John Backe; executive led CBS to top of prime time

John D. Backe, 83, of Gladwyne, the CBS chief executive who led the network to reclaim its top prime-time TV ranking in the 1970s, only to be forced out in a power struggle, died Thursday, Oct. 22, of heart failure at Waverly Heights.

Mr. Backe took the reins of CBS in 1976 and began making marketing and technological changes designed to reverse the drop in network revenue and the exit of programming executives.

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John D. Backe

He restructured the company and pressed for expansion into cable television, TV movies, and video, but the moves put him at odds with network founder William S. Paley, who was slow to embrace the new areas, according to the New York Times.

After a showdown with the 78-year-old Paley, Mr. Backe, then 47, resigned May 8, 1980. Since Mr. Backe was the heir apparent to Paley, the resignation stunned TV insiders.

"The industry was evolving rapidly, with cable and the new technology, and he didn't understand it. He resisted a lot of the things we wanted to do," Mr. Backe told the Times.

Paley later conceded he mishandled the Backe matter, but others believed Mr. Backe may have failed to cultivate his temperamental boss, the Times wrote.

In 1981, an undaunted Mr. Backe founded the Backe Group, a management company in the broadcast, communications-technology, and publishing fields. Originally in New York, it is now in Wayne.

Over the years, he also owned and operated a TV production firm, a mass-marketing paperback publishing company, a magazine publishing company, and a Radnor-based advertising agency - Backe Digital Brand Marketing.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Mr. Backe - pronounced BAH-kee - was a marketing major at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and later received a master's of business administration from Xavier University, in Cincinnati.

His undergraduate education was partly financed by an ROTC scholarship. After graduating, Mr. Backe trained as a fighter pilot and was transferred to the Strategic Air Command as a B-47 bomber pilot. He flew for three years.

Later, he said the experience matured him, according to Miami University's alumni bulletin.

"I went through some hairy experiences, so I guess maybe very early in life I learned a lot about myself," he said. "Some men go through life, and they're never really challenged, or they step away from some real challenges, and they never understand what it's all about."

Following Air Force active duty, Mr. Backe spent nine years with General Electric Co. From there he went to the marketing department of Silver Burdett, a textbook publisher. Within two years, he had risen to become its president.

In 1972, Mr. Backe was recruited to lead the publishing group of CBS. In three years, he increased sales from $150 million a year to $400 million, according to a bio released by Beta Theta Pi in 2005, when he was awarded the fraternity's Oxford Cup.

His publishing record caught the eye of Paley.

As head of CBS, Mr. Backe created a strategic plan, an in-house management school, and established the sports division before leaving the network for other ventures, some with his son, John E. Backe.

"He was an inspiration to me, professionally and personally," said his son. "It was a pleasure to be his business partner for many years."

Mr. Backe was married to Katherine Elliott. The two lived in Villanova and spent winters in Bonita Springs, Fla. She died last year.

Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Kimberly Marr; six grandchildren; a great-grandson; and a sister.

Services are to be private.

bcook@phillynews.com

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