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A Long Trip on TV’s Tightrope

10/06/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

In 1950, Ralph Baruch joined a wide-eyed crowd of people gathered at a storefront on Broadway in New York to watch wrestling on a startling new device called television. Two hours later, he returned to witness a new group of people being mesmerized by the test patterns on the same TV screen.

That moment marked the beginning of a long friendship between cable and 2006 Hall of Fame inductee Baruch, who would later become the founder of Viacom International and help guide the fledgling cable industry through several of its most tumultuous years.

And though it was radio that sparked his interest in communications, his move to the DuMont television network in 1950 and then to CBS in 1954 as an account executive provided the needed experience for his eventual founding of Viacom and the beginning of a long and illustrious career in the cable business.

“Once I saw those people staring at test patterns, I thought 'Holy smoke, this is really something,’ ” Baruch said. “A few years later, when I met Frank Stanton, president of CBS, he really had an impact on me. He was an amazing man. But I’ve always felt cable was a great business and never doubted it, even when it was being hammered by the broadcasting industry.”

His never-give-up mentality, which followed him throughout his cable career, was for some a difficult attitude to adjust to. Yet for that young industry, Baruch’s direct, stern approach to the early issues was crucial.

“He has always been a gentleman, but stern,” said Brian Lamb, CEO of C-SPAN, which Baruch helped launch with a generous donation. “You know you’re talking with someone who’s in charge and he isn’t afraid to take strong positions. You always know where Ralph is coming from.”

Baruch attributes that never-give-up attitude to his youth during World War II. “When you run away from Paris in a pushcart with your grandmother fleeing the Nazis and Hitler, you learn to never give up,” he said.

Two months of wandering south through France, Baruch wound up in Marseille, where his family was personally granted four precious visas by Eleanor Roosevelt. “Dad was on the Nazis’ list to be arrested and Mrs. Roosevelt got 500 visas for intellectuals, teachers, etc.,” he recalled. “She had a great impact on us. I owe her my life.”

Baruch’s terrifying journey from Paris to Marseille to escape the Nazis is the focus of his new book, due out in 2007, titled Television Tightrope: How I Fled Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom.

Fathering Viacom will probably be remembered as Baruch’s defining moment in cable, yet his service to the fledgling business during its early years is pure Hall of Fame.

“Ralph may be the most interesting person we’ve had in cable, and he’s always been ready to testify for the industry,” Lamb said. “He always fought for a level playing field and has been a strong advocate for cable. If he had been the sole role model for the cable business, we wouldn’t have the issues we have today. Ralph’s induction into cable’s Hall of Fame makes this a very good year.”

There were some anxious — and not-so-good — years for Baruch and the cable industry, however, particularly with pay TV. In 1971, Viacom was spun off from CBS in response to a 1968 Federal Communications Commission ruling that broadcast networks could not be in the cable or syndication businesses. It was a ruling that would have great impact on not only the cable business, but the communications sector as a whole.

“Frank Stanton asked me for a plan. Two years later, he called me and said, 'We’re spinning off our cable and syndication businesses to form a new business.’ He wanted me to be the CEO and I answered, 'Let me think about it.’

“He told me to take all the time I needed, then pointed to the chair next to him and said, 'Sit down.’ I was now the CEO of a new business, Viacom,” Baruch said with a laugh.

Thus began his Viacom career, which would lead to his legacy in cable and provide a platform for change within the cable industry, particularly for his newly formed company, which was shedding its CBS skin.

“We needed to get rid of the enormous restrictions on pay cable. It was a real mess,” he said. “But we got favorable rulings from the courts and later I wanted to stand up and bring the issue of franchising cable as well. But once the Telecommunications Act was signed, I was elated. It really removed the barriers and gave cable an equal opportunity to compete.”

And for Viacom to compete and grow as well. During his tenure at Viacom, the company acquired cable-TV systems, launched Showtime and the Cable Health Network (now Lifetime Television), purchased radio and television broadcast stations and entered television production and distribution. Viacom eventually would acquire MTV, Nickelodeon, The Movie Channel and VH1.

Yet for Baruch and the cable industry as a whole, it was his work as director and member of the executive committee of the National Cable Television Association (now the National Cable & Telecommunications Association) that prompted crucial changes, paving the way for its future growth.

For example, he served for seven years as chairman of an NCTA committee instrumental in the passage by Congress of the Cable Act of 1984. “In 1977, I was asked to head up a public-service committee to rewrite the existing Communications Act,” he noted. “It took seven years and we hand carried it from the House to the Senate, one hour before the deadline.”

Baruch has understood his responsibility to give back as well. “I have always tried to repay this country for what it has given me,” he said.

And he has done just that. He is a trustee of Lenox Hill Hospital, has served as vice chairman of Carnegie Hall, is co-founder and immediate past chairman and chairman emeritus of the National Academy of Cable Programming, trustee of the Museum of Television and Radio, co-founder of C-SPAN, sits on several boards of directors and has established a number of foundations.