Early radio years
The origins of CBS date back to January 27, 1927, with the creation of the "United Independent Broadcasters" network in Chicago by New York City talent-agent Arthur Judson. The fledgling network soon needed additional investors though, and the Columbia Phonograph Company, manufacturers of Columbia Records, rescued it in April 1927; as a result, the network was renamed the "Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System" on September 18 of that year. Columbia Phonographic went on the air on September 18, 1927, with a presentation by the Howard L. Barlow Orchestra from flagship station WOR in Newark, New Jersey, and fifteen affiliates.
Operational costs were steep, particularly the payments to AT&T for use of its land lines, and by the end of 1927, Columbia Phonograph wanted out. In early 1928 Judson sold the network to brothers Isaac and Leon Levy, owners of the network's Philadelphia affiliate WCAU, and their partner Jerome Louchheim. None of the three were interested in assuming day-to-day management of the network, so they installed wealthy 26-year-old William S. Paley, son of a Philadelphia cigar family and in-law of the Levys, as president. With the record company out of the picture, Paley quickly streamlined the corporate name to "Columbia Broadcasting System". He believed in the power of radio advertising since his family's "La Palina" cigars had doubled their sales after young William convinced his elders to advertise on radio. By September 1928, Paley bought out the Louchhheim share of CBS and became its majority owner with 51% of the business.
Turnaround: Paley's first year
During Louchheim's brief regime, Columbia paid $410,000 to A.H. Grebe's Atlantic Broadcasting Company for a small Brooklyn station, WABC (no relation to the current WABC), which would become the network's flagship station. WABC was quickly upgraded, and the signal relocated to 860 kHz. The physical plant was relocated also – to Steinway Hall on West 57th Street in Manhattan, where much of CBS's programming would originate. By the turn of 1929, the network could boast to sponsors of having 47 affiliates.
Paley moved right away to put his network on a firmer financial footing. In the fall of 1928, he entered into talks with Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, who planned to move into radio in response to RCA's forays into motion pictures with the advent of talkies. The deal came to fruition in September 1929: Paramount acquired 49% of CBS in return for a block of its stock worth $3.8 million at the time. The agreement specified that Paramount would buy that same stock back by March 1, 1932 for a flat $5 million, provided CBS had earned $2 million during 1931 and 1932. For a brief time there was talk that the network might be renamed "Paramount Radio", but it only lasted a month – the 1929 stock market crash sent all stock value tumbling. It galvanized Paley and his troops, who "had no alternative but to turn the network around and earn the $2,000,000 in two years.... This is the atmosphere in which the CBS of today was born." The near-bankrupt movie studio sold its CBS shares back to CBS in 1932. In the first year of Paley's watch, CBS's gross earnings more than tripled, going from $1.4 million to $4.7 million.
Paley's management saw a twentyfold increase in gross income in his first decade.
Much of the increase was a result of Paley's second upgrade to the CBS business plan – improved affiliate relations. There were two types of program at the time: sponsored and sustaining, i.e., unsponsored. Rival NBC paid affiliates for every sponsored show they carried and charged them for every sustaining show they ran. It was onerous for small and medium stations, and resulted in both unhappy affiliates and limited carriage of sustaining programs. Paley had a different idea, designed to get CBS programs emanating from as many radio sets as possible: he would give the sustaining programs away for free, provided the station would run every sponsored show, and accept CBS's check for doing so. CBS soon had more affiliates than either NBC Red or NBC Blue.
Paley was a man who valued style and taste, and in 1929, once he had his affiliates happy and his company's creditworthiness on the mend, he relocated his concern to sleek, new 485 Madison Avenue, the "heart of the advertising community, right where Paley wanted his company to be" and where it would stay until its move to its own Eero Saarinen-designed headquarters, the CBS Building, in 1965. When his new landlords expressed skepticism about the network and its fly-by-night reputation, Paley overcame their qualms by inking a lease for $1.5 million.
CBS takes on the Red and the Blue (1930s)
Wholesome Kate Smith
, Paley's choice for La Palina Hour
, was unthreatening to home and hearth
Since NBC was the broadcast arm of radio set manufacturer RCA, its chief David Sarnoff approached his decisions as both a broadcaster and as a hardware executive; NBC's affiliates had the latest RCA equipment, and were often the best-established stations, or were on "clear channel" frequencies. Yet Sarnoff's affiliates were mistrustful of him. Paley had no such split loyalties: his – and his affiliates' – success rose and fell with the quality of CBS programming.
Paley had an innate, pitch-perfect, sense of entertainment, "a gift of the gods, an ear totally pure", wrote David Halberstam. "[He] knew what was good and would sell, what was bad and would sell, and what was good and would not sell, and he never confused one with another." As the 1930s loomed, Paley set about building the CBS talent stable. The network became the home of many popular musical and comedy stars, among them Jack Benny, ("Your Canada Dry Humorist"), Al Jolson, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Kate Smith, whom Paley personally selected for his family's La Palina Hour because she was not the type of woman to provoke jealousy in American wives. When, on a mid-ocean voyage, Paley heard a phonograph record of a young unknown crooner, he rushed to the ship's radio room and "cabled" New York to sign Bing Crosby immediately to a contract for a daily radio show.
While the CBS prime-time lineup featured music, comedy and variety shows, the daytime schedule was a direct conduit into American homes – and into the hearts and minds of American women; for many, it was the bulk of their adult human contact during the course of the day. CBS time salesmen recognized early on that this intimate connection could be a bonanza for advertisers of female-interest products. Starting in 1930, astrologer Evangeline Adams would consult the heavens on behalf of listeners who sent in their birthdays, a description of their problems – and a box-top from sponsor Forhan's toothpaste. The low-key murmuring of smooth-voiced Tony Wons, backed by a tender violin, "made him a soul mate to millions of women" on behalf of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company, whose cellophane-wrapped Camel cigarettes were "as fresh as the dew that dawn spills on a field of clover". The most popular radio-friend of all was M. Sayle Taylor, The Voice Of Experience, though his name was never uttered on air. Women mailed descriptions of the most intimate of relationship problems to The Voice in the tens of thousands per week; sponsors Musterole ointment and Haley's M–O laxative enjoyed sales increases of several hundred percent in just the first month of The Voice Of Experience's run.
When Charlie Chaplin
finally allowed the world to hear his voice after 20 years of mime, he chose CBS's airwaves to do it on.
