NEW YORK – Frank Stanton, a broadcasting pioneer and CBS president for 26 years who helped turn its TV operation into the "Tiffany network" and built CBS News into a respected information source, has died. He was 98.
Stanton died in his sleep at his Boston home on Sunday, said longtime friend Elisabeth Allison.
"He took an afternoon nap and never woke up," Allison said, her voice choking with grief.
Stanton once summarized his duties as "keeping the company going." But during his long association with CBS founder William S. Paley, the psychologist helped build the company from a modest chain of radio affiliates into a communications empire whose centerpiece became the nation's pre-eminent TV network.
"If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton. If CBS is the Tiffany Network, Frank Stanton deserves the lions share of the credit," said "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt.
As the head of CBS beginning in 1946, Stanton oversaw varied enterprises that included Columbia Records, CBS Laboratories, a book publisher, a toy maker and, for a brief time, the New York Yankees.
Paley, a radio man, didn't initially grasp the potential of television.
"He thought it would hurt radio," said Stanton, who took a chance on the new medium by signing a comic with untested appeal named Jackie Gleason, then nailing down a new sitcom, "I Love Lucy," which might otherwise have gone to NBC.
"Who else had the opportunity to take a new medium, television, and plot its future?" Stanton once said. He called the job so interesting "I would have almost paid them to do it."
While he led CBS to leadership status among the skyrocketing numbers of television viewers, Stanton also made CBS News a priority.
His belief in the First Amendment was genuine. In 1971, subpoenaed by Congress to produce un-aired footage from a controversial CBS News documentary, Stanton risked jail by refusing. A contempt motion failed, but only narrowly.
"He was a communicator, the standard bearer for our industry in any fight against limiting a free press or the flow of information," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS.
Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite credited Stanton with recruiting an "all-star cast" of broadcasters, producers, reporters and writers to the network, including Edward R. Murrow.
"Stanton recognized the role that broadcast news would play in providing the American public with the essential news of what its governments were doing in its name," Cronkite said.
A less admirable chapter of Stanton's career found him overseeing CBS' blacklisting policies in the 1950s and '60s. These included the creation in 1951 of a security office to investigate political leanings of CBS employees.
When FCC chief Newton N. Minow declared in 1961 that network television was a "vast wasteland," Stanton countered that Minow had taken a "sensationalized and oversimplified approach."
Stanton's interests and expertise were far-flung. He once explained that his success came from knowing more than anybody else about every problem and from "staying ahead of everybody."
Despite the evanescent world of broadcasting to which he devoted his life, one of Stanton's proudest achievements was the stone-and-mortar edifice of CBS' mid-Manhattan headquarters, completed in 1964 at a cost of $40 million. He guided its design from the stone that inspired its "Black Rock" nickname to the typography of the elevator numerals.
The long duet of Stanton and Paley was both richly fruitful and problematical. Never friends, the two titans were polar opposites in many ways, with Paley the charming dreamer, while Stanton was the thinker and doer.
"Paley needed Stanton; he made the machine run and understood many of the complexities that eluded Paley," according to "In All His Glory," Sally Bedell Smith's Paley biography. "But as Paley recognized this dependence, he grew to resent Stanton."
In 1966, Stanton had counted on rising to the CEO title upon Paley's retirement at age 65 — but Paley, exempting himself from the mandatory retirement age, stayed on.
Five years later, at 63, Stanton was forced to step down as president, then served as vice chairman until his ignominious retirement in 1973.
After CBS, Stanton chaired the American Red Cross for six years.
In 1999, he was given a lifetime achievement award for his First Amendment work by the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Stanton's path to CBS started at Ohio State University, where his studies led him to devise a scientific method for measuring radio audiences and invent the forerunner of what A.C. Nielsen would one day use to gather ratings.
In 1934, CBS invited Stanton to New York City to explain his technique. He stayed on, building a three-person research office into a 100-strong department.
Stanton rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming president in 1946, at the age of 38, when Paley resigned to become chairman.
Stanton, whose wife died more than a decade ago, has no immediate survivors, Allison said.
"His explicit instructions were there should be no memorial service of any sort and that no contribution in his name should be suggested," she said.