No One Has Ever Lowered Television's Bar More Than James T. Aubrey Of Cbs

James T. Aubrey brought television to a new low and made millions doing it for CBS from 1959-1965
No One has Ever Lowered Television's Bar more than James T. Aubrey of CBS
Source - Rich Monetti

If you were a child of the 70s, you remember that Bucky Dent's good looks and MVP performance in the 1978 World Series elevated the Yankee shortstop to national sex symbol status. Of course, Hollywood sought to capitalize and cast Dent in The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. An obvious abomination, the TV movie quickly passed into history. But this embarrassing overreach to cash in came from the last hoorah of a man who understood America's insatiable appetite for stupidity, and his dizzying success launched this President of CBS to the pinnacle of network television.

In 1959 and long before reality TV, the annual profits at CBS were 25 million dollars.  The quiz show scandal forced a change

at the top and in came James T. Aubrey.  By 1961, profits at CBS had doubled.

For us watching reruns on sick days in the 70s, that meant The Munsters, Mr. Ed, Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, and the crown jewel,  The Beverly Hillbillies. We didn't know any better, but Aubrey did.

In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam revealed the formula. "He had a killer instinct for the lowest common denominator, and unlike others who had that instinct, he had no shame."

So profound was Aubrey's lack of inhibition among his brethren at the network, wrote halberstam, "that even the other hucksters were embarrassed."

The application of his mindset followed seamlessly. "The problem with creative people is they don't know the public. The people out there don't want to think, he instructed an aide, according to Halberstam. " I know, I come from out there. "

Certainly concurring, Halberstam doesn't pull any punches in terms of the resulting pulp. "His career seemed like a bad novel and indeed spawned several."

One such wa , Only You, Dick Daring by Merle Miller and Evan Rhodes.

Merle Miller was a novelist in the same vein as Falkner and Fitzgerald who came to Hollywood for a big payday. Knowing full well of the artistic debasement he was descending into, the Iowa born writer allowed himself to be seduced at the prospect of writing a serious drama that stared Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

A modern day Western called Calhoun, the script fell prey to the Aubrey culture through a multitude of network executives that turned the work into schlock. Miller got an early clue as one of the clones implored the Aubrey way of doing business.. Our idea for any adventure or drama, Miller and Rhodes remembered is, "50,000 Berbers are storming Cairo, and only you, Dick Daring can save the day."

The memoir's title secured, Miller even seemed to succomb to the indoctrination as the final iteration of the pilot adhered to Aubrey's vision that all endings must be happy. So in the climatic final scene as the opposing forces all gather, Miller signed off on the suggestion that thislynch mob scene be a "friendly" one.

Of course, the filmed pilot never aired, but the best selling novel certainly got America's attention.

That's not to say it had any impact on Aubrey's standing. In fact, Aubrey held no reservation in expressing his disdain for his boss, William S. Paley.

He was dismissive at every juncture - too his face and amongst staff. Once at a programming meeting as Paley was about to speak, Aubrey interjected at the precise moment to extract maximum condescension. "Bill, let me take care of that," he didn't hesitate to show up his boss. 

Incoming phone calls were also a favored place to rub Paley's nose in it. "Tell, the chairman I'll call him back,"  he would wink at the secretary - making sure everyone got the message.

Of course, this was the William Paley that virtually invented the standards for broadcast journalism. He was also the man who resolved to overcome the industry standard bearer in NBC. Thus, he took away Benny Goodman, Edgar Bergan, Red Skelton and Burns and Allen as radio was beginning to give way to the new medium of television in the late 40s.

Quality programming became synonymous with Tiffany network moniker Paley earned. Aubrey, on the other hand, despised the stars in favor of the bottom line. Aubrey once bluntly told Benny Goodman as his career was obviously winding down, "you're through."

The CBS President had even less use for the news division.  "The new division caused problems and made Washington angry," wrote Halberstam of Aubrey's take.

It also took air time away.  "Air time that could be used to sell detectives, monsters and hillbillies," wrote the author.

Nothing screamed this attitude than on November 23, 1963.  Blair Clark, who was the head of CBS News and a very close

friend of John Kennedy was attempting to convey both the drama and the tragedy as the U.S. Government was struggling to hold the nation together.  Aubrey didn't see the dilemma offered, according to Halberstam, "Just play the assassination footage over and over again - that's all they want to see," Aubrey chided Clark 

Regardless, Paley couldn't help but lease his soul in wake of the profits. "It was a relationship edged in money and hate," reasoned Halberstam

The tales of Aubrey's personal escapes had to be overlooked also. Ultimately, the rent came due when he was abruptly fired after Jackie Gleason's birthday party in 1965. But whatever the details, they were not an anomaly, according to Halberstam.

As such, a young writer questioned the timing to Elmo Roper who was closely associated with CBS.  "There is nothing exceptional in his behavior, nothing that he hadn't done already, " asked Michael Mooney.

Roper imparted his wisdom.  "Young man, Mr. Aubrey has made us so rich that we can now afford to worry about our image," Halberstam conveyed.

Even so, Lawrence Rogers states the determining factor in his book, A History of Television. "It took place precisely at the time CBS' ratings dropped from first to last."

CBS stock did drop nine points on the day he was fired and Aubrey was ready with the math. "That puts my net value to the network at 20 million dollars," Halberstam conveyed

Given that, Aubrey went onto head up MGM Studios from 1969-1973, but his adherence to cost cutting and low quality didn't quite work on the big screen. After being fired, he mostly faded away - save his last final gasp in 1980 before dying in 1986.

Nonetheless, the reruns live on, and for as silly it is to laugh at a talking horse, America will some day have enough. Yeah, when pigs fly.   Don't even think of it Arnold.

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