Manatee County retiree worked as president of ABC Television Network: a Q&A

jsalman@bradenton.comJuly 18, 2012 

MANATEE -- James Duffy remembers the day when the first TV sets were for sale.

The folks in his industry were at odds over whether that strange flickering box would become a short-lived fad or change the world of broadcasting forever.

Turns out Duffy made a pretty memorable career of the invention, heading one the nation's Big Three TV networks for a longer tenure than anybody who has ever held the job.

Now retired near Lakewood Ranch in East Manatee, Duffy spent 15 years as president of the ABC Television Network at a time when the Vietnam War, civil rights movement and race to the moon greatly molded America's future.

Duffy led the team that ballooned ABC's sales from $245 million in 1963 to more than $3 billion in 1984 -- also increasing ratings, affiliated stations and children's programming.

The Illinois native worked in almost every position in TV and radio during his 46-year career, awarded in 1989 with the broadcast industry's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association of Broadcasters.

He has authored two books, one based on the adventures of his Jack Russell Terriers and the other, a memoir of his life.

Q: How did you get involved in broadcasting?

A: After the Army, I attended Beloit College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin near the Illinois border. At the time, I didn't even know how to pronounce it, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. That was when I really started writing and speaking. I went to work for the Beloit College News Service. That really started my career in broadcasting.

Beloit College at the time decided to really up tempo who it was. The new president decided we're going to put this little school on the map. One of the things he did was hire a well-known basketball coach. It became a basketball power in its own right.

The school then started the Beloit College News Service, in essence, a publicity department. The service consisted of covering all of the sporting events and other activities at the college. We would write articles and send them to the different newspapers. The result was we got $3 a story, and at the end of the week we'd get a check for $300, so we would split it, go down to the victory pub and figure out what to do next.

Q: What was your first job in broadcasting?

A: I was a journalism major, and while I was still in school, I went to work for a new station in town -- an FM station. Of course, there were no FM receivers at the time, it was brand new, but it was a way for me to learn the business. I did everything from disc jockeying and sales to floor sweeping and the rest of it. We were really ahead of our time.

Q: How did you make your way to the top at ABC?

A: I started with ABC as a publicity writer in 1949. I was at a station in Chicago, when it merged with United Paramount Theaters in the early 1950s. For about six months there, we had two stations in Chicago. It was very awkward. Then they scheduled a Black Friday and laid off 36 workers. It was a very sad day. I was one of only two that survived.

They offered me a job as an account executive at the radio network. I never wanted to be a salesman. I sold shoes with my dad when I was a kid, and I didn't like it. I struggled for about a year, but then it all came together, and I actually had some of the best sales they had ever had so they also asked me to come to New York and be the manager of sales ... The radio network was about to be pulled, and somehow in three years, we were able to turn a profit.

The TV network came to me, and ABC at the time was the third best network. We had fewer shows and fewer stars. There was a joke that we were fourth in the three-network race.

In 1970, I became president of ABC Network for 15 years. We went after other NBC and CBS stations and brought them to ABC. It worked, and we got over 200 stations and a lot of new shows In 1985, Capital Cities bought ABC for $3.5 billion, and they had their own team.

I had been doing a lot of public service work, as my work as head of the network was pretty much done in my eyes. I was ready to move on. They moved me to communications manager, and I ran our literacy public service campaign. I retired in 1989, but my contract gave me six more years as a consultant and national spokesperson for the literacy program.

Q: What did your job entail as the president of ABC?

A: You try and put an overall winning image on your network, who you are, where you're going and try to convince the marketplace and viewers that you're a class organization and they should be with you and not NBC.

We tried to be open with all of our stations, no secrets. In those days the stations and networks were at odds. We both needed each other, but they thought the networks were screwing them, so you had to balance that too.

There was also all of the departments like sports and business. It was difficult but that's what we did.

It was always about your ratings, and if your numbers fell, you were in trouble.

Q: Why did you decide to retire in the Bradenton-Sarasota area?

A: In the late 1970s, my business partner and I bought a place in the British Virgin Islands. Little by little, we expanded it from a two-bedroom vacation home to a four-bedroom place with a pool out front and a deck. I kept that for 29 years, but absentee ownership is difficult.

I thought, how do I replace that southern exposure? Where's a place in paradise that's easier to go to?

My lady friend's parents had a place in Boca Grande, and we would come up to Sarasota.

We love it, and that's why I came. I moved down here in 2008. I really love the feel of Sarasota. The people are very much in step with what I did in my life.

Q: Now that you're retired, how do you spend your days?

A: We still travel a lot, and I like to write. I also joined the Florida Broadcast Club when I came down here.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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