(2 of 3)
Sarnoff had it all figured out: for RCA to sell radios, it had to have programming--music, news, sports. On July 2, 1921, he arranged the broadcast of the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier prizefight (great ratings in the male demos), which was a watershed event. Within three years the radio music box, now called the Radiola (price: a hefty $75), was a success, with sales of $83.5 million.
Sarnoff's career took off. His next epiphany: the fastest path to profits would be to create national broadcasts by stringing together hundreds of stations. In other words, a network. In 1926, as general manager of RCA, he formed the National Broadcasting Co. as a subsidiary.
Sarnoff next saw the potential of the iconoscope, a proto-television patented by Vladimir Zworykin in 1923. Within five years Sarnoff had set up a special NBC station called B2XBS to experiment with what came to be known as television. In 1941 NBC started commercial telecasting from station WNBT in New York City, but once again progress was delayed by war. Sarnoff served as communications consultant for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later named him a brigadier general. The title stuck. And in the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Sarnoff became known as "the General."
After the war television was unleashed. As a shrewd businessman who mixed as easily with scientists as with corporate leaders, Sarnoff fought for patents and the right to advance the technology of the medium. Called ruthless by his rivals, he once said, "Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in men." And when others would complain that his focus was more on technology than on programming, he said, "Basically, we're the delivery boys."
His strong-willed management style gave him the label of not always being "talent-friendly," although he was close to great musicians like Arturo Toscanini. Sarnoff managed to survive a major raid orchestrated by CBS boss William S. Paley, who lured several major NBC stars. But if Sarnoff lost a battle, you could always bet on his winning the war. Under his leadership NBC had the first videotape telecast and the first made-for-television movie.
Sarnoff retired as RCA chairman in 1970 and died a year later. RCA became a conglomerate, diversifying broadly--and unsuccessfully--before being taken over in 1986 by GE, the outfit that started RCA and was forced to divest it in 1932.
From our earliest days as network executives and, before that, as students of the medium and charter members of the first generation of TV viewers, we have lived and worked in his giant shadow. Having established our own production company, we are humbled by the success of a man who started with nothing and by force of will ignited a revolution that has had an unparalleled effect on our society.
When we first teamed up at ABC in the mid-'70s, broadcast television was still a heady and vibrant place. We were thrilled when we heard someone mention a show we had helped get on--Soap, maybe, or Barney Miller or Taxi. We learned from our favorite bosses, Fred Silverman and Michael Eisner, that a good programmer respects the audience, takes risks, has showman-like instincts and lives to bring the best and brightest talent to the people.