In "Limping on Water," TV exec Phil Beuth '54 writes a memoir and a corporate history
The story of the “minnow that swallowed the whale” is well known in the broadcast industry and beyond.
Capital Cities Communications, which began in 1955 with one small UHF TV station in Albany, N.Y. and a young film editor named Phil Beuth ’54, grew into an empire that in 1986 would purchase the entire ABC network and put Beuth at the helm of one of its largest divisions.
CapCities – known for savvy hires, entrepreneurial spirit, ethical management and community service – has been a case study at the nation’s top business schools. Investor Warren Buffett called the company “the gold standard for ethical corporate behavior.”
Beuth was the first person hired by Tom Murphy, the CapCities founder who apparently saw in the Union grad the same diligence and zeal that led trustee Frank Bailey to cover Beuth’s tuition.
Meeting Bailey in the financier’s cavernous wood-paneled Manhattan office, filled with Union memorabilia, is one of the stories Beuth tells in his new memoir, Limping on Water. “He was so excited, I practically expected him to break out into the school song!” Beuth writes. “That interview is eternally etched in my memory as … the first of many kindnesses extended to me by people I hardly knew.”
Beuth describes his time at Union as “one of those ‘best time and place’ experiences.” But the “unsophisticated, flat-broke, 17-year-old” was nervous about fitting in. “I knew full well that I was in over my head, punching above my weight class, but that just made the challenge more exciting.”
Rising to the challenge is a theme that appears throughout the book. Beuth lost his father when he was four years old. He and a brother were raised by a single mother and a grandfather who ran a small junk business in working class Staten Island. He was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy which gave him an awkward gait. (The title of the book comes from a CapCities inside joke. After Murphy lavished Beuth with praise, another exec remarked, “you’d think Philly Beuth limped on water.”)
Young Beuth was a quick and determined learner who created opportunities that forged lifelong connections. As a kid, he met the legendary sports broadcaster Red Barber by winning a contest to predict baseball standings. When the youngster divulged that he aspired to follow in his hero’s footsteps, the announcer told him to lose his New York accent.
Four years later, while a student at Union, Beuth was working as a page at WRGB TV. When he noticed a teletype announcing a visit to the GE plant by Red Barber and actor Ronald Reagan, Beuth inserted himself as tour guide. This time, Barber teased the young page, in his Southern drawl: “You still have a ways to go.” It was a refrain Beuth would hear from his hero for decades.
Beuth writes that he was never a star pupil at Union, partly because of the need to balance his studies with his long hours as a TV page. But the English major credits Union and Profs. Carl Neimeyer and Harold Blodgett for cultivating his talent.
“The Union College experience helped me feel confident, complete and ready to compete in the marketplace of ideas,” he writes. “The education I received in terms of language skills, appreciation of literature and the art of effective communication was remarkably valuable, and I will always remain in awe of my alma mater.”
After Union, Beuth earned a master’s in TV production from Syracuse University. Starting with his first job in 1955, at CapCities’ first station in Albany, Beuth eagerly tried his hand at everything in the emerging industry, rising through the ranks – film director, public affairs, producer, promotion manager, sales manager.
As the company grew, Beuth took on larger assignments. In the late-60s, he was named sales manager, then VP and general manager for the CapCities affiliate in Huntington, W.V. In 1971, he was named president and general manager of KFSN TV in Fresno, Calif. Four years later, he was president and GM of WKBW TV, the CCC station in Buffalo. At each stop, Beuth’s stations were audience leaders.
The pinnacle of his career came in 1985 when Capital Cities purchased ABC. Beuth was named president of morning and late night entertainment, and headed the ABC flagship, Good Morning America. After a restructure led by Beuth, GMA overtook NBC’s Today show as the top morning broadcast and won an Emmy.
Along the way, Beuth dabbled in other projects including a TV production for the re-election campaign of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a sales promotion that brought 250 clients on a day trip to Bermuda, and a fundraiser for cerebral palsy that created a service center in Fresno. In Buffalo, he created several fundraisers for the Children’s Hospital. At ABC, he created the first series of prime time network specials devoted to AIDS.
Beuth has worked with hundreds of talents, including Sir Paul McCartney, Regis Philbin, Burt Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton. Among the many who credit him for promoting their careers are Charlie Gibson, Joan Lunden, Arsenio Hall, Jack Hanna, Ted Knight and Wolfgang Puck.
Through his foundation, he and his family have supported the medical, scientific and educational communities with a range of projects: water wells in Ethiopia, battered women’s shelters, scholarship programs and a community center for children of the migrant worker community in Immokalee, Fla. At Union, the former trustee has supported the renovation of Schaffer Library and the renovation of Beuth House, the Minerva in the former home of Psi Upsilon, the benefactor’s fraternity.
Echoing Capital Cities’ corporate philosophy of serving the community, Beuth says, “When you do well, you should do good.”
Of the book’s success, Beuth says, “I’m flabbergasted.” Thanks in part to endorsements by Philbin and Buffett, a second printing is under way.