Cigars and spite on the road to becoming the ‘Tiffany Network’

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

True story. Driving to work a few weeks ago I was convinced I had come up with an irresistible idea. As soon as I got to the office I called my top salesperson.
“You’re gonna love this,” I said. “It’s a killer idea for a congratulatory ad for our special issue commemorating CBS’s 75th anniversary. Listen to this: Full page. The background is an instantly recognizable lustrous blue. Here’s the copy: `In the 1950s, during the Golden Age of Television, CBS, with its unprecedented lineup of fine programming and stellar news operations, was dubbed “the Tiffany Network” by the New York Times.’
“I researched it. I’ve always wondered who first called CBS the Tiffany network. There was a famous TV reviewer at the Times named Jack Gould and, according to a friend of mine at CBS who’s been there for years, he’s the one who came up with it. Anyway, listen to the rest of the copy. Next line: `The public immediately understood the reference. It meant CBS had quality, value and a simple elegance that was second to none.’ New line: `We were flattered.’ Next line: `Congratulations, CBS, on your diamond anniversary.’ Last line: `Tiffany & Co.”’
My sales guy, a baby boomer like myself, went, “Whoa! Love it!”
He agreed to call Tiffany that morning to see if they were interested. With some good luck he was able to get the person in charge of marketing for Tiffany on the phone. My guy started off by saying that the marketing chief knew, of course, that over the years CBS has been referred to as the Tiffany Network. To which Tiffany’s acting marketing chief, who as it turned out is in her 30s, replied that she had absolutely no idea what my salesman was talking about.
Well, needless to say, there is no congratulatory message from Tiffany in this issue.
But the response from the Tiffany executive is illustrative of why we here at Electronic Media think it’s important to commemorate something like the 75th anniversary of a major media institution such as CBS. It’s a chance to acquaint many of our younger readers with how CBS got to where it is today. To share with them the colorful and storied history.
And for others of us it’s a chance to look back at ourselves and the shaping of the TV age and TV generation.
If CBS has been anything over most of its existence it’s been the vision of William S. Paley.
CBS started broadcasting 75 years ago, on Sept. 18, 1927. The network was started by a man who was mad at NBC. NBC had begun radio broadcasting almost a year earlier, in November 1926. The network refused to hire any of the major music artists, such as violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who were represented by talent agent Arthur Judson. So Mr. Judson started his own network, United Independent Broadcasters. Needing financing, Mr. Judson soon approached the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System, and the companies merged, taking the latter’s name (and soon dropping “Phonograph”).
Facing financial difficulties a year later, the company came to the attention of then 26-year-old Mr. Paley, who was introduced to it by his brother-in-law. Mr. Paley, who was advertising manager for his family’s very successful cigar business, bought time on CBS to air a program called “The La Palina Smoker.” The new medium, radio, seemed to work as an ad vehicle, and sales of the cigars increased dramatically when the show hit the airwaves.
Mr. Paley was hooked. He invested in CBS, and on Sept. 26, 1928, two days before his 27th birthday, he was elected president.
When Mr. Paley died a month after his 89th birthday, in 1990, EM columnist Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post that Mr. Paley “had a sense of responsibility to the audience and to the culture, not just to the sponsor. He knew a network had to put on a certain amount of frivolous drivel to stay in business, but, by God, at CBS it was going to be the best frivolous drivel money could buy. … For a good long time CBS entertainment and CBS news were the best in the country, and maybe the world.”
It’s a different world today, both for CBS and for television in general. But on its best days, TV, and yes, CBS, can still emulate the network Mr. Paley envisioned and built. It is those ideals, those past and future days of Tiffany, that we salute.
Chuck Ross is publisher and editorial director of Electronic Media.