As the decade progressed, a new genre joined the daytime lineup: serial dramas – soap operas, so named for the products that sponsored them, by way of the ad agencies that actually produced them. Although the form, usually in quarter-hour episodes, proliferated widely in the mid- and late 1930s, they all had the same basic premise: that characters "fell into two categories: 1) those in trouble and 2) those who helped people in trouble. The helping-hand figures were usually older." At CBS, Just Plain Bill brought human insight and Anacin pain reliever into households; Your Family and Mine came courtesy of Sealtest Dairy products; Bachelor's Children first hawked Old Dutch Cleanser, then Wonder Bread; Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories was sponsored by Spry Vegetable Shortening. Our Gal Sunday (Anacin again), The Romance of Helen Trent (Angélus cosmetics), Big Sister (Rinso laundry soap) and many others filled the daytime ether.
CBS west coast headquarters reflected its industry stature while hosting its top Hollywood talent.
Thanks to its daytime and primetime schedules, CBS prospered in the 1930s. In 1935, gross sales were $19.3 million, yielding a profit of $2.27 million. By 1937, the network took in $28.7 million and had 114 affiliates, almost all of which cleared 100% of network-fed programming, thus keeping ratings, and revenue, high. In 1938, CBS even acquired the American Record Corporation, parent of its one-time investor Columbia Records.
In 1938, NBC and CBS each opened studios in Hollywood to attract the entertainment industry's top talent to their networks – NBC at Radio City on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, CBS two blocks away at Columbia Square.
CBS launches an independent news division
The extraordinary potential of radio news showed itself in 1930, when CBS suddenly found itself with a live telephone connection to a prisoner called "The Deacon" who described, from the inside and in real time, a riot and conflagration at the Ohio Penitentiary; for CBS, it was "a shocking journalistic coup". Yet as late as 1934, there was still no regularly scheduled newscast on network radio: "Most sponsors did not want network news programming; those that did were inclined to expect veto rights over it." There had been a longstanding wariness between radio and the newspapers as well; the papers had rightly concluded that the upstart radio business would compete with them on two counts – advertising dollars and news coverage. By 1933, they fought back, many no longer publishing radio schedules for readers' convenience, or allowing "their" news to be read on the air for radio's profit. Radio, in turn, pushed back when urban department stores, newspapers' largest advertisers and themselves owners of many radio stations, threatened to withhold their ads from print. A short-lived attempted truce in 1933 even saw the papers proposing that radio be forbidden from running news before 9:30 a.m., and then only after 9:00 p.m. – and that no news story could air until it was 12 hours old.
It was in this climate that Paley set out to "enhance the prestige of CBS, to make it seem in the public mind the more advanced, dignified and socially aware network". He did it through sustaining programming like the New York Philharmonic, the thoughtful drama of Norman Corwin – and an in-house news division to gather and present news, free of fickle suppliers like newspapers and wire services. In the fall of 1934, CBS launched an independent news division, shaped in its first years by Paley's vice-president, former New York Times columnist Ed Klauber, and news director Paul White. Since there was no blueprint or precedent for real-time news coverage, early efforts of the new division used the shortwave link-up CBS had been using for five years to bring live feeds of European events to its American air.
A key early hire was Edward R. Murrow in 1935; his first corporate title was Director of Talks. He was mentored in microphone technique by Robert Trout, the lone full-time member of the News Division, and quickly found himself in a growing rivalry with boss White. Murrow was glad to "leave the hothouse atmosphere of the New York office behind" when he was dispatched to London as CBS's European Director in 1937, a time when the growing Hitler menace underscored the need for a robust European Bureau. Halberstam described Murrow in London as "the right man in the right place in the right era". Murrow began assembling the staff of broadcast journalists – including William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Bill Downs, and Eric Sevareid – who would become known as the "Murrow Boys". They were "in [Murrow's] own image, sartorially impeccable, literate, often liberal, and prima donnas all". They covered history in the making, and sometimes made it themselves: on March 12, 1938, Hitler boldly annexed nearby Austria and Murrow and Boys quickly assembled coverage with Shirer in London, Edgar Ansel Mowrer in Paris, Pierre Huss in Berlin, Frank Gervasi in Rome and Trout in New York. This bore the News Round-Up format, which is still ubiquitous today in broadcast news.
Murrow's nightly reports from the rooftops during the dark days of the London Blitz galvanized American listeners: even before Pearl Harbor, the conflict became "the story of the survival of Western civilization, the most heroic of all possible wars and stories. He was indeed reporting on the survival of the English-speaking peoples." With his "manly, tormented voice", Murrow contained and mastered the panic and danger he felt, thereby communicating it all the more effectively to his audience. Using his trademark self-reference "This reporter", he did not so much report news as interpret it, combining simplicity of expression with subtlety of nuance. Murrow himself said he tried "to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor". When he returned home for a visit late in 1941, Paley threw an "extraordinarily elaborate reception" for Murrow at the Waldorf-Astoria. Of course, its goal was more than just honoring CBS's latest "star" – it was an announcement to the world that Mr. Paley's network was finally more than just a pipeline carrying other people's programming: it had now become a cultural force in its own right.
Once the war was over and Murrow returned for good, it was as "a superstar with prestige and freedom and respect within his profession and within his company". He possessed enormous capital within that company, and as the unknown form of television news loomed large, he would spend it freely, first in radio news, then in television, taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy first, then eventually William S. Paley himself, and with a foe that formidable, even the vast Murrow account would soon run dry.
Panic: The War of the Worlds radio broadcast
Orson Welles's "Hallowe'en joke" frightened the country and snared a sponsor.
On October 30, 1938, CBS gained a taste of infamy when The Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles. Its unique format, a contemporary version of the story in the form of faux news broadcasts, had panicked many listeners into believing invaders from Mars were actually invading and devastating Grover's Mill, New Jersey, despite three disclaimers during the broadcast that it was a work of fiction. The flood of publicity after the broadcast had two effects: an FCC ban on faux news bulletins within dramatic programming, and sponsorship for The Mercury Theatre on the Air – the former sustaining program became The Campbell Playhouse to sell soup. Welles, for his part, summarized the episode as "the Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying 'Boo!'"
CBS recruits Edmund A. Chester
Before the United States joined World War II, in 1940, CBS recruited Edmund A. Chester from his position as Bureau Chief for Latin America at the Associated Press to serve as Director of Latin American Relations and Director of Short Wave Broadcasts for the CBS radio network. In this capacity, Chester coordinated the development of the Network of the Americas (La Cadena de las Americas) with the Department of State, the Office for Inter-American Affairs (as chaired by Nelson Rockefeller) and Voice of America as part of President Roosevelt's support for Pan-Americanism during World War II. This network provided vital news and cultural programming throughout South America and Central America during the crucial World War II era and fostered diplomatic relations between the United States and the less developed nations of the continent. It featured such popular radio broadcasts as Viva América which showcased leading musical talent from both North and South America including John Serry Sr., as accompanied by the CBS Pan American Orchestra under the musical direction of Alfredo Antonini. The post-war era also marked the beginning of CBS's dominance in the field of radio as well.
