The Past and Future of Television: Ralph Baruch, founder of Viacom and author of Television Tightrope: How I Escaped Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom (Probitas Press)

I would never change my name. In the early 50s, I applied for a job at one of the networks, and the head of HR told me, sorry, we don't hire Jews. That's the only time I've ever found any obstacle relating to my religion in getting a job. I ran away twice from violent antisemitism and I'm not going to hide. My father's name was Bernard and he was listed in the phone book right below Bernard M. Baruch. We got a lot of strange phone calls and letters. One day we got a telegram from the White House, please notify if you have any objections to so-and-so as secretary of state.

I know very little about publishing. CBS years ago bought a publishing house, and we did distribution of their audiovisual material, but that's about my extent. I read in the New York Times that book sales are up 0.3 percent. 150-180,000 books are published every year. That's an enormous amount

Viacom has done very well. We started in 1971 with 200+ people and $20 million in sales. Someone named Irving Kahn went to jail for trying to bribe his way into a cable company in Johnston, PA, and all the cable stocks went way down. Sumner Redstone bought the company for $222 a share, so the shareholders did very, very well. The stock's low was $2-5/8 in the late 1970s, and he bought it in 1987.

In 1948, television came about, after the war, and the FCC did not know how to allocate channels. So they took four years and they assigned 7 channels to New York City, but also UHF (channels 14 and up), except that between 1948-1952, 25 million television sets were manufactured, and none of them could receive UHF. It wasn't until 10 years later that Congress passed a law that any set had to receive UHF, and that's what prompted cable. Cable in markets where there were no UHF sets provided the viewer with UHF channels on a regular channel.

Most people do not realize that starting in 2009, not so far away, an estimated 75 million television sets will not be able to receive television. They have to transition from analog to digital. The government is going to issue coupons, maximum 2 to a home, which have a value of $40, to buy conversion boxes, which will cost $50-$60. Can you see the majority of Americans filling out the forms? The average person doesn't even know about this. The government says they're gong to allocate a couple of hundred million dollars to advertise this, but I haven't seen it. It's going to be cumbersome.

I have a big problem with the FCC. First of all, they gave us a very bad signal, 525 lines. In Europe, you have 625, it's a much better signal. They approved a CBS color system, non-compatible, with a rotating disc inside, spinning at 2000 RPM. That didn't work, so three years later they approved the RCA system, which is compatible—so you could watch color broadcasts on your black-and white set.

They restricted cable for years, restricted what kind of movies they could show. That's none of their business. It was done to protect the broadcasting industry. Of course, broadcasters could have bought one of the channels, but they didn't until much, much later.

One of the reasons that networks were so powerful is that for many years, they were the only ones who could afford the AT&T connections, $40-60 million per year, each. I remember at a business meeting, I asked, what about satellites, and an NBC executive said "satellites are not part of our plan." But the advent of satellites allowed anyone with $1-2 million a year to buy a transponder and it wrecked the oligopoly the networks had.

[I asked him about the early promise that cable would offer ad-free television in exchange for the monthly fee.] My recollection is that they sold cable [on the promise of] good reception. You couldn't get a good signal because of the high buildings.

[Centralization of content production?] Decentralized producers can't get distribution. I believe that technology is always way ahead of the marketplace. You can invent things, but what's the commercial application? You may be 5, 10, 15 years away, I think television will be done through the Internet.

[Cable vs. phone]: Many years ago, I told the cable industry, the enemy is not the broadcasters, it's the telephone company. They have lines into every house. But the local franchisors get from cable a lot of their personal information, local news. I think the phone companies should provide the same services. I have a place in Westchester [a suburban county just north of New York City], and cable does a wonderful job with local news. They have a local education, government, access channel. I don't see the phone company doing that.

[Viacom is part of the same media conglamorate that owns Simon & Schuster, one of the country's largest publishing houses. When I asked Baruch why he had chosen to publish with a tiny Probitas Press, which does only one or two books a year, he ased Lee Roderick, his editor and ghostwriter, to join the conversation.]

Roderick: Ralph called me out of the blue one day.

Baruch: I called a friend with an advertising agency, and he recommended Lee. I tried a lot of agents, and just as in television, I found a lot of the agents less than desirable, and so we decided to go with Probitas, and we got it on the market.

Roderic: IPG [Independent Publishers Group, a major distributor] has been very helpful. Everybody who's read it loves the book, but it's a trick. The print run is 5000; we're confident there will be a second one.

PMA [Publishers Marketing Association] has also been very helpful. They've given us some idea of who to go to in niche marketing, a lot of associations that ware very helpful. Our publisher, Yvonne Maddox, attended PMAU. It gives me encouragement that those who have read the book, people who know their stuff, Walter Cronkite, Brian Lamb (founder of C-Span), Paula Kerger (head of PBS)—all love the book [and have endorsed it]. People who are pretty smart. I haven't seen a bad review yet. But it's a matter of how to get people to read it.

Please see these related stories from the 2007 Book Expo America:
BEA 2007: The Year of the Thinking Reader
Social Entrepreneurship: Make a Difference AND a Profit
Big Authors at Small Presses, #1: Ralph Baruch: First, Cable—And Then?
Big Authors at Small Presses, #2: David Silverman: An Industry Dies of Outsourcing
Big Authors at Small Presses, #3: Naomi Wolf: The End of America
Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress
Remote Signing Technology: The Coolest Thing at BEA

Shel Horowitz is the award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers, and five other books, and the editor of Down to Business Magazine.


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