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Robert W. Sarnoff

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Biography

Robert W. Sarnoff was the eldest son of David Sarnoff who succeeded his father as chairman of RCA Corporation. He led RCA through a rocky tenure in the 1960s and early 1970s that saw the diversification of the storied electronics company.

Sarnoff was born in New York in 1918. After attending private schools, including Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1939. Attempting to escape his father’s shadow, he began a law degree at Columbia University but was soon drawn to public service as World War II began. He worked in the broadcasting section of the Office of Strategic Services and then became a commissioned officer in the Navy, seeing active duty in the South Pacific.

After the war, he worked in the magazine and newspaper business as a publisher’s assistant. He joined his father’s company in 1948, working as an accountant executive in RCA’s subsidiary television station, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). He rose up the ranks at the station, becoming an expert in programming that ranged from the “Howdy Doody Show” to the NBC Symphony. He commissioned an opera in 1953, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti, that was the first commercial color broadcast.

Sarnoff followed his father’s long-held wish that he should succeed him as RCA’s head. Robert Sarnoff became president of RCA in 1965, chief executive in 1967, and chairman in 1970 when his father became seriously ill.

Sarnoff introduced significant changes to the company, beginning with the corporate logo and mascot. Gone were the lightening bolt and Nipper, the black-and-white terrier peering into a Victrola horn. Now, the company would be known simply as “RCA,” three squared letters free of decoration.

Sarnoff also expanded RCA’s reach into the computer industry, attempting to take on International Business Machines in the early 1970s. The effort was a failure, forcing RCA to take a $490 million write-off of the entire enterprise.

Most importantly, Sarnoff embraced the trend towards conglomeration influencing other corporate leaders in the 1960s. RCA acquired publisher Random House, rental car dealer Hertz, rug maker Coronet, a real estate company, and Banquet Foods, a large chicken farming enterprise.

As profits declined, Sarnoff was pressured to leave the company in 1975. He was criticized for creating a company whose parts were more valuable than the whole. Indeed, RCA became a ripe takeover target in the 1980s. RCA merged with General Electric in 1985, ending its identity as anything more than a brand name.