Aubrey, James Thomas, Jr.

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AUBREY, James Thomas, Jr.

(b. 14 December 1918 in La Salle, Illinois; d. 3 September 1994 in New York City), media executive and producer credited with improving the financial fortune of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television network in the early 1960s.

Aubrey, the oldest of four sons of advertising executive James T. Aubrey and homemaker Mildred Stever, spent his childhood in the Chicago area and New York City. A privileged child, the tall, athletic Aubrey was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (1934–1938) and graduated cum laude from Princeton in 1941 with a B.A. in English. During World War II he served as a test pilot with the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of major. In 1944 Aubrey married actress Phyllis Thaxter. They had two children, Susan Schuyler Aubrey, who as Skye Aubrey enjoyed a brief performing career, and a son. Aubrey and Thaxter divorced in 1963.

In 1946 Aubrey settled in Los Angeles, where he sold advertising for Condé Nast publications before joining the local CBS radio and television affiliates in 1948 as an account executive. Thus began his association with the company where he would see his biggest successes and his most prominent failure.

In the mid-1950s, Aubrey was hired as a programmer for CBS television, where he helped develop the popular western series Have Gun, Will Travel (1957–1963). CBS executives were slow to appreciate the programmer's gifts, however, and in 1956 Aubrey accepted a position as vice president in charge of programs and talent at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). In two short years he was able to turn the fledgling network into a worthy rival of CBS and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), in part by introducing such successful series as The Real McCoys, which aired on ABC from 1957 to 1962, and on CBS from 1962 to 1963.

Having demonstrated a flair for programming, Aubrey returned to CBS in April 1958 and within a year succeeded Louis Cowan as network president. A tireless executive who by the 1959–1960 season toiled twelve hours a day, six days a week, Aubrey had a clear set of standards for all CBS programs. The shows had to feature a big-name star, they needed to have a workable format, and creative control had to be ceded to CBS. Additionally, and most important for the financial health of CBS, Aubrey presold all half-hour programs to no more than two advertising sponsors with contracts that ran for fifty-two weeks at full price. By contrast, other networks were selling one-minute spots on their shows in thirteen-week increments.

Aubrey came to be noted for his infallible instinct for popular television shows. Although some within the company questioned the lowbrow nature of some of the programs, fearing they might tarnish CBS's reputation as the "Tiffany" network, the public embraced such oddball offerings as a program about a talking horse (Mr. Ed, 1961–1965), and another about a family of backwoods millionaires (The Beverly Hillbillies, 1962–1971). Much of this success was credited to Aubrey's willingness to embrace the burgeoning audience of young families. He was also said to be a master of audience flow, programming new or struggling series in time slots after hit series to create new hits. A prime example of this was The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966), which struggled until Aubrey aired it after The Beverly Hillbillies.

Not all the programs Aubrey championed were ratings bonanzas. Tiffany Network shows such as The Defenders (1961–1965) and East Side/West Side (1963 to 1964) garnered critical acclaim and even Emmy Awards but struggled in the ratings. Still, their presence demonstrated Aubrey's principle of balance in programming. The press liked to tout CBS as "the comedy network," but Aubrey could point to the one-hour dramas as examples of the network's commitment to diversity.

As network president from 1959 to 1965, Aubrey also concentrated on CBS's daytime lineup, a mix of soap operas and audience participation shows that earned strong ratings and large profits. During Aubrey's presidency, the combined revenue for CBS nearly doubled, rising from $25 million to $49.6 million. CBS also dominated the Nielsen ratings, placing six shows in the top ten from 1960 to 1964. And during the 1963–1964 season, the network enjoyed the then unprecedented feat of airing fourteen of the fifteen highest-rated shows on television.

From the start of his presidency at CBS, Aubrey came under criticism for his somewhat abrasive managerial style. He was noted for his brusque demeanor that often bruised the egos of the top talent. Aubrey clashed openly with Jack Benny, whose ratings were slipping, over the decision to move the comedian's show from Sunday nights to Tuesdays. Benny eventually took the series to rival NBC when his contract was up in 1964, but Aubrey's instincts proved sound when the show's ratings rose during the 1962–1963 season.

