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CBS Cable: One brief, shining moment

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The CBS Cable initiative, which lasted just a little more than a year, was the last great risk-taking venture by a major U.S. broadcaster before the bean counters and bottom liners took over altogether, and the once proud claims of daring, initiative and public
service-never a large component of commercial broadcasting but long a cherished one-were finally sequestered for good in the Gulags of Accounting Practices, Debt Management and all those other rubrics that have been making us so proud of Corporate America these past few months.
William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS, set so many things in motion in his long career. He invented the modern notion of the network, with its affiliation of independent broadcasters across the country, its benefits to the parent company of a distribution system built on somebody else’s capital and to the local broadcaster of a source of national entertainment and national and international information programming. (They actually broadcast news of events taking place outside the United States in those days!)
Paley and CBS had done well. William R. Murrow and his news chief Fred Friendly had set benchmarks for television journalism and aired the McCarthy-Senate Committee hearings that showed the power of television to unmask a political charlatan. Their specials in entertainment and drama had set breathtaking standards of excellence and their ongoing series “The Honeymooners” and “All In the Family” had left an indelible footprint on the American psyche. Just think of the list that includes Jack Benny, Ed Sullivan, Walter Cronkite, Frank Sinatra, “60 Minutes” and “M*A*S*H.”
It was 1980. The network had prospered, and Bill Paley was going to put something back into the pot by accepting the palpable risk of a cable service devoted to the arts that would, predictably, take at least five years to emerge from the red ink and another five to pay back the investment. It would be a glorious gift in its beginning, and the business plan saw it gradually coming out of the red as cable penetration spread, and in the end generating a modest profit.
This glorious idea was christened CBS Cable-a 24-hour service of music, theater, cinema, programs about literature, painting, sculpture, the world’s best in ballet, symphony, chamber music, the classics and the avant-garde. This was minority broadcasting with tactical smarts. Counting on its special (but in America ultimately very large) audience to find it out, programming Vice President Jack Willis devised a schedule in which programs were put on a 24-hour “wheel” composed of three-hour blocks beginning at 8 p.m. and then repeated throughout the 24-hour schedule. A new wheel would begin the following day at 8 p.m. Viewers could count on a good, solid block of high-quality programs at any time of the day, of repeats of items that had particularly struck them, and of finding the service at its best wherever they were in the country, at any time of the day, and relatively unencumbered with advertising.
I was brought in as host of the whole service, briefly sketching in the contents of the entire three hours as the block began, and then appearing to give background, gossip and setups to each program as it appeared. The presentation studio was a big one, usually elaborately set, with a simulated concert stage, a part of a museum or an art collection, among whose sculptures and hangings I would walk out to begin the evening. One time the whole 10,000-square-foot space was hung with dozens of huge Rothko originals-millions of dollars worth of spectacular (and controversial) canvases through which I moved as I introduced the upcoming programs. The set might have nothing to do with the programs that followed. Often it was just a striking sui generis visual statement by designer David Mitchell (“Annie,” “My Dinner with Andre”), a ballsy, in-your-face way of saying, “Look at this! Ain’t this elegant!”
A block might begin with Greg Jackson’s provocative one-on-one, uninterrupted interview program “Signature,” in which the interviewer was never seen; as host of the whole service I often got undeserved credit for Greg’s trenchant interviews. Powerful films you would never see on the regular channels were frequent fare on CBS Cable: Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” had its U.S. debut there. A richly produced 10-part dramatized biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Original profile documentaries of artists like Twyla Tharp (“Confessions of a Corner Maker”) made dozens of such specialized and relatively unknown American and international greats familiar figures to what was becoming an increasingly loyal and slowly growing CBS Cable audience.
But growing too slowly. And the Financial Floor at Black Rock, CBS’s glowering head office on Sixth Avenue, was beginning to get restless when revenues did not pull ahead of the forecasts and the first year’s predicted loss of $40 million was turning into a reality.
In the meantime, we on the production floor were living an exhilarating time. Programs commissioned especially for the service were exceeding expectations, and the acquisitions from abroad were dazzling. There was a constant sense of invention and playfulness. Greg Jackson persuaded David Letterman to sit for a “Signature” interview. Letterman’s producers told Jackson and his producer firmly that there must be no reference to any rumors about sexual irregularities. Jackson and Letterman, who were on good terms, winked at each other conspiratorially and Jackson had a quiet word with the director.
As the story goes, when Jackson knew he had the interview in the bag he made a small signal, and the director, without anyone else in the control room being aware of it, stopped recording but kept shooting as if the show were still going on.
Jackson said, “Now, David, I know this may make you a bit uncomfortable, but the stories are going around about you hanging around schoolyards and inviting young boys to get into the car with you. Why don’t you come clean, here with me now.”
Letterman looked anguished, leaned forward, acting with great conviction, and said something like, “Greg, I … I … how did you find out about this? I didn’t think anybody knew anything about this. I-I know it’s wrong. It’s just that … well look, I don’t want to hurt anybody but …”
Well, he probably didn’t get that far before the Letterman team in the control room was screaming “Stop tape,” and accusing treason and running out to the floor to save their star from this madness. I had the story directly from Jackson, and it doubtless acquired some color in the telling. But it does say something about that heady feeling of confidence and play and risk-taking that underlaid our days and nights in that wonderful enterprise.
At the launch party, at the New York Public Library, I went over to shake hands with Paley feeling a slight touch of apprehension. Here was one of the richest men in America, notoriously despotic, who had bet a bundle on our wild scheme. Would it be up to his standards? He stood up as I came toward his table and walked toward me with both hands held out. He took my hands in his. His eyes were shining.
“Patrick,” he said, “it’s got The Feel!”
But the feel didn’t count at Black Rock. Toward the end of that season Bill Paley stepped down from the chair and turned CBS over to Tom Wyman. He would later regret that move and take back the chair. But not before Wyman and the Black Rock group had killed his noble experiment. It had been on target, according to the business plan. With cable penetration growing, it would have become viable. With the spirit of respect for the audience, which was programming VP Jack Willis’ driving motive, it would have built steadily and risen as a monument to what broadcasting can be when the profit motive is enriched by a sense of public service. But it had cost them $40 million in that first year. And the guys at Black Rock were nothing if not prudent.
Patrick Watson is the former chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Besides his stint on CBS Cable, Mr. Watson has been an award-w
inning journalist in both the United States and Canada. Currently he is creative director of the Historica Foundation’s media activities.