Zenith of network radio (1940s)
As 1939 wound down, Bill Paley announced that 1940 would "be the greatest year in the history of radio in the United States." He turned out to be right by more than anyone could imagine: the decade of the 1940s would indeed be the apogee of network radio by every gauge. Nearly 100% of the advertisers who made sponsorship deals in 1939 renewed their contracts for 1940; manufacturers of farm tractors made radios standard equipment on their machines. Wartime rationing of paper limited the size of newspapers – and effectively advertisements – and when papers turned them away, they migrated to radio sponsorship. A 1942 act by Congress made advertising expenses a tax benefit and that sent even automobile and tire manufacturers – who had no products to sell since they had been converted to war production – scurrying to sponsor symphony orchestras and serious drama on radio. In 1940, only one-third of radio programs were sponsored, while two-thirds were sustaining; by the middle of the decade, the statistics had swapped – two out of three shows now had cash-paying sponsors and only one-third were sustaining.
The CBS of the 1940s was vastly different from that of the early days; many of the old guard veterans had died, retired or simply left the network. No change was greater than that in Paley himself: he had become difficult to work for, and had "gradually shifted from leader to despot". He spent much of his time seeking social connections and in cultural pursuits; his "hope was that CBS could somehow learn to run itself". His brief to an interior designer remodeling his townhouse included a requirement for closets that would accommodate 300 suits, 100 shirts and had special racks for a hundred neckties.
Dr. Frank Stanton, second only to Paley in his impact on CBS, president 1946–1971.
As Paley grew more remote, he installed a series of buffer executives who sequentially assumed more and more power at CBS: first Ed Klauber, then Paul Kesten, and finally Frank Stanton. Second only to Paley as the author of CBS's style and ambitions in its first half-century, Stanton was "a magnificent mandarin who functioned as company superintendent, spokesman, and image-maker". He had come to the network in 1933 after sending copies of his Ph.D. thesis "A Critique Of Present Methods and a New Plan for Studying Radio Listening Behavior" to CBS top brass and they responded with a job offer. He scored an early hit with his study "Memory for Advertising Copy Presented Visually vs. Orally," which CBS salesmen used to great effect bringing in new sponsors. In 1946, Paley appointed Stanton as President of CBS and promoted himself to Chairman. Stanton's colorful, but impeccable, wardrobe – slate-blue pinstripe suit, ecru shirt, robin's egg blue necktie with splashes of saffron – made him, in the mind of one sardonic CBS vice-president, "the greatest argument we have for color television".
Despite the influx of advertisers and their cash, or perhaps because of them, the 1940s were not without bumps for the radio networks. The biggest challenge came in the form of the FCC's chain broadcasting investigation – the "monopoly probe", as it was often called. Though it started in 1938, the investigation only gathered steam in 1940 under new-broom chairman James L. Fly. By the time the smoke had cleared in 1943, NBC had already spun off its Blue Network, which became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). CBS was also hit, though not as severely: Paley's brilliant 1928 affiliate contract which had given CBS first claim on local stations' air during sponsored time – the network option – came under attack as being restrictive to local programming. The final compromise permitted the network option for three out of four hours during certain dayparts, but the new regulations had virtually no practical effect, since most all stations accepted the network feed, especially the sponsored hours that earned them money. Fly's panel also forbade networks from owning artists' representation bureaus, so CBS sold its bureau to Music Corporation of America and it became Management Corporation of America.
Arthur Godfrey spoke directly to listeners individually, making him the foremost pitchman in his era.
On the air, the war affected almost every show. Variety shows wove patriotism through their comedy and music segments; dramas and soaps had characters join the service and go off to fight. Even before hostilities commenced in Europe, one of the most played songs on radio was Irving Berlin's "God Bless America", popularized by CBS personality Kate Smith. Although an Office of Censorship sprang up within days of Pearl Harbor, censorship would be totally voluntary. A few shows submitted scripts for review; most did not. The guidelines that the Office did issue banned weather reports (including announcement of sports rainouts), news about troop, ship or plane movements, war production and live man-on-the-street interviews. The ban on ad-libbing caused quizzes, game shows and amateur hours to wither for the duration.
Surprising was "the granite permanence" of the shows at the top of the ratings. The vaudevillians and musicians who were hugely popular after the war were the same stars who had been huge in the 1930s: Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, and Edgar Bergen all had been on the radio almost as long as there had been network radio. A notable exception to this was relative newcomer Arthur Godfrey who, as late as 1942, was still doing a local morning show in Washington, D.C. Godfrey, who had been a cemetery-lot salesman and a cab driver, pioneered the style of talking directly to the listener as an individual, with a singular "you" rather than phrases like "Now, folks..." or "Yes, friends...". His combined shows contributed as much as 12% of all CBS revenues; by 1948, he was pulling down $500,000 a year.
In 1947, Paley, still the undisputed "head talent scout" of CBS, led a much-publicized "talent raid" on NBC. One day, while Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were hard at work at NBC writing their venerable Amos and Andy show, a knock came on the door; it was Paley himself, with an astonishing offer: "Whatever you are getting now I will give you twice as much." Capturing NBC's cornerstone show was enough of a coup, but Paley repeated in 1948 with longtime NBC stars Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Red Skelton, as well as former CBS defectors Jack Benny, radio's top-rated comedian, and Burns and Allen. Paley achieved this rout with a legal agreement reminiscent of his 1928 contract that caused some NBC radio affiliates to jump ship and join CBS. CBS would buy the stars' names as a property, in exchange for a large lump sum and a salary. The plan relied on the vastly different tax rates between income and capital gains, so not only would the stars enjoy more than twice their income after taxes, but CBS would preclude any NBC counterattack because CBS owned the performers' names.
As a result of this, Paley got in 1949 something he had sought for 20 years: CBS finally beat NBC in the ratings. But it was not just to one-up rival Sarnoff that Paley led his talent raid; he, and all of radio, had their eye on the coming force that threw a shadow over radio throughout the 1940s – television.
Prime time radio gives way to television (1950s)
A 1951 advertisement for the CBS Television Network introduced the Eye logo.
