CBS-THEN & NOW

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When CBS stockholders meet here in New York on Thursday of this week to vote on the company's sale to Westinghouse Electric Corp., there will be few who do not think they know the root of the problem.

Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," one of CBS's remaining jewels, has no doubt where to ascribe blame:

"It's all Larry Tisch," he told The New York Times recently, naming his boss, Laurence A. Tisch, board chairman and the man who bought control of CBS from the late William S. Paley.

I worked for CBS for six years (leaving in the autumn of '87) for the network's flagship station here in New York, WCBS-TV. And it was about as fine a six years that a journalist could have. I loved CBS, loved going over there every afternoon, loved being on their evening news night after night.

If there is sexual fulfillment in work, CBS provided it.

By the time I got there Ed Murrow was long dead and Uncle Walter had been shunted off to election night cameos but Van Gordon Sauter headed the news department and "Clean Gene" Jankowski and Tom Leahy were running the business and Peter Lund the local station and John Madden broadcast football every Sunday and Tony Malara did things with the affiliates and Mr. Paley was watching. By then that was what Mr. Paley did, he watched us on television. Once when I'd interviewed Jim Beard about food and was helping the old man downstairs to his car, the lobby receptionist held out a phone to me. "It's Mr. Paley," he said. We'd just gotten off the air, James Beard and I, and Paley wanted to know the name of the bakery Beard mentioned that had the best bread in Manhattan.

The executives worked at "Black Rock" up the street from the 21 Club but the actual television we did in sprawling old dairy barns on West 57th Street over near the Hudson River. That's where Dan Rather read the evening news and they taped the soaps and produced the morning show and where we did the local news that led into Dan Rather. Jim Jensen and Rolland Smith were the local anchors then and Warner Wolf did sports and Mr. G. and later Frank Field predicted the weather (and got it right occasionally) and the smartest young producers and directors and writers worked there and some of the most beautiful women in New York and the cameras still were operated by actual human beings and didn't roll about on the floor by themselves.

It was a magical time and I never knew a better place or finer people.

Then what went wrong? Mike Wallace says Larry Tisch, whom some still think of as one of the smartest men in American business. Others as the man who ran the so-called "Tiffany network" into the ground with his penny-pinching management to such an extent that a curtain-raiser piece in the Times about this week's shareholder meeting, referred to CBS twice in a single paragraph as "a distressed property" and as "a derelict."

Is it possible that such a smart man got so dumb so quick? I made a few calls and ended with a source who corroborated much of what Joe Mandese wrote in an Ad Age lead story two weeks ago. My source said, well, we are not talking Forrest Gump. For one thing, consider how nicely Mr. Tisch has done for himself and others in the nine or so years he's been there. "He's made a bloody fortune," I was told by my expert in these matters. "When CBS did that buyback he sold. He got all his money out and he still owns (through Loew's) about 25%. Basically, he used the company's cash to buy back the stock."

Then, where did Larry do wrong? Now, there are harsh words. "He has a `Chicken Littl...the sky is falling' concept. He sells companies on the cheap. He was going to sell the record company for one billion. Paley put a stop to that. So he eventually sold for two billion. The Sony record business is worth three or four today. He was desperate to get out of the music business; he thought it was full of drugs." And the magazine company? "(Peter) Diamandis bought it and it was basically a 30-day flip. Resold for what was it, $600 million more?"

And Tisch does things on the cheap, doesn't he? "Not always. Last year Tisch spent a ton of money but he bought crap. Take `Central Park West,' an expensive flop. The only reason it's still on the air is that CBS owns half of it and they want to get something back out of it. If it were owned by an outside producer it would be off the air by now."

Can Westinghouse turn it around or is CBS really the "distressed...derelict" some claim?

"Turning CBS around is going to be a lot easier than getting more money out of Cap Cities/ABC is going to be for Disney. With these guys (Westinghouse) all they have to do at CBS is to improve programming. Tisch thought he was good at that and tried to do it himself. He said, `we're choosing movies all the time to put into the Loew's theaters. We make these choices all the time.' He saw no difference between choosing movies and programming a network.

"If Michael Jordan (Westinghouse chairman) is willing to put aside his ego and hire a top professional programmer, it can be done and the turnaround won't take that long. They're not paying that much."

Once CBS had NFL football on Sundays and the Connie Chung fiasco that couldn't happen and they hadn't lost those big affiliates to Rupert Murdoch, and there was throughout CBS a cocky arrogance that here were the best and the brightest and to hell with the rest of them.

That, I think, came down to us from Paley, by then a very old man, nearly a wraith, but a wraith to both haunt and inspire. Larry Tisch came out of movie thea-ters and hotels and what did he know about television? Well, Bill Paley came out of cigar manufacturing in Philadelphia, and he learned.

What happens this week to CBS I still can't believe. But that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

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