Robert Sarnoff,78, who helped usher in the era of color television and aired the first televised presidential debate while heading NBC, died Saturday.
The cause was cancer, said his spokesman, Joe Clark. Mr. Sarnoff had been ill for several months, he added.
Mr. Sarnoff dedicated the first all-color television station, Chicago's NBC-TV, in 1956, four months after he became NBC's president, Mr. Clark said. He stepped down in 1965.
"We are committed to color and intend to make the transition as fast as possible," Mr. Sarnoff said soon after taking the network's helm.
He also was credited with inviting Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy to the first televised presidential debates in 1960. Three years later, the "Huntley-Brinkley Report," a nightly newscast, was extended from 15 minutes to 30.
During Mr. Sarnoff's reign, NBC launched its weekend news program "Monitor," with features, interviews and entertainment.
Under Mr. Sarnoff, NBC was a pioneer in racially integrating television. It was the first network to have a program starring a black singer, Nat King Cole. In 1965, Bill Cosby became the first black actor with a leading role in an hourlong prime-time series when he was signed for the series "I Spy."
Born in 1918, Mr. Sarnoff was a scion of one of broadcasting's first families. His father, radio pioneer David Sarnoff, built the Radio Corporation of America into a corporate monolith.
Robert Sarnoff, who graduated from Harvard University in 1939, was chairman at RCA from 1970 to 1975.
He is survived by his wife, Anna Moffo, an opera singer; three daughters, Rosita and, Serena Benenson and Claudia Parrot; and two brothers, Edward and Thomas Sarnoff.
Pub Date: 2/24/97