In the spring of 1940, CBS staff engineer Peter Goldmark devised a system for color television that CBS management hoped would leapfrog the network over NBC and its existing black-and-white RCA system. The CBS system "gave brilliant and stable colors", while NBC's was "crude and unstable but 'compatible'". Ultimately, the FCC rejected the CBS system because it was incompatible with RCA's; that, and the fact that CBS had moved to secure many UHF, not VHF, television licenses, left CBS flatfooted in the early television age. In 1946, only 6,000 television sets were in operation, most in greater New York City where there were already three stations; by 1949, the number had increased to 3 million sets, and by 1951, had risen to 12 million. 64 American cities had television stations, though most of them only had one.
Radio continued to be the backbone of the company, at least in the early 1950s, but it was "a strange, twilight period" where some cities had often multiple television stations which siphoned the audience from radio, while other cities (such as Denver and Portland, Oregon) had no television stations at all. In those areas, as well as rural areas and some entire states, network radio remained the sole, nationally broadcast service. NBC's venerable Fred Allen saw his ratings plummet when he was pitted against upstart ABC's game show Stop The Music!; within weeks, he was dropped by longtime sponsor Ford Motor Company and was shortly gone from the scene. Radio powerhouse Bob Hope's ratings plunged from a 23.8 share in 1949 to 5.4 in 1953. By 1952, "death seemed imminent for network radio" in its familiar form; most telling of all, the big sponsors were eager for the switch.
Gradually, as the television network took shape, radio stars began to migrate to the new medium. Many programs ran on both media while making the transition. The radio soap opera The Guiding Light moved to television in 1952 and would run for another 57 years; Burns & Allen, back "home" from NBC, made the move in 1950; Lucille Ball a year later; Our Miss Brooks in 1952 (though it continued simultaneously on radio for its full television life). The high-rated Jack Benny Program ended its radio run in 1955, and Edgar Bergen's Sunday night show went off the air in 1957. When CBS announced in 1956 that its radio operations had lost money, while the television network had made money, it was clear where the future lay. When the soap opera Ma Perkins went off the air on November 25, 1960, only eight, relatively minor series remained. Prime time radio ended on September 30, 1962, when Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense aired for the final time.
CBS's radio programming after 1972
The retirement of Arthur Godfrey in April 1972 marked the end of long-form programming on CBS radio; programming thereafter consisted of hourly news summaries and news features, known in the 1970s as Dimension, and commentaries, including the Spectrum series that evolved into the "Point/Counterpoint" feature on the television network's 60 Minutes and First Line Report, a news and analysis feature delivered by CBS correspondents. The network also continued to offer traditional radio programming through its weeknightly CBS Radio Mystery Theater, the lone sustained holdout of dramatic programming, from 1974 to 1982, though shorter runs were given to the General Mills Radio Adventure Theater and the Sears Radio Theater in the 1970s; otherwise, most new dramatic radio was carried on public and to some extent religious stations. The CBS Radio Network continues to this day, offering hourly newscasts, including its centerpiece CBS World News Roundup in the morning and evening, weekend sister program CBS News Weekend Roundup, the news-related feature segment The Osgood File, What's In the News, a one-minute summary of one story, and various other segments such as commentary from Seattle radio personality Dave Ross, tip segments from various other sources, and technology coverage from CBS Interactive property CNET.
On November 17, 2017 CBS Radio was sold to Entercom becoming the last of the original Big Four radio network to be owned by its founding company. Although the CBS parent itself ceased to exist when it was acquired by Westinghouse Electric in 1995, CBS Radio continued to be operated by CBS until its acquisition. Prior to its acquisition, ABC Radio was sold to Citadel Broadcasting in 2007 (and is now a part of Cumulus Media) while Mutual (now defunct) and NBC Radio were acquired by Westwood One in the 1980s (Westwood One and CBS were under common ownership from 1993 to 2007; the former would be acquired outright by Dial Global in October 2011).
Television years: expansion and growth
CBS's involvement in television dates back to the opening of experimental station W2XAB in New York City on July 21, 1931, using the mechanical television system that had been more-or-less perfected in the late 1920s. Its initial broadcast featured New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Kate Smith, and George Gershwin. The station boasted the first regular seven-day broadcasting schedule in American television, broadcasting 28 hours a week.
Announcer-director Bill Schudt was the station's only paid employee; all other talent was volunteer. W2XAB pioneered program development including small-scale dramatic acts, monologues, pantomime, and the use of projection slides to simulate sets. Engineer Bill Lodge devised the first synchronized sound wave for a television station in 1932, enabling W2XAB to broadcast picture and sound on a single shortwave channel instead of the two previously needed. On November 8, 1932, W2XAB broadcast the first television coverage of presidential election returns. The station suspended operations on February 20, 1933, as monochrome television transmission standards were in flux, and in the process of changing from a mechanical to an all-electronic system. W2XAB returned to the air with an all-electronic system in 1939 from a new studio complex in Grand Central Station and a transmitter atop the Chrysler Building, broadcasting on channel 2. W2XAB transmitted the first color broadcast in the United States on August 28, 1940.
On June 24, 1941, W2XAB received a commercial construction permit and program authorization as WCBW. The station went on the air at 2:30 p.m. on July 1, one hour after rival WNBT (channel 1, formerly W2XBS and now WNBC), making it the second authorized fully commercial television station in the United States. The FCC issued permits to CBS and NBC at the same time, and intended WNBT and WCBW to sign on simultaneously on July 1, so no one station could claim to be the "first".
During the World War II years, commercial television broadcasting was reduced dramatically. Toward the end of the war, commercial television began to ramp up again, with an increased level of programming evident from 1944 to 1947 on the three New York television stations which operated in those years (the local stations of NBC, CBS and DuMont). But as RCA and DuMont raced to establish networks and offer upgraded programming, CBS lagged, advocating an industry-wide shift and restart to UHF for their incompatible (with black and white) color system; the FCC putting an indefinite "freeze" on television licenses that lasted until 1952 also did not help matters. Only in 1950, when NBC was dominant in television and black and white transmission was widespread, did CBS begin to buy or build their own stations (outside of New York City) in Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities. Up to that point, CBS programming was seen on such stations as KTTV in Los Angeles, which CBS – as a bit of insurance and to guarantee program clearance in that market – quickly purchased a 50% interest in that station, partnering with the Los Angeles Times newspaper. CBS then sold its interest in KTTV (now the West Coast flagship of the Fox network) and purchased outright Los Angeles pioneer station KTSL in 1950, renaming it KNXT (after CBS's existing Los Angeles radio property, KNX), later to become KCBS-TV. In 1953, CBS bought pioneer television station WBKB in Chicago, which had been signed on by former investor Paramount Pictures (and would become a sister company to CBS again decades later) as a commercial station in 1946, and changed that station's call sign to WBBM-TV, moving the CBS affiliation away from WGN-TV.
