Paley, William S. (1901-1990)

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PALEY, WILLIAM S. (1901-1990)

William S. "Bill" Paley was the son of Samuel and Goldie Paley, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who founded a cigar manufacturing company in 1896 in Chicago; the company was later incorporated as the Congress Cigar Company and relocated to Philadelphia, where it became a thriving business. At the age of twelve, Paley impulsively added the middle initial "S" to his name. (Some people thought the "S" stood for Samuel.) Paley graduated from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1922. He had worked for his father's company while in college and joined the company upon graduation. Paley biographer Sally Bedell Smith writes in In All His Glory (1990) that while young Paley was vacationing, his father and uncle agreed to sponsor a radio program to advertise their La Palina cigars. This eventually led the company to become a radio sponsor on a regular basis. Smith writes that Paley only reluctantly agreed to his involvement with radio, although Paley, in his later years, suggested that he had been the radio visionary who recognized the power of radio to promote the family's cigars. In any case, Paley's version had become the official network story by the 1940s.

Radio advertising boosted the sale of the cigars and opened young Paley's eyes to the possibilities of radio. La Palina cigars became one of the first sponsors on the newly founded Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System, later the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). In 1928, with Paley buying 41 percent of the stock, and other family members owning the remainder, Paley purchased CBS. Two days before his twenty-seventh birthday, Paley was elected president of the network. One of his early successes came when the network was negotiating program carriage with the local stations (i.e., affiliates). First, Paley doubled the number of network programming hours to twenty hours per week—time that consisted of a combination of programming with sponsors (i.e., sponsored programming) and without (i.e. sustaining programming). Second, he got the affiliates to agree to run all twenty hours and to guarantee that they would not preempt network programming. Third, he got the affiliates to agree to accept money from the network only for the portion of the twenty hours that consisted of sponsored programming. Finally, he got the affiliates to waive this monetary compensation for the first five hours of sponsored programming. Because the network typically included only five hours of sponsored programming in the twenty hours of full programming each week, the affiliates had to run all of the programming for free. More important in the long run, the twenty hours of programming provided affiliates with higher quality national broadcasts that furthered the development of the network and improved the public's perception of radio.

Paley's network competitor and nemesis was David Sarnoff, president of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Sarnoff's NBC Red and Blue networks led Paley in the number of affiliates, the number of popular programs, and the length of operation. One of Paley's early accomplishments for CBS was to sign additional affiliates that had previously been with the NBC networks. The affiliate raids ended a "gentleman's agreement" between CBS and NBC not to poach each other's affiliates, and it signaled to Paley's detractors that he was prepared to compete head-to-head in the competitive radio business. Paley was noted for his ability to identify star performers and recruit them for CBS broadcasts. Part of Paley's effectiveness came from his ability to charm the stars through his personality. Paley conducted a series of talent raids to lure stars away from NBC, a tactic he used successfully several times during his career. The talent raids were a success partly because Paley offered the stars more money but also because Paley personally enjoyed lavishing attention on his stars. Following the talent raids, CBS carried the most popular programs, and NBC had to start over and prepare a new programming schedule. Popular CBS performers included George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, and the Mills Brothers.

During World War II, Paley served in the U.S. Army in the Psychological War Branch of the Office of War Information. Paley's assignments included supervising broadcasts to Germany and Occupied Europe and preparing radio messages to accompany the D-Day invasion. Paley described radio broadcasting as a tool of warfare, just as were guns and bullets.

Under Paley's leadership, CBS introduced a color television system in 1945. Because the system was incompatible with existing black-and-white television sets, NBC's Sarnoff successfully lobbied the government not to approve the CBS system. Eventually, CBS withdrew its color television system. CBS was slow to develop television programming, but with help from Frank Stanton, CBS was soon airing The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-1970), I Love Lucy (1951-1961), Gunsmoke (1955-1975), Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (1948-1958) and The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971).

For Paley, CBS was his very life. He waived the company's mandatory retirement rule in 1966 and continued to serve as company president. He selected an outsider, Tom Wyman from Pillsbury, to run the company in 1983 with disastrous results. Paley resumed the chairman's job in 1986 when Laurence Tisch of Loews Corporation was acquiring stock and eventual control of the company. Tisch, at the time of Paley's death in 1990, had succeeded in wresting control of CBS away from Paley and was putting the company through a series of cost-cutting measures and selling divisions of the company.

Paley and his second wife, Barbara "Babe" Paley, were avid art collectors. Their collection included works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, André Derain, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Jackson Pollock. Paley was a longtime president and trustee of the New York City Museum of Modern Art and founded the Museum of Broadcasting, which was later renamed the Museum of Television and Radio.

See also:Radio Broadcasting, History of; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Sarnoff, David; Television Broadcasting, History of.


Barnouw, Erik. (1966). A Tower of Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barnouw, Erik. (1968). The Golden Web. New York: Oxford University Press.

Douglas, George. (1987). The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Lewis, Tom. (1991). Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. New York: HarperCollins.

Paley, William S. (1979). As It Happened: A Memoir. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Paper, Lewis J. (1987). Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Smith, Sally B. (1990). In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sterling, Christopher, and Kittross, John M. (1990). Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Greg Pitts

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Paley, William S. (1901-1990)

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