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Taft and Great American

Overview

This profile considers the former Taft broadcasting, production and theme park group.


It covers -

  • Overview
  • The Tafts
  • Taft Broadcasting
  • Great American and Citicasters
  • Studies

Overview

Taft is of interest for its Australian involvement (the Taft-Hardie joint venture was the basis of the Southern Star production house acquired by Southern Cross broadcasting) and because its broadcasting operations ended up with Clear Channel, Viacom and Fox.

That genealogy is complicated by name changes - there were two successive Taft broadcasting groups - and acquisition/unloading of properties.

The Tafts

The group takes its name from the Cincinnati-based Taft family.

Alphonso Taft (1810-1891) served as secretary of war and attorney general under President Ulysses S Grant. Son William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was a Superior court judge in Ohio from 1887 to 1890, Judge of the federal Court of Appeals 1892 to 1900, Governor of the Philippine Islands from 1900 to 1904 and US Secretary of War from 1904 to 1908. He was elected president in 1908, losing a bid for reelection in 1913 after falling out with predecessor Teddy Roosevelt. He became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921. William's brother Horace Dutton Taft established the Ivy League prep school bearing his name in 1890.

Brother Charles Phelps Taft (1843-1929) married pig iron heiress Anna Sinton, served in Congress, became owner and editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star in 1879 (later acquired by Scripps' The Cincinnati Post). The family accumulated major interests in utilities, property and ranching (notably the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company in Texas). His nephew Hulbert (1877-1959) and grand-nephew Dudley saw expansion into broadcasting.

William's son Robert Alphonso Taft (1889-1953) - 'Mr Republican' or merely Mr UltraConservative - served as the Republican leader in the Senate, unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination for president in 1940, 1948, and 1952. His brother Charles (1897-1983) edited the Times-Star and oversaw the paper's expansion into radio, initially as part of the Mutual network. Robert's son Robert Taft Jr. served in the US Congress in the 1960s and 1970s; his son in turn served as Ohio governor.

Taft Broadcasting

Taft Broadcasting began as Radio Cincinnati and Taft Radio, later becoming Taft Radio & Television and then Taft Broadcasting Company. It commenced with radio stations in the Cincinnati, leveraging the Times-Star. In 1957 it expanded into production and distribution through acquisition of Hanna-Barbera Productions. That house had been founded by William Hanna (1910-2001) and Joseph Barbera (1911-2006) after closure of MGM's cartoon production operations. Taft subsequently acquired World Vision video production and distribution.

In 1964 Taft acquired Transcontinent Television Corporation, whjich had originated as Buffalo-based WGR Corporation with the backing by members of the Goodyear, Schoelkoph and Knox families in 1954. It centred on the WGR television station and radio station(launched 1922); WGR subsequently acquired stations in Kansas City, Harrisonburg, Bakersfield and other markets.

In 1969 Taft bought the Cincinnati Coney Island amusement park (unrelated to the facility of the same name in New York). It then established the Kings Island amusement park north of Cincinnati; Coney Island closed in 1971. In 1975 the group opened the Kings Dominion park as a joint venture (Family Leisure Centers) with Top Value Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Kroger supermarket chain. The joint venture was dissolved in 1980, with Kings Dominion becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Taft. In the following year the group took a major stake in the Canada's Wonderland park near Toronto.

Taft Broadcasting executives engineered a management buyout of the theme park division in 1983. That MBO resulted in Kings Entertainment Company (KECO) encompassing Kings Dominion, Carowinds (Charlotte), Kings Island and Canada's Wonderland. KECO subsequently purchased the Marriott group's theme park arm.

Great American

As with many media groups, where expansion and intergenerational change dilutes the equity of the founding families, by the mid-1980s the Taft family no longer owned a majority of Taft Broadcasting stock. Larger shareholders, notably the Bass Brothers (major investors in Disney) were restive.

Dudley Taft Jr, son of former chairman Dudley Taft Sr, lost control of the group in a hostile US$1.5 billion takeover by Great American Broadcasting (aka Great American Communications and Great American Television & Radio). The latter was controlled by colourful financier and junk bond aficionado Carl Lindner. Great American's broadcast operations were rebadged as the Citicasters network.