WCBS-TV would ultimately be the only station (as of 2013WUSA) in a joint venture with The Washington Post in 1950, only to sell its stake to the Post in 1954 due to then-tighter FCC ownership regulations. CBS would also temporarily return to relying on its own UHF technology by owning WXIX in Milwaukee (now CW affiliate WVTV) and WHCT in Hartford, Connecticut (now Univision affiliate WUVN), but as UHF was not viable for broadcasting at the time (due to the fact that most television sets of the time were not equipped with UHF tuners), CBS decided to sell those stations off and affiliate with VHF stations WITI and WTIC-TV (now WFSB), respectively.
) built and signed on by CBS. The rest of the stations would be acquired by CBS, either in an ownership stake or outright purchase. In television's early years, the network bought Washington, D.C. affiliate WOIC (now
In Milwaukee alone, CBS has gone through several affiliation changes since 1953, when its original primary affiliate, WCAN-TV (now defunct) first signed on the air; prior to WCAN's sign-on, selected CBS programming aired on WTMJ-TV, a NBC affiliate since 1947. In February 1955, when WCAN went off the air for good, CBS moved its programming to WXIX, in which CBS purchased several months earlier. In April 1959, CBS decided to move its programming to the city's newer VHF station at the time, WITI; in turn, CBS shut down WXIX, and sold its license to local investors, and returned to the air that July as an independent station. The first WITI-CBS union only lasted exactly two years, as the network moved its programming to WISN-TV on April 2, 1961, with WITI taking the ABC affiliation, and the two stations reversed the network swap in March 1977, with WITI returning to the CBS station lineup. CBS was later forced back onto UHF in Milwaukee due to the affiliation agreement with New World Communications that resulted in WITI disaffiliating from the network in December 1994 to join Fox; it is now affiliated with WDJT-TV in that market, which has the longest-lasting relationship with CBS than any other Milwaukee station that carried the network's programming (24 years, as of the end of 2018).
More long-term, CBS bought stations in Philadelphia (WCAU, now owned by NBC) and St. Louis (KMOX-TV, now KMOV), but CBS would eventually sell these stations off as well; before buying KMOX-TV, CBS had attempted to purchase and sign on the channel 11 license in St. Louis, now KPLR-TV.
CBS did attempt to sign on a station in Pittsburgh after the "freeze" was lifted, as that city was then the sixth-largest market but only had one commercial VHF station in DuMont-owned WDTV, while the rest were either on UHF (the modern-day WPGH-TV and WINP-TV) or public television (WQED). Although the FCC turned down CBS's request to buy the channel 9 license in nearby Steubenville, Ohio and move it to Pittsburgh (that station, initially CBS affiliate WSTV-TV, is now NBC affiliate WTOV-TV), CBS did score a major coup when Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric (a co-founder of NBC with RCA) bought WDTV from struggling DuMont and opted to affiliate the now-recalled KDKA-TV with CBS instead of NBC (like KDKA radio) due to NBC extorting and coercing Westinghouse to trade KYW radio and WPTZ (now KYW-TV) for Cleveland stations WTAM, WTAM-FM (now WMJI), and WNBK (now WKYC); the trade ended up being reversed in 1965 by order of the FCC and the United States Department of Justice after an eight-year investigation.
Had CBS not been able to affiliate with KDKA-TV, it would have affiliated with eventual NBC affiliate WIIC-TV (now WPXI) once it signed on in 1957 instead. This coup would eventually lead to a much stronger relationship between Westinghouse and CBS decades later.
The "talent raid" on NBC of the mid-1940s had brought over established radio stars, who became stars of CBS television programs as well. One reluctant CBS star refused to bring her radio show, My Favorite Husband, to television unless the network would recast the show with her real-life husband in the lead.
I Love Lucy debuted in October 1951, and was an immediate sensation, with 11 million out of a population of 15 million Television sets watching (73% share). Paley and network president Frank Stanton had so little faith in the future of Lucille Ball's series, that they granted her wish and allowed her husband, Desi Arnaz, to take financial control of the comedy's production. This was the making of the Ball-Arnaz Desilu empire, and became the template for series production to this day; it also served as the template for some television conventions that continue to exist including the use of a multiple cameras to film scenes, the use of a studio audience and the airing of past episodes for syndication to other television outlets. The phenomenal success of a prime-time, big-money quiz show, The $64,000 Question, propelled its creator, Louis G. Cowan, first to an executive position as CBS's vice-president of creative services, then to the presidency of the CBS TV network itself. When the quiz show scandals involving "rigged" questions surfaced in 1959, Cowan was fired by CBS.
As television came to the forefront of American entertainment and information, CBS dominated television as it once had radio. and would maintain dominance on television between 1955 and 1976 as well. By the late 1950s, the network often controlled seven or eight of the slots on the "top ten" ratings list with well-respected shows like Route 66.
In 1953, the CBS television network would make its first profit,
During the Presidency of James T. Aubrey (1958–1965), CBS was able to balance prestigious television projects (befitting the Tiffany Network image), with more low culture, broad appeal programs. So the network had challenging fare like The Twilight Zone, The Defenders, and East Side/West Side, as well as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and Gilligan's Island.
This success would continue for many years, with CBS being bumped from first place only due to the rise of ABC in the mid-1970s. Perhaps because of its status as the top-rated network, during the late 1960s and early 1970s CBS felt freer to gamble with controversial properties like the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and All in the Family (and its many spinoffs) during this period.
Programming: "Rural purge" and success in the 1970s and early-mid 1980s (1971–86)
By the end of the 1960s, CBS was very successful in television ratings, but many of its shows (including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gunsmoke, Mayberry R.F.D., Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw and Green Acres) were appealing more to older and more rural audiences and less to the young, urban and more affluent audiences that advertisers sought to target. Fred Silverman (who would later head ABC, and then later NBC) made the decision to cancel most of those otherwise hit shows by mid-1971 in what became colloquially referred to as the "Rural Purge", with Green Acres cast member Pat Buttram remarking that the network cancelled "anything with a tree in it".
