The founder of Viacom had a long media career stretching back to 1950. Following Viacom’s spinoff from CBS, he led the company in buying cable TV systems; introduced Showtime and the Cable Health Network (now Lifetime); purchased radio and TV stations and transformed the company into a syndication giant. He was 92.
Ralph Baruch bridged the gap between the old media world of three broadcast networks and the new world of media conglomerates comprising radio, TV, cable, syndication and more. He died March 3 at age 92.
Ralph Max Baruch was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923. To avoid the Nazis, his family moved to Paris in 1933 where he attended private schools and the Sorbonne for a year before they had to flee the Nazis again. His family left in June 1940 when the German Army overran France, making their way to Spain, then Portugal and, finally, passed the Statue of Liberty and landed in New York on Dec. 4, 1940.
His first job in the United States was in a shoe factory, but in 1941 the 18-year-old was hired by a recording studio that specialized in radio commercials and programs. He advanced to broadcast engineer and left in 1944 to try a different side of the business — sales — first at SESAC, the music licensing firm (1944-48), and then at the Dumont Television Network (1948-52). Both jobs proved, he said later, to be an “excellent training ground” for the job he took in 1954, as account executive at CBS Television Film Sales. That was because, he explained to Broadcasting magazine, he “learned to fathom the intricacies of media [a skill vital] to a syndication salesman who must satisfy the varied needs of stations.”
Baruch grew along with the company and, aided by his abilities in French and German, became director of international sales in 1959, a vice president in 1961 and vice president and general manager in 1967 of what by then had been renamed CBS Enterprises.
In 1971, the FCC passed rules barring the television networks from owning domestic program syndication companies and cable systems. So CBS spun off CBS Enterprises into a new publicly owned company, Viacom Enterprises. For each seven shares of CBS stock, the stockholders received one of Viacom. Included among its initial assets the syndication rights to all CBS-TV programming and some U.S. cable systems, mostly in California, and major holdings in Canadian cable, in which CBS had made an aggressive start. Three CBS executives were chosen to head the company of a little more than 200 employees and about $20 million in sales — Clark George was president and CEO, Baruch was president of the syndication division and Richard Forson headed the cable component, which consisted of systems serving about 30,000 subscribers.
In February 1971, shortly after the company was organized in 1970 in anticipation of the FCC ruling, George resigned and Baruch assumed the president-CEO post.
Under his watch, Viacom became a syndication powerhouse, entered into TV production, radio and TV station ownership and an aggressive force in the cable TV. In the 1980s, he was at the forefront of those working for reversal of the FCC’s restrictions on pay cable movies and, in Congress, for passage of the Cable Act of 1984 that deregulated the cable industry. Baruch was also serving on the board of the National Cable Television Association.
He then guided Viacom as it increased its cable system ownership; launched cable networks, including Showtime (to compete with Home Box Office) and The Cable Health Network (now Lifetime); began buying television and radio stations (its first was a Hartford, Conn., UHF in 1976); and acquired from Warner Communications (now Time Warner) MTV, Nickelodeon, The Movie Channel, VH1 and bought back the half of Showtime that had been sold to Warner. He was also the co-founder of C-SPAN.
Baruch voluntarily became chairman and a member of the office of the CEO in 1983 when he was 60 and served in that capacity until 1987 when he retired (but continued as a consultant to the company for a number of years).
He authored an autobiography, Television Tightrope — How I Escaped Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom, published in April 2007, and also wrote How Broadcasting and Cable Happened (in spite of the FCC).
Under President Reagan, Baruch served for seven years as chairman of the USIA’s television communications board of advisers.
He received the National Academy of Cable Programming’s first Governor’s Award, recognizing his contributions to the development of cable programming. He received the cable television industry’s highest honor, the Vanguard Award, three of the NCTA’s President’s Awards, and its Chairman of the Year Award. In 1994 Baruch was honored with a special award from the International Academy of Television Arts and in 1999, Walter Cronkite presented him with an Emmy for the International Academy of Television Arts& Sciences. Seven years later, he was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was named a Giant of Broadcasting by the Library of American Broadcasting.
Baruch is survived by his wife Jean, four daughters and three grandchildren.