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CBS celebrates 75 years

Published Sep. 2, 2005

MGM used to boast that it had "more stars than there are in the heavens." But CBS overtook the film studio long ago with a wide variety of TV favorites. They range from sitcoms (Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen) to variety (Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, David Letterman) to drama (Raymond Burr, Tom Selleck, Angela Lansbury) to even Lassie.

To celebrate CBS's 75th anniversary, the stars will descend tonight on New York's Hammerstein Ballroom for a live, three-hour broadcast. The special will unfold like a Golden Globes party, with stars reacting to memorable clips.

"You will see a lot of memories," CBS chairman Les Moonves said. "A few stand out: Walter Cronkite announcing JFK is dead, men landing on the moon, the finale of M+A+S+H, who shot J.R. (on Dallas). You get goose bumps watching these clips."

To today's channel-surfing public, a network's identity means little. But CBS occupies a glorious, unrivaled patch in the culture's history, from The Twilight Zone to The Jeffersons' deluxe apartment to the wilds of Northern Exposure.

No other TV company held such prominence for so long. And viewers can see the CBS imprint by buying DVDs of beloved series or watching them on such channels as Nick at Nite, TV Land or SoapNet.

CBS actually started as a radio network in 1927. CBS at 75 salutes William S. Paley, who took over in 1928 and pushed CBS to prominence in news and entertainment.

"He took pride in what he put on that network," Mary Tyler Moore says. "It was important to him, important to celebrate performance and art, to have intelligent conversation."

Paley's influence was equally important in the development of an independent news organization. During World War II, Edward R. Murrow delivered radio broadcasts from London and put together a top-notch team of foreign correspondents.

"We cannot ignore Paley's genius that told Murrow to put that organization together in London," former anchor Walter Cronkite says. "Murrow was not a journalist. He was in London because Paley wanted to upgrade the radio network with some thinkers. He asked Murrow to go to London and find them. Murrow was on that assignment when war broke out. Murrow was on the phone telling Paley about the scene, and Paley said, "Get that on radio.' "

CBS News would set the standard for TV journalism with documentaries, such as Murrow's Harvest of Shame about migrant workers; with Cronkite's admired work as anchor of the CBS Evening News; and with 60 Minutes.

CBS at 75 will quickly acknowledge memorable moments in radio, such as Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, which panicked the nation in 1938 with its tale of alien invasion. But CBS at 75 is mainly a celebration of television entertainment.

The special will look at the medium's evolution, from 1950s variety (The Ed Sullivan Show) to escapist 1960s comedies (Gilligan's Island, Green Acres) to topical 1970s sitcoms (All in the Family, Maude) to workplace comedies (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown).

Moore says she generally deplores television today, from "the cheap and easy laughs" to the "demographic push to make a buck" to the "fast and furious" axing of low-rated series. But she says the CBS comedy tradition lives in Everybody Loves Raymond.

Ray Romano and his co-stars will appear in CBS at 75. Others scheduled to participate include Andy Griffith, Bob Newhart, Larry Hagman and Delta Burke.

Beyond the current lineup, the CBS story lives on in reruns across the dial, from Lucy Ricardo's schemes to Mary Richards' work troubles to Archie Bunker's rants. Rob Reiner, who has directed many Hollywood movies, will always be known by his "Meathead" nickname on All in the Family _ and he's fine with it.

"I'm very proud of the show, one that made a major contribution to American culture," he says. "New generations are picking up on it on Nick at Nite. The shows are still relevant."