CBS (formerly the Columbia Broadcasting System) is one of the three largest television and radio networks in the United States, rivaled in size only by ABC and NBC. Since 2000, CBS has been owned by the giant media conglomerate Viacom.
CBS began broadcasting in September 1927 because the new NBC radio networks did not include among its stars any of the clients of talent agent Arthur Judson, who responded by launching his own network — United Independent Broadcasters — which soon merged with the Columbia Phonograph Company to form the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company.
The new network, which acquired 22 affiliates and 16 employees, lost money. In January 1929 it was sold for $400,000 to a tobacco fortune heir named William Paley. “Paley’s great gift,” wrote media historian Albert Auster, “was in recognizing talent. He soon signed singers such as Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Morton Downey for the network. Unfortunately, as soon as some of them gained fame at CBS they were lured away by the far richer and more popular NBC.”
One of Paley’s innovations had been to offer free programming to independent stations in exchange for options on advertising time, but this required him to create programs of value. For years CBS aired the demagogic speeches of Father Charles Coughlin to attract listeners, but in 1931 Paley removed Coughlin and tried a new path to success.
If NBC dominated radio with entertainment, CBS would become the network that listeners turned to for news. Paley created a news division headed by former New York Times editor Edward Klauber and former United Press reporter Paul White. As Europe slid into war, Klauber sent to London a young reporter whose style would define broadcast news for a generation — Edward R. Murrow.
After the war, CBS had grown rich and powerful enough to buy away the talent at NBC, signing performers such as Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Burns & Allen. And with the dawn of television, CBS became home to shows such as I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Gunsmoke that kept it atop the TV ratings for nearly 20 years. Murrow made the transition from radio to television with his news series See It Now. The show’s tone and subject matter was often liberal. Murrow pushed topics such as farm labor and immigration and gave his documentaries ideology-laden titles such as “Sweatshops of the Soil.” On March 9, 1954 Murrow did an investigation directly attacking anti-Communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In 1950, CBS hired for its news division Walter Cronkite, who throughout his career would slant his news reporting to the political left. In 1962 Cronkite became Anchor and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News, a position he held until his retirement in 1981. “Everybody knows that there’s a liberal, that there’s a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents,” said Cronkite in 1996, speaking just to his colleagues at the Radio and TV Correspondents Association dinner.
During the Vietnam War era, many CBS programs, including its situation comedies, took on a political tone. One of its hit series was M*A*S*H (1972-83), set during the Korean War but full of anti-war and anti-military themes and implications that the U.S. was wrong to fight Communists who merely wanted to live in peace. Another top CBS sitcom was All In The Family (1971-79), starring actor Carroll O’Connor as the narrow-minded conservative Archie Bunker in weekly confrontation with his smarter anti-war liberal son-in-law Michael, played by Rob Reiner. The show was developed by left activist Norman Lear, who founded People for the American Way.
By 1974 the Columbia Broadcasting System had become CBS, Inc. It had also acquired a publishing division (Holt, Reinhart & Winston), a magazine division (Women’s Day) and even the New York Yankees (1964-73).
In the mid-1980s, media mogul Ted Turner, who created the Cable News Network (CNN), was threatening a hostile takeover of CBS. In self-defense, CBS President and CEO Lawrence Tisch began drastic budget and personnel cuts, in news as well as other divisions, and the selling off of company assets.
In 1981 Dan Rather succeeded the retiring Walter Cronkite as Anchor and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News. He imposed his slant on all newscast reporting, not just his own. Rather’s leftward bias, according to former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, caused a rising average age and declining number of CBS news viewers.
The longtime producer of CBS’s magazine news show 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, once boasted that he personally had elected President Bill Clinton. During a 60 Minutes interview that Hewitt had arranged with the Clintons and aired immediately following the 1992 Super Bowl (where it would get the largest TV audience of the year), Clinton acknowledged “causing pain” in his marriage, but left the impression that he had reformed and would sin no more. CBS’s audience was never told that the Clintons had been given all questions in advance; that the Clintons were given editorial control over the interview, i.e., the power to do as many “takes” of an answer as they wished and the power to select which of these “takes” CBS would broadcast. What resulted was a de facto infomercial over which the Clintons had editorial control, but which was broadcast to America disguised as an honest interview with CBS. This interview, Hewitt believes, rescued Bill Clinton’s floundering campaign and made his 1992 election to the presidency possible.
By contrast, CBS has portrayed Republicans and conservatives negatively in its range of programming, from news to sitcoms to miniseries.
CBS maintains a special relationship with The New York Times, one manifestation of which is the CBS-New York Times Poll.