Although there was some carping in the media over the quality of CBS programs and there were disgruntled producers and performers (the film producer and character actor John Houseman reputedly dubbed Aubrey "the Smiling Cobra"), Aubrey remained in favor with CBS chairman William S. Paley as long as the revenues grew. But just months after Aubrey graced the cover of Business Week, his career began a downward trajectory. For nearly four years Aubrey had creative control, which included the network's investments in the shows it produced with an eye to reaping money from syndication, but during the 1964–1965 season Aubrey agreed to air three new series produced by former actor Keefe Brasselle without even viewing a pilot episode. Each series failed, and, coupled with a slippage in network income and his growing negative reputation (his critics in the media variously described him as "imperious," "arrogant," "ruthless" and "a monster," and his personal life provided endless fodder for the gossip columns), Paley had no choice but to replace Aubrey. His contract at CBS was terminated in February 1965.

After a protracted dispute over his stock options, Aubrey walked away with a settlement in excess of $1 million. Investing wisely, Aubrey spent from February to October 1965 traveling, dabbling in the operations of an import-export firm, and heading Aubrey Productions, which reportedly had deals with several studios for film and television projects, although nothing was ever produced.

In a move that surprised some in the entertainment industry, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian appointed Aubrey president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in October 1969. Kerkorian had purchased the studio primarily for its name recognition and planned to build a hotel in Las Vegas. When Aubrey assumed control of MGM, it had not had a hit film since 1965 and it was deeply in debt. Employing his "ruthless" business style, Aubrey took a bottom-line approach, instituting a complete restructuring of the studio and its divisions, laying off almost half of its staff and selling off many of the studio's assets, including property in Southern California and England. In an even more controversial move, Aubrey sold over forty-five years' worth of costumes and props. MGM had an operating loss of $8 million in 1970, but the sale of $9.8 million in assets put it back in the black for the first time in four years. And after the costly failure in 1970 of Ryan's Daughter, Aubrey instituted a budgetary cap of $2 million per picture.

However, while MGM was now fiscally sound, the artistic reputation of the once great studio was in decline. Many filmmakers complained of Aubrey's interference in production and of his propensity to edit out any controversial material that might lead to a "restricted" rating. MGM continued to post an operating profit, but that was mainly due to the annual sale of assets (overseas theater chains, music companies, and so on) and not because of hit movies. By the time Aubrey departed in 1973, the MGM Grand was set to open in Las Vegas and MGM had ceased to be a major distributor of motion pictures. Aubrey returned to independent producing, with only a handful of projects, such as the 1976 feature Futureworld and the 1979 ABC television movie The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, making any impact. Aubrey died of a heart attack and was buried in Westwood Memorial Park, in Los Angeles.

There is no official biography of Aubrey, although he is a key character in Merle Miller's memoir, with Evan Rhodes, Only You, Dick Darling!: Or How to Write One Television Script and Make $50,000,000 (1964), and reportedly served as the fictional inspiration for the main characters in Keefe Brasselle, The Cannibals: A Novel About Television's Savage Chieftains (1968), and Jacqueline Susann, The Love Machine (1969). Aubrey features prominently in William S. Paley, As It Happened: A Memoir (1979), Lewis J. Paper, Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS (1987), and Sally Bedell Smith, In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle (1990). Articles about Aubrey's career include "Number 1 Supplier of TV News," Business Week (25 Apr. 1964); Max Lerner, "The Aubrey Story," New York Post (5 Mar. 1965); Robert Windeler, "Motion Pictures: Analysis: Aubrey's Appointment at MGM—Why?" Entertainment World (31 Oct. 1969); and Jodi Lawrence, "Jungle Jim and the MGM Acid Test: An Exclusive Interview with Jim Aubrey," Today's Film Maker (Feb. 1972). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Variety (both 12 Sep. 1994).

Ted Murphy

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