While the "rural" shows got the axe, new hits, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Kojak and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour took their place on the network's schedule and kept CBS at the top of the ratings through the early 1970s. The majority of these hits were overseen by then East Coast vice president Alan Wagner. 60 Minutes also moved to the 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time slot on Sundays in 1975 and became the first ever prime time television news program to enter the Nielsen Top 10 in 1978.
One of CBS's most popular shows during the period was M*A*S*H, a dramedy that ran for 11 seasons from 1972 to 1983 and was based on the hit Robert Altman film; as with the film, the series was set during the Korean War in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The 2½-hour series finale, in its initial airing on February 28, 1983, had peak viewership of up to 125 million Americans (77% of all television viewership in the U.S. that night), which established it as the all-time most watched single U.S. television episode; it also held the ubiquitous distinction of having the largest single-night primetime viewership of any television program in U.S. history until it was surpassed by the Super Bowl, which have taken the record consistently since 2010 (through the annual championship game's alternating telecasts by CBS and rival networks Fox and NBC).
Silverman also first developed his strategy of spinning new shows off from established hit series while at CBS, with Rhoda and Phyllis spun from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude and The Jeffersons spun from All in the Family and Good Times from Maude. After Silverman's departure, CBS dropped behind ABC for second place in the 1976–77 season, but still rated strongly, based on its earlier hits and some new ones: One Day at a Time, Alice, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Dukes of Hazzard and, the biggest hit of the early 1980s, Dallas, the latter of which holds the record for the all-time most watched non-series finale single U.S. television episode – the November 21, 1980, primetime telecast of the resolution episode of the internationally prominent "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger.
By 1982, ABC had run out of steam, NBC was in dire straits with many failed programming efforts greenlighted by Silverman during his tenure as network president (a four-year run which began in 1978), and CBS once more nosed ahead, courtesy of the major success of Dallas (and its spin-off Knots Landing), as well as hits in Falcon Crest, Magnum, P.I., Simon & Simon and 60 Minutes. CBS also acquired the broadcast rights to the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament in 1982 (taking over for NBC), which the network has broadcast every March since. CBS bought Emmy-winning documentary producer Dennis B. Kane's production company and formed a new company CBS/Kane Productions International (CKPI). The network managed to pull out a few new hits over the next couple of years – namely Kate & Allie, Newhart, Cagney & Lacey, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and Murder, She Wrote – however, this resurgence would be short-lived. CBS had become mired in debt as a result of a failed takeover effort by Ted Turner, which CBS chairman Thomas Wyman successfully helped to fend off. The network sold its St. Louis owned-and-operated station KMOX-TV, and allowed the purchase of a large portion of its shares (under 25 percent) by Loew's Inc. chairman Laurence Tisch. Consequently, collaboration between Paley and Tisch led to the slow dismissal of Wyman, with Tisch taking over as chief operating officer, and Paley returning as chairman.
Programming: Tiffany Network in distress (1986–2002)
By the end of the 1987–88 season, CBS had fallen to third place behind both ABC and NBC for the first time, and had some major rebuilding to do.
In 1984, The Cosby Show and Miami Vice debuted on NBC and immediately garnered high ratings, helping to bring that network back to first place by the 1985–86 season with a slate that included several other hits (such as Amen, Family Ties, Cheers, The Golden Girls, The Facts Of Life, L.A. Law and 227). ABC had in turn also rebounded with hits such as Dynasty, Who's the Boss?, Hotel, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and Roseanne.
Some of the groundwork had been laid as CBS fell in the ratings, with hits Simon & Simon, Falcon Crest, Murder, She Wrote, Kate & Allie and Newhart still on the schedule from the most recent resurgence, and future hits Designing Women, Murphy Brown, Jake and the Fatman and newsmagazine 48 Hours having debuted during the late 1980s. The network was also still getting decent ratings for 60 Minutes, Dallas and Knots Landing; however, the ratings for Dallas were a far cry from what they were in the early 1980s. During the early 1990s, the network would bolster its sports lineup by obtaining the broadcast television rights to Major League Baseball from ABC and NBC and the Winter Olympics from ABC despite losing the National Basketball Association to NBC after the 1989–90 NBA season.
Under network president Jeff Sagansky, the network was able to earn strong ratings from new shows Diagnosis: Murder; Touched by an Angel; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; Walker, Texas Ranger, Picket Fences and a resurgent Jake and the Fatman during this period, and CBS was able to reclaim the first place crown briefly, in the 1992–93 season; however, a drawback for the network during this time-frame was that its programming slate skewed towards an older demographic than ABC, NBC or even Fox, with its relatively limited presence at that time; a joke even floated around that CBS was "the network for the living dead" during this period. In 1993, the network made a breakthrough in establishing a successful late-night talk show franchise to compete with NBC's The Tonight Show when it signed David Letterman away from NBC after the Late Night host was passed over as Johnny Carson's successor on Tonight in favor of Jay Leno.
Despite having success with Late Show with David Letterman, 1993 saw the network suffer to a time where television changed forever. The network lost the rights to two major sports leagues: the network terminated its contract with Major League Baseball (after losing approximately US$500 million over a four-year span), with the league reaching a new contract with NBC and ABC. Then on December 17 of that year, in a move that surprised many media analysts and television viewers, Fox – then a fledgling network that in its then-seven years on the air had begun to accrue several popular programs in the Nielsen Top 20 alongside its established counterparts – outbid CBS for the broadcast rights to the , stripping the elder network of game telecasts for the first time since CBS began broadcasting games from the pre-merger NFL in 1955; Fox bid $1.58 billion for the NFC television rights, significantly higher than CBS's reported offer of $290 million to retain the contract.
The acquisition of the NFC rights, which took effect with the 1994 NFL season, and which led to CBS being nicknamed "Can't Broadcast Sports", resulted in Fox striking a series of affiliation deals with longtime affiliates of each of the Big Three networks; CBS bore the brunt of the switches, with many of its existing affiliates being lured away by Fox (especially those owned by New World Communications, which Fox struck its largest affiliation deal with while most of the stations that CBS ended up affiliating with to replace the previous affiliates it lost to Fox were former Fox affiliates and independent stations, most of which had limited to no local news presence prior to joining CBS. The network attempted to fill the loss of NFL by going after the rights to the National Hockey League; however, when CBS countered with a bid, Fox also outbid the network for the NHL rights.
The loss of the NFL, along with an ill-fated effort to court younger viewers, led to a drop in CBS's ratings. One of the shows that was affected was the Late Show with David Letterman, which saw its viewership decline in large part due to the affiliation switches, at times even landing in third place in its timeslot behind ABC's Nightline; as a result, NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which the Late Show often dominated over during the first two years of that show's run, became the top-rated late-night talk show. Still, CBS was able to produce some hits during the mid-1990s, such as The Nanny, JAG (which moved to the network from NBC), Chicago Hope, Cosby, Cybill, Touched by an Angel and Everybody Loves Raymond.