Lindner's American Financial had acquired the Cincinnati Enquirer from Scripps in 1968, selling it to another Lindner company - Combined Communications (billboards, papers, radio, tv) - in 1969. Combined merged with Gannett in 1979. Lindner had acquired control in 1984 of Chiquita Brands, the major agribusiness group formerly known as United Fruit (aka El Pulpo). United had been a founder of RCA in 1919. The Lindner family stake was substantially reduced when Chiquita sought bankruptcy protection at the beginning of this decade, amid controversy over whether donations to political parties had influenced US trade policy.

Dudley S Taft Jr established a second but much smaller Taft Broadcasting.

Great American stuggled with debt from the Taft takeover and was progressively dismantled. In 1994 it went into Chapter 11 (with a that reorganisation that wiped out the holdings of a majority of shareholders) and was renamed Citicasters Inc. At that time it owned and operated two television stations, five AM radio stations and 14 FM radio stations.

Shareholder suits alleged that Lindner had used Great American to acquire much of the company's bonds prior tothe bankruptcy, leaving the Lindners and American Financial in firm control of Citicasters. Business Week commented that

"company filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission show that Lindner repeatedly tapped the cash-strapped Great American for management fees and huge dividends and shuffled the company's assets to other Lindner affiliates."

Lindner had used US$670 million in bank debt and US$560 million in junk bonds underwritten by Drexel Burnham Lambert (around 14 times cash flow) to acquire 70% of the company's common stock. A year after the acquisition Great American posted operating income of only US$44 million, around US$100 million less than what was needed to meet interest payments. American Financial and affiliates bought US$80 million of Taft Broadcasting property, including its headquarters and a New Orleans hotel.

Ted Turner acquired Great American's cartoon production and distribution arm (including Hanna-Barbera), which thus ended up as part of the Time Warner conglomerate. World Vision Distribution was acquired by the Spelling group, in turn purchased by Paramount and thus part of Viacom.

Great American's broadcasting stations were acquired by New World (and thence to Murdoch as the base of the Fox Network) and by Jacor (thence to Clear Channel).

Tribune acquired Philadelphia television station WHPL from Dudley S Taft Jr's Taft Broadcasting; he became a Tribune director in 1996. Other interests included property development and stakes in a range of companies, notably US Playing Card.

Studies

There has been no major English-language study of Taft Broadcasting, in contrast to literature on the family.

Salient works are Ishbel Ross' An American Family: The Tafts, 1678 to 1964 (Westport: Greenwood 1987), James Patterson's Mr Republican: A Biography of Robert A Taft (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1972), Donald Anderson's William Howard Taft: A Conservative's Conception of the Presidency (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1973) and Alpheus Mason's William Howard Taft: Chief Justice (New York: Simon & Schuster 1965).

James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election That Changed the Country (New York: Simon & Schuster 2004), Judith Anderson's William Howard Taft, an Intimate History (New York: Norton 1981) and Carl Anthony's Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era (New York: Morrow 2005) do not substantially adjust perceptions that the president suffered from a charisma bypass. The Presidency of William Howard Taft (Lawrence: Uni Press of Kansas 1973) by Paolo Coletta for us was unengaging.

For Lindner see in particular Connie Bruck's The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham & the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders (New York: Penguin 1989), Nicholas von Hoffman's Capitalist Fools (New York: Doubleday 1992), The New Financial Capitalists: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & the Creation of Corporate Value (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1998) by George Baker & George Smith, Merchants of Debt: KKR and the Mortgaging of American Business (New York: Basic Books 1992) by George Anders and Marcelo Bucheli's Bananas & Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000 (New York: New York Uni Press 2005).

For Hanna-Barbera see Joseph Barbera's autobiography My Life in Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century (New York: Turner 1994), The Art of Hanna-Barbera: Fifty Years of Creativity (New York: Studio 1998) by Ted Sennett, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin 1998) by Michael Mallory and Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (New York: McGraw-Hill 1980) by Leonard Maltin.