John Backe, Who Helped Restore CBS, Dies at 83

By Roberts, Sam | International New York Times, October 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

John Backe, Who Helped Restore CBS, Dies at 83


Roberts, Sam, International New York Times


Mr. Backe led CBS in the 1970s, helping the network take back first place in prime time, with bold programming like "Dallas." He was later ousted.

John D. Backe, a former bomber pilot who rose to become chief executive of CBS, returning it to first place among prime-time television viewers in the late 1970s before being ousted in a power struggle with the network's unforgiving founder, William S. Paley, died on Oct. 22 in Gladwyne, Pa., near Philadelphia. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, his son, John, said.

Mr. Paley had also fired Mr. Backe's predecessor, Arthur R. Taylor, after ratings (but not revenues) had fallen, and programming executives had quit. But unlike Mr. Taylor, Mr. Backe was viewed as a victim of his own strategic success, particularly in pursuing marketing and technological innovations that Mr. Paley had seemed slow to embrace.

Mr. Backe (pronounced BOCK-ee), then in his mid-40s, had initially seemed in sync with his septuagenarian boss. On the day he was elevated to president, in October 1976, he and Mr. Paley even wore identical blue ties with tiny white polka dots.

Mr. Backe got the job after propelling the CBS publishing division's earnings to $24 million from $3 million in barely two years. His new mission: to restore CBS to ratings prominence.

The next May he was promoted to chief executive, becoming only the second person to hold that post besides Mr. Paley, who had founded CBS 50 years earlier. Mr. Backe was widely expected to succeed Mr. Paley as chairman.

Respected for his management prowess, Mr. Backe, even though he lacked broadcast experience, was determined to rouse CBS from the complacency it seemed to be languishing in after two decades as the nation's most popular network, a reign that ended when it fell behind ABC.

Mr. Backe restructured the company, creating separate divisions for entertainment and sports programming; reduced the defection of local affiliated stations to other networks; and increased advertising-driven revenue every year by restoring CBS to first place in the all-important prime-time ratings.

In doing so he abandoned Mr. Taylor's decision to cede part of prime time to tamer family programming, choosing instead to compete with ABC's bolder fare with shows like the nighttime soap opera "Dallas" and "Trapper John, M.D.," an offshoot of the groundbreaking comedy "M*A*S*H."

After naming Mr. Backe, Mr. Paley retreated somewhat from management affairs, being preoccupied with his ailing wife, Barbara Paley (known as Babe), and an autobiography he was writing. But after she died at 63 in 1978 and the book was finished, he reasserted his prerogatives as chairman and as CBS's largest single stockholder.

"In effect, he wanted his corporation back, but by then things had changed," Mr. Backe told The New York Times in 1980.

"The industry was evolving rapidly, with cable and the new technology," he said, "and he didn't understand it. He resisted a lot of the things we wanted to do."

Those desired initiatives included investments in cable television, theatrical and TV movies, and home video. Mr. Paley would constantly challenge his executives with questions, Mr. Backe said, causing frustrating delays and crippling what had been a productive working relationship.

"He was capable of great charm," Mr. Backe said, "and when he knew what was going on, he could ask very good questions. …

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