CBS attempted to court families on Fridays with the launch of a family-oriented comedy block, the "CBS Block Party", in the 1997–98 season (consisting of Family Matters, Step by Step, Meego and The Gregory Hines Show, all but the latter coming from Miller-Boyett Productions, which had maintained a relationship with ABC during the late 1980s and 1990s). The lineup failed to compete against ABC's "TGIF" lineup (which saw its own viewership erode that season): Meego and Hines were cancelled by November, while Family Matters and Step by Step were put on hiatus and ended their runs in the summer of 1998. That winter, CBS aired its last Olympic Games to date with its telecast of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano; NBC, which had already held the rights to the Summer Olympics since 1988, took over coverage of the Winter Olympics beginning with the 2002 Games.
The building blocks for the network's return to the top of the ratings were put in place in 1997, when CBS regained the NFL through its acquisition of the broadcast television rights to the (stripping that package from NBC after 32 years), effective with the 1998 season. The contract was struck shortly before the AFC's emergence as the dominant NFL conference over the NFC, spurred in part by the turnaround of the New England Patriots in the 2000s. With the help of the AFC package, CBS surpassed NBC for first place in the 1999–2000 season; however, it was beaten by ABC the following year. The network gained additional hits in the late 1990s and early 2000s with series such as The King of Queens, Nash Bridges, Judging Amy, Becker and Yes, Dear.
Programming: Return to first place and rivalry with Fox (2002–present)
Another turning point for CBS came in the summer of 2000 when it debuted the summer reality shows Survivor and Big Brother, which became surprise summer hits for the network. In January 2001, CBS debuted the second season of Survivor after its broadcast of Super Bowl XXXV and scheduled it on Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time; it also moved the investigative crime drama CSI (which had debuted that fall in the Friday 9:00 p.m. time slot) to follow Survivor at 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays. The pairing of the two shows was both able to chip away at and eventually beat NBC's Thursday night lineup, and attract younger viewers to the network.
During the 2000s, CBS found additional successes with a slew of police procedurals (several of which were produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) including Cold Case, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, NCIS and The Mentalist, along with CSI spinoffs CSI: Miami and CSI: NY. The network also featured several prominent sitcoms like Still Standing, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Rules of Engagement and The Big Bang Theory. The network's programming slate, buoyed largely by the success of CSI, briefly led the network to retake first place in the ratings from NBC in the 2002–03 season. The decade also saw CBS finally make ratings headway on Friday nights, a perennial weak spot for the network, with a focus toward drama series such as Ghost Whisperer and the relatively short-lived but critically acclaimed Joan of Arcadia.
CBS became the most watched American broadcast television network once again in the 2005–06 season, an achievement that the network proclaimed in on-air promotions as being "America's Most Watched Network" (a term it would use again in the 2011–12 season). This lasted until the 2007–08 season, when Fox overtook CBS for first, becoming the first non-Big Three network to earn the title as the most watched network overall in the United States; despite CBS's continued strong lineup, Fox's first-place finish that season was primarily due to its reliance on American Idol (the longest reigning #1 prime time U.S. television program from 2004 to 2011). CBS retook its place as the top-rated network in the 2008–09 season, where it has remained every season since. Fox and CBS, both having ranked as the highest rated of the major broadcast networks during the 2000s, tend to nearly equal one another in the 18–34, 18–49 and 25–54 demographics, with either network alternating in placing first in either of these groups by very close margins. NCIS, which has been the flagship of CBS's Tuesday lineup for much of its run, became the network's highest-rated drama by the 2007–08 season.
The 2010s saw additional hits for the network including drama series The Good Wife; police procedurals Person of Interest, Blue Bloods, Elementary, Hawaii Five-0 and NCIS spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles; reality series Undercover Boss; and sitcoms 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. The Big Bang Theory, one of several sitcoms from veteran writer/producer Chuck Lorre, started off with modest ratings but saw its viewership skyrocket (earning per episode ratings of up to 17 million viewers) to become the top-rated network sitcom in the U.S. by the 2010–11 season, as well as the second most watched U.S. television program starting from the 2013–14 season, when the series became the anchor of the network's Thursday lineup. Meanwhile, the Lorre-produced series it overtook for the position, Two and a Half Men, saw its ratings decline to respectable levels for its final four seasons following the 2011 firing of original star Charlie Sheen (due to a dispute with Lorre) and the addition of Ashton Kutcher as its primary lead.
Until 2012, CBS ranked in second place among adults 18-49, but after the ratings declines Fox experienced during the 2012–13 fall season, the network was able to take the top spot in the demographic as well as in total viewership (for the fifth year in a row) by the start of 2013. At the end of the 2012–13 season, the tenth season of NCIS took the top spot among the season's most watched network programs, which gave CBS its top-rated show after American Idol ended its eight-year nationwide primetime lead (with taking over the top spot from Idol the year before and from NCIS the year after), for the first time since the 2002–03 season (when CSI: Crime Scene Investigation led Nielsen's seasonal prime time network ratings).
The strength of its 2013–14 slate led to a surplus of series on CBS's 2014–15 schedule, with 21 series held over from the previous season, along with eight new series including moderate hits in Madam Secretary, NCIS: New Orleans and Scorpion. Also, midseason hits The Odd Couple reboot and CSI spinoff CSI: Cyber. The network also expanded its NFL coverage through a partnership with NFL Network to carry games during the first eight weeks of the NFL season.
On September 29, 2016, National Amusements, the owner of both CBS' parent company, CBS Corporation, and its sister company Viacom (owner of Paramount Pictures), sent a letter to both companies, encouraging them to merge back into one company. On December 12, the deal was called off. However, on January 12, 2018, CNBC reported that both CBS and Viacom have since re-entered talks to merge.
The two companies have also been reported as in talks to acquire Lionsgate, along with Amazon, Verizon, and Comcast (owner of both NBC and CNBC via its NBCUniversal division) in order to bulk up after the proposed acquisition of 21st Century Fox and its assets from Rupert Murdoch by The Walt Disney Company. This was reported at the same time as the CBS and Viacom re-merger talks. Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns has stated in an interview with CNBC that Lionsgate is mostly interested in merging with CBS and Viacom.
