Jane Cahill Pfeiffer, chairman of NBC, was fired yesterday by NBC President Fred Silverman in one of the messiest and most soap operatic ousters in broadcasting history.
Before the day of statements, counter-statements, accusations and inuendoes was over, the scenario was playing like the movie satire "Network" or any of a number of semi-fictional works about the ruthlessness of television corporate politics.
Pfeiffer, 47 -- and highest-ranking woman executive in broadcasting -- issued two statements to selected reporters from her home in Greenwich, Conn. In the first, she responded to recently published rumors of her imminent departure by saying, "No one has asked for my resignation, and I have not offered it. Apparently there are some people trying to use the media to get me to quit."
But, Pfeiffer vowed, "I won't quit. If anyone wants to terminate my employment contract, I am available to anyone who wants to see me."
One hour later NBC issued a statement from Silverman that said, in part, "During the past two weeks, discussions have been held with Jane Cahill Pfeiffer concerning her status at NBC. I have today relieved her of all responsibility and effective immediately, her organization will report directly to me."
A Telex message went out to all NBC affiliates informing them that Pfeiffer no longer had any authority in the company.
Then, about two hours later, Pfeiffer was on the phone again with another statement, this one alleging what broadcasting insiders had already speculated -- that Silverman was pressured by RCA, NBC's parent corporation, to remove Pfeiffer as a condition to getting his own contract with the network renewed beyond its current expiration date of June 1981.
Silverman himself hinted one week ago that some sort of agreement was in the offing and that it would lay to rest rumors about his own future with the company being shaky. When Silverman took over NBC in 1978, the network was in third place in the all-important Nielsen ratings. It still is.
"Yesterday Fred Silverman told me that there was no way we both could stay," said Pfeiffer in her second statement of the day. "He wanted his contract renewed now and for that to happen, I had to make a decision and implement it. He did not ask for my resignation then or ever. He simply stated that the RCA people play hardball and that he would probably follow me out the door in six months."
Pfeiffer also said that she had learned of Silverman's decision to fire her "through the media." She would not answer questions beyond her statement and Silverman did not respond to inquiries for further comment.
With a salary of $225,000 a year and an additional $200,000 in bonuses, Pfeiffer was considered one of the highest paid business women in America. And when she was named by Silverman to be Nbc chairman in October 1978, and to assume managerial and administrative duties while he reprogrammed the TV network, it was considered by many a corporate marriage made in heaven.
But the honeymoon was mercilessly brief. Within months, Pfeiffer reportedly alienated many within the company with her cost-cutting binges and what one NBC insider calls her "high-handed manner" of dealing with personnel. Although she had spent 20 years as a highly regarded executive at IBM, sources said yesterday that Pfeiffer never bothered to educate herself about the broadcasting business.
Because her education had included a brief stay in a convent, and because of her reportedly two-fisted style, she was nicknamed "Attila the Nun, and rumors that she would be fired have been common in broadcasting for nearly a year.
"A 'disaster' is the word that was frequently used," one NBC insider said of Pfeiffer. "She had a constituency of one, and that was fred."
Among the ironies was the fact that Pfeiffer had been selected by RCA Chairman Edgar Griffiths as the emissary who first made contact with Silverman, then president of ABC Entertainment, about leaving that network and coming to NBC to rescue it from financial decline and a collapse of status. That salvage operation remains incomplete.
Although Silverman is empowered to remove Pfeiffer as chairman (RCA is a publicly owned corporation, NBC its subsidiary), she retains membership on the RCA board of directors. Industry sources indicated yesterday that only by a vote of stockholders -- whose next meeting is not until May 1981 -- or by her own resignation can Pfeiffer be removed from the board.
While Pfeiffer's dismissal was hardly a shock to broadcasting figures in New York yesterday, the way NBC had let it become a public donnybrook was -- particularly since it follows by only two weeks the abrupt firing of RCA president Maurice R. Valente by Griffiths.
"Surely this Pfeiffer thing could not have been handled worse," said one public relations expert. "It makes the Valente firing look kind by comparison." Until Silverman's statement was issued yesterday, NBC spokesmen were responding to questions about Pfeiffer by saying they had been ordered to "neither confirm nor deny" any reports about Pfeiffer's status with the company.
In his statement, Silverman said of Pfeiffer: "We are prepared to continue discussions regarding her employment agreement." NBC sources interpreted this as meaning that lawyers for the network and for Pfeiffer will work out a settlement of her contract, which expires in October 1981. One year's salary is typical severance pay at this rarefield level of network management.
Spokesmen had no comment about a possible successor to Pfeiffer, Richard S. Salant, the former CBS News president now NBC vice chairman, would logically be in line for the position, but Broadcasting magazine reported this week he is not expected to get the promotion.
The timing of the Pfeiffer firing was believed to have been partly determined by the rash of rumors appearing in newspapers and magazines, including Newsweek, over the weekend. But one NBC source said another reason RCA wanted Pfeiffer out of the way now was that she was scheduled to host cocktail parties for political figures before both the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Considering the melodramatic overtones of skulduggery and politicking that marked the Pfeiffer affair yesterday, one NBC executive was asked if he didn't feel like a member of the cast of "Julius Caesar." He replied, "Considering the number of corpses at the final curtain, it's more like 'Hamlet.'"