TV’s history through Ralph Baruch’s eyes

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To say that Ralph Baruch has led an interesting life is an understatement. As a child, born into a Jewish family in Germany, he had to escape Hitler's Nazi onslaught twice, first from Germany and then from France, carrying his grandmother on his back over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. As a young man in the US, he entered the new industry called television, starting at DuMont and then moving to the "Tiffany Network," CBS. For readers too young to remember those earliest days of television, Baruch's autobiography, "Television Tightrope: How I Escaped Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom," provides lots of historical and behind-the-scenes info about the business in its infancy and the personalities, some more noble than others, who helped it grow.


It's not clear that William Paley was doing Baruch any great favor when he was chosen to lead the FCC-mandated spin-off of CBS' syndication business in 1971 into what was named Viacom. As Baruch tells it, the terms were so lopsided that it appeared some at CBS wanted to strangle the offspring in its crib. Instead, Viacom under Ralph Baruch thrived and found growth in the new field of cable television, which it helped grow into a viable competitor to broadcasters. There was more intrigue later when his senior subordinate teamed up with private equity in an attempt to buy out public shareholders on the cheap and push Baruch aside – only to have a white knight appear in the form of a theater company owner that no one in television had ever heard of, Sumner Redstone. It was sweet revenge then for Baruch in 1999 when Viacom came back and bought its former parent, CBS.

"Televison Tightrope" is published by ProbitasPress and available from Amazon.com.

TVBR observation: A gripping tale and a real education for those of us who, if we were even born yet, were acquainted with TV in the 1950s only as viewers of "Captain Kangaroo." The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. We were surprised to find a current name in the news – Los Angeles' Chandler family – pop up in the early days of television, before the LA Times owner sold its TV station, got back in via Tribune, and is now desperately trying to exit again. Some of the villains in Baruch's book, co-authored with veteran writer Lee Roderick, may have their own version of the events he describes, but we found it all intriguing, with a lot of the suspense of a mystery novel. More telling than our read of this TV insider's tale is the fact that the wife of TVBR's Executive Editor, who has never herself worked in broadcasting, has been reading the book and also found it engrossing – not just the part about escaping the Nazis, but the drama of the TV corporate battles as well.