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June 18, 2010

Television Executive Robert J. Wussler Passes at 73

The innovative exec spent many years in the news and sports divisions of CBS as well as a successful stint with Ted Turner.

Robert J. Wussler, a renowned television executive, died June 5, 2010, at his home in Westport, Connecticut. He was 73.

In the 1070s, Wussler served as senior executive for the CBS news and sports divisions and president of the CBS Television Network. After that, he became the top aide to broadcasting titan Ted Turner in the expansion of his cable TV operations.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Wussler, began his CBS career in the network’s mailroom after graduating from Seton Hall University in 1957.

He first distinguished himself in as executive producer for news, and later became head of sports coverage. In the later position, he made changes that infused televised athletic events with elements of entertainment programming, such as live music and comedic performance.

Wussler became president of the CBS Television Network in April 1976, but returned to the sports division in the fall of 1977 during a reorganization.

In March 1978, he announced his resignation from CBS, effective a month later, in order to start an independent production company to be financed by CBS.

His departure came on the eve of a Federal Communications Commission meeting to determine whether to penalize the network for a series of specially promoted tennis matches billed as “winner take all” when, in fact, the players had been paid large fees whether they won or lost.

The F.C.C. determined that CBS had deliberately misled the public in connection with the players’ fees — Jimmy Connors won all four matches in what was billed as the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis — and had violated standards for promotional considerations involving the hotels hosting the matches. In July 1978, it announced that it would punish the network by shortening the length of a license renewal for one of the five television stations that CBS owned.

Wussler denied having any specific knowledge of the financial arrangements for the tennis series, and when he resigned from CBS, he said his departure was unrelated to the inquiry.

In 1980, Ted Turner hired Wussler to help run the fledgling Turner Broadcasting System, and he guided its international expansion as senior executive vice president.

During Wussler’s tenure, TBS expanded from a superstation known mostly for its coverage of Atlanta Braves baseball games to a diverse company that included CNN, TNT network and the MGM film library. In 1986, Wussler helped create the Goodwill Games between American and Soviet athletes, co-sponsored by TBS and Soviet officials.

In 1989 Wussler left Turner Broadcasting to become president and chief executive of Comsat Video Enterprises, where he remained until 1992.

He is survived by six children and six grandchildren.

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