CBS television news operations
Upon becoming commercial station WCBW in 1941, the pioneer CBS television station in New York City broadcast two daily news programs, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. weekdays, anchored by Richard Hubbell. Most of the newscasts featured Hubbell reading a script with only occasional cutaways to a map or still photograph. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, WCBW (which was usually off-the-air on Sundays to give the engineers a day off), took to the air at 8:45 p.m. that evening with an extensive special report. The national emergency even broke down the unspoken wall between CBS radio and television. WCBW executives convinced radio announcers and experts such as George Fielding Elliot and Linton Wells to come down to the station's Grand Central Station studios during the evening, and give information and commentary on the attack. Although WCBW's special report that night lasted less than 90 minutes, that special broadcast pushed the limits of live television in 1941 and opened up new possibilities for future broadcasts. As CBS wrote in a special report to the FCC, the unscheduled live news broadcast on December 7 "was unquestionably the most stimulating challenge and marked the greatest advance of any single problem faced up to that time". Additional newscasts were scheduled in the early days of the war.
In May 1942, WCBW (like almost all television stations) sharply cut back its live program schedule and cancelled its newscasts, as the station temporarily suspended studio operations, resorting exclusively to the occasional broadcast of films. This was primarily due to the fact that much of the staff had either joined the service or were redeployed to war-related technical research, and to prolong the life of the early, unstable cameras which were now impossible to repair due to the lack of parts available during wartime. In May 1944, as the war began to turn in favor of the Allies, WCBW reopened its studios and resumed production of its newscasts, which were briefly anchored by Ned Calmer, and then by Everett Holles. After the war, WCBW (which changed its call letters to WCBS-TV in 1946) introduced expanded news programs on its schedule – first anchored by Milo Boulton, and later by Douglas Edwards. On May 3, 1948, Edwards began anchoring CBS Television News, a regular 15-minute nightly newscast on the rudimentary CBS television network, including WCBS-TV. Airing every weeknight at 7:30 p.m., it was the first regularly scheduled, network television news program featuring an anchor (the nightly Lowell Thomas NBC radio network newscast was simulcast on television locally on NBC's WNBT (now WNBC) for a time in the early 1940s and Hubbell, Calmer, Holles and Boulton on WCBW in the early and mid-1940s, but these were local television broadcasts seen only in the New York City market).
The NBC television network's offering at the time NBC Television Newsreel (premiering in February 1948) was simply film footage with voice narration to provide illustration of the stories.
In 1949, CBS offered the first live television coverage of the proceedings of the United Nations General Assembly. This journalistic tour-de-force was under the direction of Edmund A. Chester, who was appointed to the post of Director for News, Special Events and Sports at CBS Television in 1948.
In 1950, the nightly newscast was retitled Douglas Edwards with the News, and the following year, it became the first news program to be broadcast on both coasts, thanks to a new coaxial cable connection, prompting Edwards to use the greeting, "Good evening everyone, coast to coast" to begin each edition. The broadcast was renamed the CBS Evening News when Walter Cronkite replaced Edwards in 1962. Edwards remained with CBS News as anchor/reporter for various daytime television and radio news broadcasts until his retirement on April 1, 1988.
Color technology (1953–1967)
Although CBS Television was the first with a working color television system, the network lost out to RCA in 1953, due in part because the CBS color system was incompatible with existing black-and-white sets. Although RCA – then-parent company of NBC – made its color system available to CBS, the network was not interested in boosting RCA's profits and televised only a few specials in color for the rest of the decade.
The specials included the Ford Star Jubilee programs (which included the first telecast ever of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)'s 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz) as well as the 1957 telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella; Cole Porter's musical version of Aladdin; and Playhouse 90's only color broadcast, the 1958 production of The Nutcracker, featuring choreography by George Balanchine. The Nutcracker telecast was based on the famous production staged annually since 1954 in New York, and performed by the New York City Ballet. CBS would later show two other versions of the ballet, a semi-forgotten one-hour German-American version hosted by Eddie Albert, shown annually for three years beginning in 1965, and the well-loved Mikhail Baryshnikov production from 1977 to 1981 (this production later moved to PBS).
Beginning in 1959, The Wizard of Oz, now telecast by CBS as a family special in its own right (after the cancellation of Ford Star Jubilee), became an annual tradition on color television. However, it was the success of NBC's 1955 telecast of the musical Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, the most watched television special of its time, that inspired CBS to telecast The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella and Aladdin.
From 1960 to 1965, the CBS television network limited its color broadcasts to only a few special presentations such as The Wizard of Oz, and only then if the sponsor would pay for it. Red Skelton was the first CBS host to telecast his weekly programs in color, using a converted movie studio, in the early 1960s; he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the network to use his facility for other programs, and was then forced to sell it. Color was being pushed hard by rival NBC; even ABC had several color programs, beginning in the fall of 1962; however, those were limited because of financial and technical issues that the network was going through at the time. One particularly notable television special aired by CBS during this era was the Charles Collingwood-hosted tour of the White House with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, which was broadcast in black-and-white.
Beginning in 1963, at least one CBS show, The Lucy Show, began filming in color at the insistence of its star and producer Lucille Ball; she realized that color episodes would command more money when they were eventually sold into syndication, but even it was broadcast in black and white through the end of the 1964–65 season. This would all change by the mid-1960s, when market pressure forced CBS Television to begin adding color programs to its regular schedule for the 1965–66 season and complete the transition to the format during the 1966–67 season. By the fall of 1967, nearly all of CBS's television programs were in color, as was the case with those aired by NBC and ABC. A notable exception was The Twentieth Century, which consisted mostly of newsreel archival footage, though even this program used at least some color footage by the late 1960s. CBS acquired the new color broadcasting equipment from Philips which bore the Norelco brand name at that time.
In 1965, CBS telecast a new color version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. This version, starring Lesley Ann Warren and Stuart Damon in the roles formerly played by Julie Andrews and Jon Cypher, was shot on videotape rather than being telecast live, and would become an annual tradition on the network for the next nine years.
In 1967, NBC outbid CBS for the rights to the annual telecast of The Wizard of Oz, with the film moving to NBC beginning the following year. However, the network quickly realized their mistake in allowing what was then one of its prime ratings winners to be acquired by another network, and by 1976, CBS reacquired the television rights to the film, with the network continuing to broadcast it through the end of 1997. CBS aired The Wizard of Oz twice in 1991, in March and again the night before Thanksgiving. Thereafter, it was broadcast on the night before Thanksgiving.
By the end of the 1960s, CBS was broadcasting virtually its entire programming lineup in color.