A 28-year veteran of CBS Corp., Gene Jankowski has been chairman of Jankowski Communications System since its inception in 1989. He served as non-executive chairman of the board of Trans-Lux Corporation from 2003 to 2010, and also was managing director of Veronis Suhler Stevenson from 1994 to 2010.
Born and raised in the Buffalo, New York area, Jankowski was bitten by the journalism bug while in high school, where he worked at the school newspaper and editor in chief of the yearbook. “I decided to be a journalist and majored in English in college,” he recalls. “This was about the same time television was coming about, but at that time we had this thing called the draft. Rather than being drafted into the Army I joined the Navy, and I was gone for 3-1/2 years.”
Having received a bachelor’s degree from Canisius College in Buffalo, Jankowski subsequently earned his Master’s degree in Radio, Television, and Film at Michigan State University. Following a brief stint at an advertising agency in his hometown of Buffalo, he was hired in 1961 by CBS in New York City.
Jankowski served as an account executive with CBS Radio for five years, and in 1966 he was named Eastern sales manager for the radio network. Three years later he moved over to the television side, again as an AE, and by the end of 1970 he had become general sales manager at WCBS-TV. He later served as VP of sales for the nationwide CBS Television Stations Division, and eventually was named the VP and controller of CBS Inc.
After serving as executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group, in 1977 he was named its president and chairman.
Despite CBS’ dominance in network television, the company still was faced with a variety of challenges. When Jankowski stepped into the corner office he had to deal with the aftermath of the network’s “Winner Take All” tennis program, which turned out not to be winner-take-all. As a result the Federal Communications Commission determined CBS had betrayed the public’s trust and therefore placed its owned-and-operated station licenses in jeopardy. “We took the issue to our outside counsel and they said the thing to do was apologize for the mistake the previous people had made. I went on the air and made a big apology to the public and we managed to hold on to those stations.”
Jankowski also managed to keep Dan Rather in the Evening News anchor chair even though ABC had made a strong attempt to lure him away. “I worked on that one pretty hard,” Jankowski recalls. “Not only did he have the trust of the American public but we also needed an anchorman who could deal with all of our affiliate stations—and respect him as the salesman of the Evening News.”
After a well-documented shake-up throughout the corporate ranks, Jankowski left CBS in 1989. “It was a great feeling of relief, and I had the good fortune of having a great transition,” he said in an oral history interview recorded by Fordham University Library. “MSU, where I did my graduate work, asked if I would teach a graduate course for a fall semester, so my wife and I went back to Lansing and I taught a communications class. It was spectacular. The kids were stimulating, it was intellectually challenging for me to be responding to their questions, and I had a chance to see Big 10 Football.”
It was out of that experience that some MSU professors encouraged Jankowski to write a book. The result was Television, Today and Tomorrow: It Won’t Be What You Think, published by the Oxford University Press in 1995.
That book, written with David Fuchs, posits that broadcast networks are not the dinosaurs many critics make them out to be. Indeed, Jankowski suggested then, as he does now, that the network business model not only is strong, but necessary. “If the network business didn’t exist, someone would have to create it,” he says. “If they’re well-run they won’t go away. It’s a hit business. All they have to do is make sure they put the best product on the air and put out the best news and information. There are many, many more places to go these days, but as long as the networks continue to maintain their standards they’ll continue to be the dominant source of entertainment and information.”
Noting that HBO and Netflix have made strong competitive entrées into original programming, Jankowski says, “There is a different model. It’s paid through subscriptions, and they don’t have to depend on advertising and circulation.” Nor do they create and produce the 20-plus hours of original entertainment programming each week the way a broadcast network does, he explains.
Jankowski points to the success of Fox in the 1990s as validation that the broadcast network model is viable and profitable. Using the same business model as CBS, NBC, and ABC, Fox was able to harness the power of numerous independent TV stations that were running old movies and off-network programming and create a fourth network—pilfering the Storer TV stations from CBS in the process. “Not only did this hurt us, but it enabled Fox to pick up a lot of other stations in other markets,” he says.
The biggest challenge in network television today is the continued increase in competition, coupled with more and more avenues of distribution, Jankowski observes. “There is a finite audience out there and all these channels aren’t going to grow and prosper because there’s not enough audience to satisfy them all. Your circulation determines your income, and your income determines how much money you can spend on producing product. The networks survive because they put up the biggest bucks for the most expensive programs.”
While digital is an excellent distribution method, it’s just that—a distribution platform. “You still need the product, and digitalization allows the network programs to find their distribution in other forms,” Jankowski explains. “In a sense it increases their circulation—the quality stuff, at least. It allows them to find a home other than just over-the-air broadcasting.”
In addition to his ongoing work in the communications industry, Jankowski is chairman emeritus of the American Film Institute, where he has served as a Board member since 1977 and currently sits on the Executive Committee. He is afFellow and member of the board of directors of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and also serves as a fellow and member of the board of directors of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Outside the communications industry he serves as a director of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, co-chairman of St. Vincent’s College, and a trustee of St. Vincent’s Medical Center.
Jankowski has established a communications scholarship at his alma mater, Canisius College, and the Gene Jankowski Scholarship at Michigan State University College of Communication Arts. Additionally, he is the recipient of the B’Nai Brith International-Communications Industry Award, the Southern Baptist-Distinguished Communications Medal, and a Humanitarian Award bestowed by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Now Jankowski can add the honor of being named a Giant of American Broadcasting and Electronic Arts—a distinction he says is the pinnacle of his career. “When I was a kid I wanted to play for the New York Yankees because I considered them the best baseball team in the country,” he says. “When I got into broadcasting I considered CBS to be the best broadcasting organization in the country, and I still do. I felt I was playing with a major league team that was the best at its time, and now getting the Giant award for it sort of makes me a member of the All Star team.”
The Library of American Broadcasting will honor this year’s Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts at a luncheon today at New York’s Gotham Hall. For tickets, please contact Joyce Tudyrn at [email protected]. The luncheon is presented by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. TVNewsCheck is publishing these profiles as an in-kind contribution to the library. You may read other profiles in the series by clicking here.