CBS Can't Die

This article was originally posted on the Engaging Media Blog on January 7, 2009.

I was blindsided when I read that the future of CBS network might be in jeopardy. Reports surfaced in mid-December that Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone could be forced to sell his controlling interest to pay off massive debts. Then MediaPost analyst Diane Mermigas listed the network among her predicted casualties for 2009. I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn't missing something. Surely, this couldn't be true.

Other analysts predicted there would be plenty of interest in Viacom's attractive portfolio of cable assets that includes MTV and Nickelodeon. But, "few would want CBS, even at bargain prices." Was the sky falling? First the 160 year-old Tribune Company files for bankruptcy protection. Now, nobody would want CBS?

A younger generation may be immune to matters of corporate consolidations and liquidations that seem to take place on a weekly basis. After all, they're not watching CBS anyway. But for "old media" diehards like me, this is a major upset.

CBS was the "Tiffany Network" -- the house of Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite. They wrote the rules of broadcast journalism that informed and inspired several generations. This was the network that pioneered with such series as All in the Family and M*A*S*H, and before them The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. Of course they also gave us The Dukes of Hazard, and The Beverly Hillbillies, but it all added to a memorable mix of pop culture entertainment.

I partially jest in suggesting that if given the choice between bailing out the American auto industry vs. CBS, I'd pick CBS. Entertainment is arguably America's most significant export. Plus, if you factor in the music legacy left by CBS Records it is something to consider. The "hearts and minds" of our former enemies have been won because they seek to emulate our culture, which they witness through our entertainment.

What many may miss is that the legacy media brands were built by people that shared a unique sense of purpose and passion about their work because of the high level of responsibility that came with it. As one of just two or three networks delivering the news and high quality entertainment the stakes were always extremely high.

That's not meant to diminish the hard work and passion that goes into creating content for cable and other newer platforms. That's a world I know equally well. However, "back in the day," working for one of the "big three" was a true sign of accomplishment.

While in my twenties, I was fortunate to be hired by broadcast veteran Bob Shanks to serve as the west coast producer/director for the CBS Morning Program, featuring Mariette Hartley. It was among the many short-lived and failed attempts to compete with NBC's stalwart Today Show.

I can recall the day I directed my first live Los Angeles feed into the coast-to-coast broadcast. This was from the same control room and studio where Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher had originated. Could this really be happening to me? That session and many more went off without a hitch -- it was a defining moment in my career.

Years earlier, right out of college, I was hired to join the team that launched CNN. Visionary Ted Turner had this crazy notion that people would want to watch 24 hours of non-stop news. The naysayers questioned whether there was enough going on in given day to warrant such a venture? Today we have three news networks and many still pose that same question.

It didn't help that we were launching an entire network with a budget that was a fraction of what CBS was spending on its half-hour evening news. Often brash and rarely predictable, Ted Turner made an unsuccessful bid to acquire CBS in the mid-1980's. Say what you will about Ted, but he always saw beyond conventional wisdom and was often right.

Many of the old guard at CBS will admit to being envious of CNN and still regret that they were unable to convince their management at the time to make the bold move that Ted did in launching the network. CBS as the brand behind "America's most trusted news network," would have made perfect sense.

But wait. Perhaps it's not too late to ponder the possibilities. Time-Warner, now owner of CNN, is often mentioned as a likely suitor for the troubled CBS assets. Ted Turner was Time Warner's Vice-Chairman and biggest stockholder until he stepped down in 2006. He's a senior statesman in the media business at this point in his career. But perhaps Ted has one more visionary move to orchestrate: the brokering of a deal that would preserve the legacy of CBS News by merging it into the Time-Warner/CNN family. Plus, TBS, TNT and the other Turner networks would certainly benefit from having the CBS entertainment library.