No One Has Ever Lowered Television's Bar More Than James T. Aubrey of CBS
The Father of Low Brow TV
If you were a child of the 70s, you remember that Bucky Dent's good looks and 1978 World Series performance elevated the Yankee shortstop to national sex symbol status. Of course, Hollywood sought to capitalize and cast Dent in The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. An obvious abomination, the TV movie quickly passed into history. But this embarrassing overreach to cash in came from the last hoorah of a man who understood America's insatiable appetite for stupidity. In turn, his dizzying success launched this president of CBS to the pinnacle of network television.
In 1959, the annual profits at CBS were 25 million dollars. The quiz show scandal forced a change at the top and in came James T. Aubrey. By 1961, profits at CBS had doubled.
For us watching reruns in the 70s, that meant The Munsters, Mr. Ed, Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, and the crown jewel, The Beverly Hillbillies. We didn't know any better, but Aubrey did.
Aubrey and 'The Powers That Be'
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam revealed the formula. "He had a killer instinct for the lowest common denominator, and unlike others who had that instinct, he had no shame."
So profound was Aubrey's lack of inhibition among his brethren, wrote Halberstam, "That even the other hucksters were embarrassed."
The application of his mindset followed seamlessly. "The problem with creative people is they don't know the public. The people out there don't want to think, he instructed an aide, according to Halberstam. "I know, I come from out there. "
Certainly concurring, Halberstam doesn't pull any punches in terms of the resulting pulp. "His career seemed like a bad novel and indeed spawned several."
A Personal Account
One such novel was Only You, Dick Daring by Merle Miller and Evan Rhodes.
Merle Miller was a novelist in the same vein as Falkner and Fitzgerald. He, like his predecessors, came to Hollywood for a big payday. So Miller knew full well of the artistic debasement he was descending into and was freely seduced at the prospect of writing a serious drama that stared Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.
A modern day Western called Calhoun, the script fell prey to like minded network executives who turned the work into schlock. Miller got an early clue as one of the clones implored the Aubrey way of doing business... “Our idea for any adventure or drama,” Miller and Rhodes remembered, “50,000 Berbers are storming Cairo, and only you, Dick Daring can save the day."
The memoir's title secured, Miller even seemed to succumb to the indoctrination. This had the final iteration of the pilot adhering to Aubrey's vision that all endings must be happy. So in the climatic scene as the opposing forces all gather, Miller signed off on the suggestion that the lynch mob scene be a "friendly" one.
Of course, the filmed pilot never aired, but the best selling novel certainly got America's attention.
Power Shift at CBS
That's not to say it had any impact on Aubrey's standing. In fact, Aubrey held no reservation in expressing his disdain for his boss, William S. Paley.
He was dismissive at every juncture, according to Halberstam. Once at a programming meeting as Paley was about to speak, Aubrey interjected at the precise moment to extract maximum condescension. "Bill, let me take care of that," Aubrey showed up his boss.
Incoming phone calls were also a favored place to rub Paley's nose in it. "Tell, the chairman I'll call him back," Halberstam conveyed the commonplace. Then Aubrey would wink at the secretary and made sure everyone got the message.
Of course, this was the William Paley who virtually invented the standards for broadcast journalism. He was also the man who resolved to overcome the industry standard bearer in NBC. Thus, he signed up Benny Goodman, Edgar Bergan, Red Skelton and Burns and Allen as radio was beginning to give way to television in the late 40s.
Quality programming became synonymous with the Tiffany network moniker Paley earned. Aubrey, on the other hand, despised the stars in favor of the bottom line, and the great Benny Goodman got no quarter as the legend’s career was obviously winding down. "You're through,” Aubrey bluntly told him.
No news is good news.
The CBS President had even less use for the news division. "The new division caused problems and made Washington angry," wrote Halberstam of Aubrey's take.
It also took air time away. "Air time that could be used to sell detectives, monsters and hillbillies," wrote the author.
The events of November 23, 1963 screamed this attitude from Aubrey’s perch. Blair Clark, who was the head of CBS News and good friend to JFK, was trying to find a way to convey both the drama and the tragedy of the moment.
At the same time, the American people also needed to be reassured—despite the fact the government was struggling to hold the nation together. Aubrey didn't see the dilemma offered, according to Halberstam. "Just play the assassination footage over and over again—that's all they want to see," Aubrey chided Clark.
Regardless, Paley couldn't help but lease his soul in wake of the profits. "It was a relationship edged in money and hate," reasoned Halberstam.
Rent Comes Due
The tales of Aubrey's personal escapes had to be overlooked also. Ultimately, the rent came due when he was abruptly fired after Jackie Gleason's birthday party in 1965. But whatever the details, they were not an anomaly, according to Halberstam.
In accordance, a young writer questioned the timing to Elmo Roper who was closely associated with CBS. "There is nothing exceptional in his behavior, nothing that he hadn't done already?" asked Michael Mooney.
Roper imparted his wisdom. "Young man, Mr. Aubrey has made us so rich that we can now afford to worry about our image," Halberstam conveyed.
Even so, Lawrence Rogers states the determining factor in his book, A History of Television. "It took place precisely at the time CBS' ratings dropped from first to last."
CBS stock did drop nine points on the day he was fired, and Aubrey was ready with the math. "That puts my net value to the network at $20 million," Halberstam conveyed
Given that, Aubrey went onto head up MGM Studios from 1969-1973. But his adherence to cost cutting and low quality didn't quite work on the big screen. After being fired, he mostly faded away—save his last final gasp in 1980 before dying in 1986.
Nonetheless, the reruns live on, and for as silly it is to laugh at a talking horse, America will some day have enough. Yeah, when pigs fly. Don't even think of it Arnold.
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