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Norman Horowitz

Norman Horowitz

Posted: November 12, 2009 03:48 PM

Sarnoff, Paley and Goldenson

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A Television writer/friend Dom Serafini recently wrote an article about "the good old days of Television Ownership."

Dom is not always wrong, but he is at least wrong some of the time, and now is "some of the time..."

He wrote on October 20: "The industry is crying wolf: The terrible economy, the bad new media, the finicky public, the unfair digital technology. You name it, and it's got its claws in television's back. The industry seems to blame everything and everybody, except itself..."

When I worked for CBS in the late '60s it was easy to measure the success of CBS' Bill Paley, NBC's David Sarnoff and ABC's Leonard Goldenson, notwithstanding their inability to properly manage what they owned. They attempted to diversify like drunken MBAs and were of the opinion that it was their management skills that made the network incredibly profitable and not their owning broadcast "franchises." They had years to adjust to their new reality and did not respond.

Dom then continued: "Then there were massive government regulations, three wars, financial crises and the struggles with new technology (at one time comprised of cable, satellite and VCRs). And don't forget the 1973 oil crisis, stock market crash and political strife. Meanwhile, the '80s saw stronger competition from cable TV, and Wall Street turned predatory."

Massive government regulations my nose! Not that there weren't issues for the networks to overcome, but it was certainly "no harm, no foul time." Cable competition was inevitable and these broadcast geniuses did mostly nothing when they eschewed cable programming.

Dom goes on: "I'm convinced that if television visionaries such as Sarnoff, Paley and Goldenson were alive today, they'd trip all over each other to be the first to migrate to IPTV."

In my never humble opinion, each of the three, because of their licenses, were "born on third base, and so many now believe that they had each hit a triple." They hardly embraced cable at all. I do not diminish the talents of the three network founders, but I would not be ready to accept that they should be placed in the "Media Hall Of Fame." I would not say unequivocally that Paley, Goldenson and Sarnoff did not have elements of genius, but neither am I sure that they did.

If not them, who should we praise? How about Ted Turner? How about Norman Lear? How about Rupert Murdoch?

Being somewhere at the right time with the right stuff is what matters most in business. Perhaps I should not be the person to complain. In order to demonstrate my incredible insight into the business of television I offer the following: When CBS was forced to divest itself in 1970 of what was to become Viacom, I left the company, telling everyone that it was destined to fail. Viacom came into the capable hands of Ralph Baruch and they demonstrably proved me wrong. It was the right time for that to happen as well.