George Schweitzer remembers the time he had to break the news to CBS founder William S. Paley that the Tiffany Network had struck a promotional deal … with the not-so-Tiffany department store chain Kmart.
“I was scared to death,” says Schweitzer, the CBS marketing head who officially retires on April 15. “He was the chairman emeritus at that time, but he was still coming to the office and was a spiritual and superhero presence. I told him, ‘I value and appreciate the Tiffany Network, but in order to get more viewers, we’re doing this exciting new promotion with a retailer, Kmart.’ And he kind of looked at me quizzically like, gosh, obviously he’s never been to Kmart!”
But Paley gave his blessing — “and I ran out of there as fast as I could. Because he was a businessman and a showman, he got it.”
During his 48 years at CBS, Schweitzer was in radio at CBS News under names like Walter Cronkite, served as a producer on “Captain Kangaroo,” worked in program practices and standards, handled broadcast operations and oversaw the network’s corporate communications. And that was before he took over CBS marketing in the early 1990s, at the same moment the entire way TV shows were promoted to audiences underwent a massive transformation.
The growth of cable, the arrival of a fourth network and the advent of other technologies — from video games to the Walkman — forced networks to promote beyond just an ad in TV Guide and an on-air promo. “If you bought a page in TV Guide, you got a couple of rating points — it was guaranteed. But that stopped being the case,” he says. “And you couldn’t reach just everybody with a promo the night before.”
That’s when Schweitzer and his team struck deals with retailers like Kmart, began advertising on billboards and started pushing sampling on audiences by handing out VHS tapes of sneak previews. Another effective method was CBS’ deal with American Airlines, where fliers were shown episodes of series such as “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“If I could just get a sample of my product into someone’s home, I knew I got them, because I believed in my product,” Schweitzer says. “To this day, the ‘Raymond’ people give us credit that it was the American Airlines deal when people really discovered them.”
Later came the gimmicks. One year, CBS found a company that would print show promos on grocery store eggs. “I think more people read about it than saw them,” Schweitzer says. “But that’s what it was all about, bringing the brand to life. Certainly now in the last 10 years with social media and digital, that process has really taken off. Someone brought us an idea: Why don’t we promote our shows on fake leaves that we could throw around places in the fall because it was about fall programming? Interesting idea, but that never went anywhere.”
During his time at CBS, Schweitzer says he has been a part of 28 fall launch seasons, worked under nine CEOs, seen five changes of company ownership, marketed eight Super Bowls (including the landmark Super Bowl 50) and launched five Chuck Lorre comedies, four “CSI” editions, three Winter Olympics and two editions of “Murphy Brown.” He’s also “attended enough events to have a mountain of name badges and eaten enough shrimp at events to turn a flamingo pink.”
He had a hand in promoting the arrival of David Letterman to CBS late night, and later the changeover to Stephen Colbert. Ditto the transitions in evening news, from Dan Rather on. He not only lived TV history; he collected it: Schweitzer’s CBS office doubled as a broadcasting museum, featuring artifacts like ads, posters, photos, radios, TVs and signs. (And he’s looking to donate some of those items for display.)
When Schweitzer first joined CBS in 1972, straight out of Boston University, the network’s culture was still one of “white shirt, tie,” he says. “Everyone felt a responsibility to live up to an amazing brand image of the Tiffany network of leadership, of Mr Paley, of Frank Stanton, of CBS News. Obviously Murrow was gone but Cronkite was there and that group, Eric Sevareid, all these amazing reporters. We had Watergate, Nixon impeachment. Vietnam. It was quite a remarkable time in our history, and we all felt the sense that we were at a special place. That we were at a place that developed broadcast journalism during World War II, on radio, and then moved through to TV.”
And then there were the tricky times. When he was in communications, Schweitzer dealt with the issues of children’s programming (including the question of whether “Bugs Bunny” was violent); retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s libel lawsuit against CBS; and the countless attempts by others, including Ted Turner, to buy CBS — eventually leading to the cost-cutting reign of Larry Tisch.
It was then-head of broadcasting Howard Stringer who moved Schweitzer over to head up marketing. “The marketing thing, which became my dream job, came out of a passion for what we have, a passion for the business, a passion for understanding what we do and how to communicate it,” he says. “I was fortunate that Howard Stringer said, ‘George, you know advertising, I want you to run the communications part. I ran press for a long time and then I segued into the marketing part and shed the press job.”
Schweitzer also witnessed CBS’ rise from third place to first place twice. Perhaps the toughest period of time was after 1994, when CBS lost its NFL rights (the Eye regained football in 1998). “It was brutal,” he says. “And we had four dark years. Losing NFL, it was not about primetime ratings, because the NFL was on Sunday afternoons, but it was about the promotional lift that it gave our shows, and the exposure. We got it back in ’98, and that began the rebuild. We were in a bad third place, and through the years, with developing comedies, and ‘CSI,’ ‘Raymond,’ these are the shows that got us back to first place. And that was exciting because everyone worked together. It was like, see the hill, take the hill. The hill was getting back to leadership in prime time. And everyone was up for the fight.”
For Schweitzer and his team, that meant re-establishing CBS as the big tent home for the broadest audiences possible. His tag lines included “Welcome home,” “It’s all here,” “Only CBS.” Says Schweitzer: “We didn’t say ‘we’re number one,’ we said, “thank you for making us America’s most watched network.'”
Even after all these years and all the transformation in the business, Schweitzer says he still believes nothing is more effective in marketing TV programs than a 30-second promo. “The issue is getting that in front of people,” he says. “It is basically a free sample. The audience is smart; they know what they want. They know the good stuff, and they can smell the bad stuff. They know when they’re being fooled. And they are completely consistent in 40 years of research that I’ve seen about marketing of entertainment: Show me the show.”
Now, as he passes the baton to new CBS chief marketing officer Mike Benson, Schweitzer says that in an age of thousands of original series and multiple streaming services, “entertainment marketing has never been more necessary. Social media, word of mouth, is absolutely No. 1 at this point. The more choices there are, the harder it is to decide. So you have to have your product seen, tried, sampled, talked about. And there are more exciting ways of doing it, more ways of getting things into people’s homes.”
But Schweitzer bristles when legacy outlets like the broadcast networks are referred to as “old media.” “It’s not. Everything’s video,” he says. “Maybe ‘television’ isn’t the right word anymore. But that’s what people want, a way to laugh and relax, and believe me, we’re seeing it right now.”