Stanton: Style and Substance


The CBS eye for detail, and for style, belonged to Dr. Frank Stanton.

Stanton, who died last week at the age of 98, was the longest-serving president in the network's history, taking it from radio to TV. He was also one of a handful of pioneering executives who helped build the broadcasting business with the power of their intellect and the imprint of their personality.

From the Eero Saarinen-designed Black Rock headquarters at West 52nd St. in New York to the little dot on CBS stationery that showed where the first word from the network should go, Stanton set the tone with a combination of renaissance taste and serious attention to detail.

Stanton's doctoral thesis at Ohio State was on a new kind of audience measurement system. But rather than just write about it, he built automatic recorders that became the forerunners of Nielsen meters. His thesis helped get him a job in the CBS research department, where he parlayed his passion for ratings into a broad knowledge of the business and, eventually, into the president's office (from 1946 to 1971).

As president, he was famous for writing lots of notes to CBS execs, letting them know he was paying attention to all corners of the CBS empire, one CBS executive once told B&C. His magic formula: Long hours plus hard work equals success.

And CBS had plenty of it. Under Stanton, CBS became a news powerhouse that took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy—and won—and helped change the face of presidential politics. Stanton was said to have been proudest of his push to suspend the FCC's equal-time requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates. That campaign paved the way for the four "Great Debates" between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy, which arguably established TV as a key force in national politics.

He took a stand against the powerful House Investigations Subcommittee over CBS News' primetime documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, when he risked a contempt-of-Congress citation and possible jail time to keep the government's nose out of the broadcast-news business. Congress backed down.

When Stanton retired, B&C found that photos of him in its files were mostly of his testimony before Congress or at the FCC, or speeches before industry forums. In other words, they were of the industry's foremost statesman, a title he held to the last, and for which he deserves the thanks of a grateful industry.