Was David Sarnoff an entrepreneur or a cunning corporate warrior? In some respects, the broadcasting pioneer was a little of both.
Born in a small village in Belarus, Sarnoff came to America as a young boy and began selling newspapers to support his family. He was soon running a whole newsstand, and then he began working in the telegraph business. As a young man, he famously claimed that he was a hero telegraph operator who kept in touch with operators aboard the Titanic on the night that the ship sank. It was a bold PR claim and one that was thoroughly debunked—but only years after Sarnoff had moved onto bigger and better things.
From the telegraph business, Sarnoff eventually made the leap into radio and then into TV. His great gift as a businessperson was the ability to see a new technology coming long before it arrived, and to take steps to make sure he was ready to profit from it. He was also adept at figuring out ways to combine content and distribution under one roof. He was a tough (some would say ruthless) competitor, a shrewd (again, some would say ruthless) operator in the legal world of intellectual property, an aggressive lobbyist for his industry, and a creative dealmaker when it came to mergers and acquisitions. He also pushed forward new technologies that delighted his networks' audiences. Among other advances, he saw very early the appetite Americans had for sports broadcasts. He oversaw the development of the morning and late-night formats (Today and the Tonight Show) that are still with us. And he was one of the earliest advocates of broadcasting in color.
But if launching a company is the litmus test used to define entrepreneurship, then Sarnoff falls short of the mark. He rose through the ranks of American Marconi, General Electric, and other companies, placing himself near decision makers so that he was able to grab a leadership position at a start-up radio network when that business model first took off. When TV was developed in 1926, he pulled the same trick. As his official biography with the Museum of Broadcast Communications notes: 'While later described by others as the founder of both the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Sarnoff was neither. These misconceptions were perpetuated because Sarnoff's later accomplishments were so plentiful that any myth was believable.'
Sarnoff is further derided by those who believe that he tried to steal the technology behind the television from Philo T. Farnsworth, a genius from the West who fought to hold onto his patents even as Sarnoff's NBC popularized television. (The case against Sarnoff was made in a 2002 book by the journalist Evan I Schwartz called The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television.)
Still, if Sarnoff was not always the first person to have an idea, he was relentless when it came to turning that idea into a business. And he was equally relentless when it came to expanding that organization ever outward. He demonstrated the ability for popularizing innovation for profit throughout his career.
In 1966, no less an authority on the industry than William S. Paley—Sarnoff's archrival and occasional partner in crime—described Sarnoff as 'broadcasting's most imaginative prophet.' If we rate imagination more highly than inventiveness on the list of entrepreneurs' most important characteristics, than Sarnoff may yet stake his claim to being one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th Century.