Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Frank Stanton (1908-2006)

181 Frank Stanton

Unusual guy, Frank Stanton, who died at 98 a short time ago. Quiet. Preferred to work behind the scenes. Except when he was the public face of broadcasting when that meant something.

Stanton did a lot of good things as president of CBS, and some not so good ones. First, he was the guy who all but invented ratings. It was then and is now an inexact practice, one given to error and misinterpretation. But the only system we have, now updated and computerized and filled with charts and graphs and demographics. Stanton’s system was comparatively miniscule, and probably no more or less accurate than today’s.

The other major bad was the design and decoration of the building that once served as CBS headquarters on Sixth Avenue. Cold, unwelcoming, modern to a fault. Ugly. But, then, that’s subjective, isn’t it?

He supported loyalty oaths and sometimes blacklisting later expressing regret. A rare burst of humility for a corporate type in today’s world where admitting mistakes seems to be a capital crime.

A lot of the credit for CBS’ success goes to Chairman Paley. But Paley and Stanton were the ying and yang of a company which was unlikely to succeed had one of the two not existed.

Now for the good stuff:

He was a champion of broadcast news before there was such a thing. And he was a champion of the form when it was unpopular to be so. He gave us Ed Murrow. He established the concept of network-owned news bureaus. He and chairman Bill Paley didn’t make – or expect to make a profit from the division, even in its prime.

Stanton knew you had to spend money to make money, and that’s what he did.

He appeared before congress when few others in his position would show their faces, let alone face down powerful members of the House and Senate to protect his company and his industry.

The standards he established and codified remain, nominally, the standards of today. But only nominally.

CBS differs in an odd way from its main competitor, NBC. CBS –even now – is a radio company with a lot of tentacles in television. NBC (when it owned radio stations and radio networks) was a TV company that did radio, starting in the post-war era.

Credit Stanton for CBS sticking to its roots closely enough to avoid the disasters it could have made when it owned Fender guitars, Steinway pianos, Hytron Electronics and the New York Yankees. All that happened on his watch, too, and little of it made any money for the company or friends for the subsidiaries. But neither did any of those subsidiaries get gutted or murdered as would happen today.

You can date the start of the broadcast deterioration today to Frank Stanton’s forced retirement in 1973. You have to wonder how he viewed what changed after he left.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2006 WJR

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