland presented her with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1975 and an honorary doctorate in 1979. In 1978, Pfeiffer was given the Outstanding Broadcast Executive Award at the first annual Mainstream Women Broadcasting Industry Awards. In 1980 she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award from the League for the Hard of Hearing.

Jane Cahill Pfeiffer was described as a religious and extremely private person. She and her husband live in Connecticut.

Career Details

In 1955 Jane Cahill joined IBM as a systems-engineer trainee, where she first learned and later taught computer programming. Beginning in 1960, she worked for two years as the site manager of a missile tracking station in Bermuda. Once while in Bermuda, paychecks for her employees failed to arrive on time. Cahill paid her staff with money borrowed from a local bank, then wrote her bosses at IBM headquarters that the company had better "get with it" because the loan was going to fall due soon. Thomas J. Watson, then IBM's chairman, was impressed by Cahill's managerial know-how and assertiveness.

In 1966, Jane Cahill was chosen as the first female White House Fellow. She left IBM for one year and, as part of the program, made the acquaintance of leading government officials in Washington, D.C. When Cahill returned to IBM, chairman Thomas J. Watson hired her as administrative assistant and then made her his executive assistant. In 1970, she became the secretary of the management review committee, whose purpose was to analyze and solve company-wide problems. One year later, she became director of communications and, in 1972, vice president of corporate communications and government relations.

In 1975 Pfeiffer left IBM and started working as an independent management consultant. A good reputation and numerous strategic contacts helped her to get started. The Bank of America, Bethlehem Steel, Yale University, and the research firm Yankelovich, Skelly, and White were among her first clients.

In late 1976 the media reported that Pfeiffer was president-elect Jimmy Carter's first choice as Commerce Secretary. On December 14, 1976, however, Pfeiffer released a statement that she was not interested in the Cabinet post because she did not want to live apart from her husband, who was working for IBM in Armonk, New York, and at the time she was recovering from surgery.

One of the firms for which Pfeiffer consulted was RCA, a major consumer electronics and media company. One of her tasks was to improve the management of National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which was owned by RCA. After redirecting its programming toward youth in 1974, NBC's television division had lost a large segment of its adult audience. As a result, NBC was losing affiliate stations to other media networks like CBS and ABC. RCA top managers put their hope in Fred Silverman, a very successful broadcasting executive, who had previously turned around declining operations at both the CBS and ABC networks. Pfeiffer helped recruit Silverman, whom she had met as vice president at IBM, while Silverman was program chief of CBS-TV. In June 1978, Silverman became NBC's president and chief executive officer. He requested Pfeiffer's assistance as a consultant and on October 4, 1978, suggested her to the board of directors as a candidate for NBC chairmanship. She was not only elected NBC chairwoman, but also, at the suggestion of Edgar H. Griffiths, RCA's president and CEO, added to the RCA board of directors. Her assignment there was to help reorganize and manage the company.

While Silverman worked on injecting some life into NBC's programming, Pfeiffer took care of administration, employee relations, legal affairs, and government relations. In 1978 and 1979, Pfeiffer made substantial changes in areas she directly supervised. She took some unpopular measures while solving an internal criminal scandal, reduced the NBC board of directors from 18 to nine members, and reorganized the news division.

In late 1978, it became known by the NBC hierarchy that certain unit managers were involved in fraudulent practices and had embezzled some $1 million of NBC funds. To settle the affair, Pfeiffer investigated the charges swiftly. She spent more than $4 million replacing many of the managers and one vice president and bringing up approximately ten people on criminal charges. As a result, many NBC executives lost their director posts.

By 1979, NBC was trailing the evening news programs on both CBS and ABC. To remedy the situation, Pfeiffer made a number of changes. She raised the news budget by 23 percent; she hired Paul Greenberg, a producer of the CBS Evening News, and Richard S. Salant, the retired president of the CBS news department, which had set the standard for television news since the fifties; and she arranged for the popular Phil Donahue to appear regularly on the Today show. The entire format of NBC news was altered by including more information, improving the editing, and emphasizing people in the news.

In May 1979, Pfeiffer and Silverman stressed their goal of more mature programs with more news and information for the fall season. One year later, however, NBC was still trailing behind ABC and CBS in third place in the viewer numbers. As a result, NBC was earning approximately $120 million less in advertising revenues per year than its competitors. Adding to the problem was the United States boycott of the summer Olympic Games in Moscow. Silverman had been counting on attracting viewers, but instead lost another estimated $10 million in advertising revenues.

Dissatisfaction among Pfeiffer's staff led to open criticism. They claimed that she refused to delegate responsibility, were put off by her memos which they found arrogant, and objected to her wholesale replacements in the finance, personnel, and technical areas.

In the wake of these charges and under the added pressure of NBC's deteriorating economic situation, on July 8, 1980, after serving only 22 months of her three-year contract, Jane Cahill Pfeiffer was relieved of her duties by Fred Silverman, apparently on orders from Griffiths. The affair shocked the business community, in particular considering Silverman's claims that Pfeiffer would remain as long as he was at the network.

The firing was not handled correctly, however. Pfeiffer and Silverman exchanged charges and countercharges in the press. Pfeiffer was said to be extremely angry about how RCA had dealt with the matter. She maintained in statements to the media that Silverman had never formally asked her to resign. Furthermore, according to Pfeiffer, Silverman had confided to her that his primary concern was whether his own contract would be renewed. The warring parties traded official statements and bitter charges for days. But finally, on July 11, 1980, Jane Cahill Pfeiffer formally resigned.

Despite some of the harsh accusations leveled at her by upper management, not all NBC colleagues were unhappy with Pfeiffer. One, quoted in Broadcasting, called her "plain and simple" adding that she "has no pretensions, no ego, she's not trying to prove anything and she doesn't engage in one-upmanship—which in business is a refreshing change." Pfeiffer herself once said, "It is not easy, but you have to be willing to make mistakes. And the earlier you make those mistakes, the better."

After leaving NBC, she resumed her work as a management consultant. She later also served as a director on the boards of several companies, including Ashland Oil Co., International Paper Co., and J.C. Penney Co. In addition to her business achievements, she was also a member of various organizations, including the President's General Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Social and Economic Impact

Despite her problems at NBC, Pfeiffer's career and achievements helped pave the way for American women seeking acceptance and influence in business and politics. First in 1966, she was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as the first woman White House fellow, a program designed to enhance understanding between the business community and the government. While in the program, she worked with Robert Wood, undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on streamlining the Housing and Home Finance Agency.

Chronology: Jane Cahill Pfeiffer

1932: Born.

1966: Named first female White House Fellow.

1971: Appointed secretary of IBM management revision committee.

1972: Became vice president at IBM.

1976: Started working as management consultant.

1978: Elected chairperson NBC, Inc.

1978: Became director of RCA.

1980: Discharged from NBC and takes a position with RCA.

In 1972, she served as the first female vice president at IBM since World War II. As a vice president, Jane Cahill involved IBM as a television sponsor of high-quality entertainment and public affairs programs. IBM first sponsored the CBS-TV weekly news program Face the Nation in order to reach the businessmen in the audience, in Cahill's opinion the decision makers for computer purchases.

As chairwoman of NBC she held the highest position a woman had ever achieved in the broadcast industry. "With a salary of $225,000 a year plus bonuses ranging from $66,667 to $200,000 for each year of her three-year contract," wrote Current Biography, "Mrs. Pfeiffer was believed to be the highest-paid woman executive in the country."

Sources of Information

Contact at: National Broadcasting Company, (NBC)
90 Field Point Cir.
Greenwich, CT 06830-7011


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