“The first radio I ever saw was a primitive crystal set,” writes William S. Paley, 77, in his newly published memoirs As It Happened (Doubleday, $14.95). “A friend clamped the earphones on me and I was dumbfounded. I never got over the surprise and the fascination.” Starting out in 1928 with $400,000 from stock given him by his cigar manufacturer father, Chicago-born Paley built the Columbia Broadcasting System into a $3 billion-a-year corporate giant. In the 1930s and 1940s he concentrated on luring stars like Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Will Rogers, Red Skelton and Kate Smith to CBS radio. With the advent of television, Paley and his network cornered the talents of Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, Mary Tyler Moore and introduced shows like The Waltons and All in the Family. For 21 years CBS-TV reigned as No. 1—a position it lost to ABC in 1976. In the meantime, Paley’s empire expanded to include publishing (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Fawcett Books) and one of the world’s largest record companies. Divorced from his first wife in 1947, Paley then married the elegant Barbara “Babe” Cushing. They were together 31 years—until her death from cancer last July. In his 35th-floor office at “Black Rock,” the nickname given CBS’s granite-faced New York headquarters, Paley cast his eye on the past, present and future of broadcasting for Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
Are you proud of the quality of television today?
I am. It’s awfully hard to make comparisons with earlier years. You get fooled when you go back to the programs of the 1950s and early 1960s that you remember as having been very, very good. Usually they weren’t.
Is there a need for better programming?
Keeping in mind it is a mass medium, I think it does a good job of pleasing most of the people most of the time. If the printing presses of the New York Times turned out 25 million copies, instead of 800,000, and tried to distribute them throughout the country, it would be a different kind of newspaper. But I think TV can do an even better job.
It’s difficult for one network to do it alone, because it would mean lost revenues. So I’ve invited ABC and NBC to join me in setting aside two hours a week for special, somewhat noncommercial programming for a total of six hours a week. Everybody is interested in improving quality, but there seem to be very serious questions about doing it the way I suggest. I hope that in a short time I’ll be able to sit down with the heads of the other networks and work something out.
Are quality shows today given time to build up an audience?
Yes. The best example I can think of is The Paper Chase, which has been on all season and ratings-wise is a failure. But it’s a damn good program and we decided to keep it on—though I’m not sure we can keep it on forever.
As a man who collects Picassos and loves classical music, how do you feel about CBS shows like The Dukes of Hazzard?
I don’t pretend to like everything. All I know is a lot of people are getting a lot of enjoyment and fun out of it. I don’t help select programs that only appeal to me. I try to interpret the desires of the American public.
Can you gauge what the average American wants to see?
Yes, I think I feel what the mass audience likes and wants. The success I had in earlier days of radio and television-was based on this feeling I had for what large audiences like.
As a boy, how did your mother’s attitude influence the course of your life?
She didn’t want me to get a swelled head, and I took it as disapproval when she would complain that other children were brighter than I was, that they looked better, looked neater or did something better. As she grew older we became very, very close—there couldn’t have been a better relationship between mother and son. But because of the way she made me feel when I was a child, I tried harder.
Were you really a chronic gambler?
As a young man, I almost did not survive gambling. Once I owed $5,000, but my Uncle Jay loaned me the money to pay it off. It was never really a disease, though, and when I got into broadcasting, I lost my fever for gambling completely. Now it’s just an occasional game of backgammon or bridge.
Did you seriously promise yourself that you would retire at 35 and become a beachcomber?
It was an honest-to-God commitment to myself. I was in my 20s and had a feeling I was smarter then than I would be later on. I did worry like the devil during that last year before turning 35. If I’d stayed in the cigar business, I would have retired.
Is Bill Paley an easy person to know?
No. I don’t pour it out, except to intimates. A lot of those have died, but there are a few left. The principal one is my brother-in-law, Jock Whitney. But I’m not eager to advertise my inner emotions or what’s troubling me.
In his forthcoming book, The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes about a rift between you and Edward R. Murrow. Was there one?
There was some strain, yes. In a 1958 speech, Ed Murrow attacked television over the relationship of “show business, advertising and the news.” I was extremely hurt by it, but we were close friends—we had our arguments, our ups and downs. He never made a move without consulting me, and we had great respect for one another. This notion of Halberstam’s that he hated my guts just isn’t true. While Halberstam is candid and honest, he had to rely on others for information. Some of his facts are terribly wrong.
What about Fred Silverman, who went from being your program chief to ABC’s and is now president of third-place NBC?
Freddie is a very able man, and I like to think I may have taught him something. He is a very imaginative person and he has a tremendous amount of energy and drive.
Will he succeed at NBC?
None of us succeeds all the time. Freddie stepped into a very difficult situation at NBC and I think you have to give him a while. Maybe he tried to correct the situation there too quickly. Now we’ll have to see what he does for the fall of ’79. Would I like to see him back at CBS? Sure. Do I see that happening? No.
How did you feel about ABC overtaking CBS at the top of the ratings?
I didn’t like it. I knew we were in trouble long before the figures showed it. We failed to develop a large enough inventory of shows to fall back on. That was just careless and shouldn’t have happened. You have to be prepared to take off shows quickly and replace them with something that’s better.
How are you coping as No. 2?
We’ve reorganized and we’re a strong No. 2—better this year than last year. I’m not saying that I didn’t like being No. 1—I loved it! I wish it could have gone on another 21 years. But now that we’ve been toppled from No. 1, there is a certain challenge and excitement.
Five executives have been slated to succeed you but did not. How secure then can your current heir-apparent, John Backe, be?
He already runs the network. I gave the title of chief executive officer to Mr. Backe almost two years ago. I continue on as chairman, more as elder statesman and adviser than anything else. My successor is in place.
All CBS employees with the exception of yourself have been required to retire at 65. Will Walter Cronkite, now 62, retire in 1981?
I don’t know. If we play the game according to the rules, he will. I’d like to see him stay on forever; he is the most trusted man in America.
Who will succeed him?
I don’t know. Yes, I have a personal favorite, but I won’t say who.
Will you ever retire?
In a conventional sense, no.
Which programs are you proudest of?
I’m very proud of Playhouse 90, of our news department—particularly the work Ed Murrow did—and All in the Family, which brought realism to broadcasting for the first time.
When were you most happy?
Back in the early days. CBS was small and I was very flexible. Actually, I was all over the place finding talent—Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. I had a lot more fun then. Size and joy do not necessarily go together.
How do you feel about being described in Esquire magazine as New York’s most pursued bachelor?
That’s a lot of nonsense—a cheap shot. These are women who are all old friends of mine and of my late wife, Babe. There is absolutely no romantic relationship between me and any of these people. It’s embarrassing to me and to them.
Are you at a turning point now?
Yes. Everything went to hell when my wife got sick. For 31 years we really had a marvelous relationship. When that goes it leaves a terrible void. So much has happened…
I lost six members of my family in one year. A friend of mine recently told me a lot of men have lost their wives, and that I should stop feeling sorry for myself. But the pain strikes at odd moments, particularly in the early mornings. I’ll have to build a whole new life without Babe at my side. It’s hard, but I’ll have to.