William Paley clung to his enthusiasm for broadcasting even when broadcasting seemed to lose its enthusiasm for him. At CBS itself in recent years, the founder and chairman would sometimes be referred to derisively, as if he were a crusty relic from some other age.
He was from some other age. A better one.
Paley died Friday just as another evening of prime time ended in America. The enormous apparatus of American broadcasting that he helped put into place continued to churn on without him, pumping news and entertainment and commercials for washday miracles into millions of American homes.
Will Paley be remembered? The more he is remembered, the better for television and for the people who watch it, because in an old-fashioned way, he stood for something; he really did. He 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. At the same time, he underwrote as many quality things as he could, and for the most part gave journalists in the news division free hand to report the real world with brutal and edifying honesty.
For a good long time, CBS entertainment and CBS news were the best in the country, and maybe the world.
Paley helped invent American broadcasting. It seems to be going through an uninventive period right now, and values Paley and others tried to imbue are becoming
un-bued. Where feisty pioneers and solid citizens like Paley once blazed trails, glorified accountants and sleazy cable operators now rake in quick bucks.
You'd have a hard time forging a gentleman's agreement these days because so many of the gentlemen are gone.
CBS is trying to deliver the news of his demise at age 89 with a smile; what on earth is there to be smiley about? Two bumbling anchors on the tacky new CBS News program "America Tonight" introduced a prepackaged obituary late Friday with dopey grins on their faces. Maybe they're so young that "Mr. Paley" is just a distant historical figure to them.
On the CBS News program "Sunday Morning," only one man, veteran (and retired) correspondent Eric Sevareid, dared to inject a note of somber reality, recalling a society event of a few years back at which Paley said to him, "Eric, I want you back on the air," though Sevareid knew that was impossible.
Somewhat sheepishly, Paley followed his edict with, "I suppose if I suggest it, they won't do it." Paley's aside made him "sad," Sevareid said, because it reflected "his loss of power, of prestige, the degree of authority which by that time had slipped away from him in his old age and with the change in management."
In person, whatever the fate of the kingdom at that moment, Paley had a wily, rascally smile. He often spoke of broadcasting as providing "fun," both for the audience and for him. Empire-building had a kind of ingenuous charm as he practiced it, but as the empire crumbled, and as CBS lost much of its luster and renown, the story of his life took on a sobering poignancy.
"I am not a very demonstrative person," he wrote in his very guarded memoir "As It Happened" in 1979. "I am not good at flattering people or even complimenting them ... I don't think I am an easy person to know." He worked for decades with the brilliant Frank Stanton, a man who shared his vision and his good taste, yet confessed, "We never grew close."
He remained on extremely intimate terms, however, with the monument that was CBS -- a monument to himself, but more than that. It was an institution that really did seem to have lofty inner ideals and the outward means to express them, whether in the tony sheen of the best CBS programs or in the grim grandeur of Black Rock, CBS corporate headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York.
"Putting up this building was a great triumph," he said in 1979, sitting at an elegant ornate table -- the only thing resembling a desk -- in his 35th-floor office. "You know, sometimes I say, 'What the hell's going to happen 25 years from now, when someone's around who doesn't care about these things?' " He meant the physical details that conveyed the CBS image -- the logo, the letterhead, the gorgeous graphics.
"I know a lot of businesses that pay no attention to details of that kind who are just as successful as we are. They probably make more money, maybe they get as much fun out of it. But one's personality has to be felt."
No one who worked at CBS in Paley's heyday could say that his wasn't. He made few appearances on his own network, however. When Jack Benny kowtowed and groveled to a network executive named "Mr. Paley" on his show, the role was played by an anonymous-looking actor.
Paley did appear, briefly, on the lavish 50th birthday party CBS threw for itself on the air. And his name would pop up from time to time, as when Jackie Gleason recalled the day that he and Paley attended a negotiating session for Gleason's new $11 million contract in the '50s. Gleason, having had a typically active night, fell asleep at the conference table, and Paley is supposed to have said, "Hell, if that's how he feels about it, give him the money."
Reminiscing at the time the autobiography was published, Paley conceded his instincts and decisions were hardly infallible. He tried to argue Lucille Ball out of the idea of costarring her Cuban husband, Desi Arnaz, in the TV version of her radio sitcom that Paley wanted on the air, a show that would later be titled "I Love Lucy."
Although Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" was an immediate success when it signed on in 1948, Paley recalled, his plan was to replace Sullivan with another host as soon as possible. This was, fortunately, one of those plans that never saw fruition.
Paley became legendary in later years at the company for his reluctance to anoint a successor, and a parade of executives came and went, floating out the windows under lavish golden parachutes. And then, in the '80s, CBS itself began to be dismantled, and Paley had no choice but to entrust the legacy to other, lesser, hands.
In a statement, CBS President Laurence A. Tisch said Sunday, "I speak for everyone at CBS when I say that while we mourn his passing, we are privileged to have worked in his presence and been shaped by his vision." The nagging feeling is that there is much more than Bill Paley to be mourned.
The Paley plaques will go up at CBS as they did for Edward R. Murrow. Solemn words will be inscribed on walls. One of Paley's pet projects, New York's Museum of Broadcasting, will be one of many lasting memorials. The question is how much of Paley's spirit will be kept alive at a network that once was called Tiffany's and now courts K mart.
A new biography will reveal that Paley was a human being with many faults and foibles and some qualities that were not admirable. That doesn't seem to matter much when compared to what Paley brought to popular culture and public discourse during the years he dominated.
Over the years, Paley had his favorites on the CBS schedule and was hardly reticent to defend them at programming sessions. He loved "The Paper Chase" partly, it was thought, because a wise elderly gentleman was the central character. He said he nearly wept at the cancellation of "Beacon Hill," the 1975 serial that he hoped would rank with "Upstairs, Downstairs" and other acclaimed productions of the BBC.
In more recent years, he was reportedly a fan of "Murphy Brown," one of the few shows on the CBS schedule that seems consistent with Paley tradition. Another is "60 Minutes," which Paley long championed. Indeed, if the records are closely checked, it will probably be seen that over all those years of radio and TV, William Paley never championed a piece of junk.
Whether CBS will ever regain the success and prestige it knew under Bill Paley is doubtful. The three-network era has ended ignominiously, and the Great Audience he catered to has fragmented into splinter groups. About the most one can hope for CBS is that here and there, glimmers of his passion and vigor will peep through.
Maybe if people will just stop in those hallways and read those plaques, they'll get some idea of what it was like in the days of Paley glory -- days when you couldn't aim higher than to curry favor with the boss.