John Backe, CBS CEO in the '70s, Dies at 83

A former bomber pilot, Backe took CBS back to the top of the primetime rankings before being dramatically ousted from the role by the network's founder William Paley.

John D. Backe, the CBS chief executive who helped the network return to number one in the late '70s before being memorably ousted by the founder William Paley, has died. He was 83.

Backe's son John told the New York Times that his father had died on Oct. 22 in Gladwyne, Pa. with heart failure the cause.

A former B-47 bomber pilot for the Strategic Air Command, Backe rose through the ranks at CBS and caught the eye of Paley after stellar work and huge growth at CBS' publishing division in the early 1970s. In October 1976, Paley elevated Backe to the post of president and then chief executive the following May, tasking him with returning CBS to the top of the network rankings. 

Backe, who had little broadcast experience but was widely known for his innovative management, set about restructuring the network, embracing new technology and splitting entertainment and sports into different divisions. Backe also stemmed the flow of defections by local affiliates. His greatest triumph though was his decision to take ABC head on in the battle for primetime viewers, winning back audiences with shows such as M.A.S.H. spinoff Trapper John. M.D

Despite Backe's success in making CBS number one again, Paley, who had stepped back from day-to-day management in the late '70s to care for his sick wife and write a book, began making moves to take control of the company again. When Backe found out about Paley's plans to replace him, he forced the issue, asking the board to either back him or Paley. When the desired support was not forthcoming, Backe dramatically resigned from his position in May 1980. 

After CBS, Backe became president of production company Tomorrow Entertainment and also started the Backe Group, a management company. 

Backe is survived by his son John, daughter Kimberly Marr, six grandchildren, a great-grandson and his sister Patricia Ohendorf. His wife, Katherine Elliot, died in 2014. 

 

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