CBS looks back on 75 years

Saturday, November 1, 2003

The Tiffany Network is assembling its gems to dazzle America. From "I Love Lucy" to "Everybody Loves Raymond," from "Gunsmoke" to "CSI," CBS has displayed more jewels than any other company.

MGM used to boast that it had "more stars than there are in the heavens." But CBS overtook the film studio long ago with a wide variety of TV favorites. They range from sitcoms (Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen) to variety (Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, David Letterman) to drama (Raymond Burr, Tom Selleck, Angela Lansbury) to even Lassie.

To celebrate CBS' 75th anniversary, the stars will descend Sunday on New York's Hammerstein Ballroom for a live, three-hour broadcast. The special will unfold like a Golden Globes party, with stars reacting to memorable clips.

"It's going to be the greatest reunion in the history of television," CBS Chairman Les Moonves says, with a showman's flourish. "You will see a lot of memories. A few stand out: Walter Cronkite announcing JFK is dead, men landing on the moon, the finale of 'M*A*S*H,' who shot J.R. (on "Dallas") -- you get goose bumps watching these clips."

On Sept. 25, 1928, a rather brash young cigar executive named William S. Paley rode an elevator to the top of the Paramount Building in Times Square to survey his new kingdom -- a barely solvent group of radio stations called United Independent Broadcasters that he promptly renamed the Columbia Broadcast System. CBS was born that day, and you know pretty much what's happened since -- Crosby, Benny, Cronkite, Ball, Murrow and a list of other luminaries and historical milestones that is unparalleled in the history of the business.

Problem with this birthday is that there's far too much to cram into a three-hour prime-time broadcast and maybe that's why the one that arrives Sunday night comes almost as a surprise. CBS has been uncharacteristically quiet about the big bash. Is this a case of network modesty, or a case of a network's trying to manage expectations?

Gil Cates, executive producer of "CBS at 75," admits that he "hadn't realized how many of the visual images we carry in our minds are provided by television and specifically by CBS." CBS, he adds, "is the story of our lives."

So what should viewers expect? Says Cates, "A large group of stars and enormous number of film clips." There will be "surprises," too, but "I hate to talk about them because then they won't be surprises."