ABC & the Arledge legacy

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

No single fingerprint left on television has been greater than that of Roone Arledge during his reigns as president of ABC Sports (1968-1986) and ABC News (1977-1997).
He’s given couch potatoes an armchair pass to obscure competitions and highly personalized Olympic Games. He’s bought them a seat on the 50-yard line at a prime-time football game and a whole array of devices-and personalities-with which to play disputatious Monday morning quarterbacks during “Monday Night Football.” He’s given them stunning coverage of the Summer Games and the sudden terror in Munich in 1972. He’s given them a late-nightly news primer and discussion on events that are often world shaking. He’s brought antagonistic world leaders together on camera.
He’s made household names of journalists who have made headlines by just signing their names to new bigger-ticket contracts. He’s made careers; he’s made history-sometimes by helping history happen.
And in a real sense, he’s very much responsible for building a large portion of ABC. Few recall today that ABC was once derided as a network that could have ended the Vietnam War in 13 weeks if it had scheduled it at 8 o’clock on Friday nights. By the time Mr. Arledge left ABC News five years ago, sports and news at the network were must-see TV and a money magnet.
And now Mr. Arledge, 71, who has been given practically every accolade the TV business has to offer, can add another feather to his cap.
He has been selected to receive the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Barbara Walters is scheduled to present the award to him Sept. 10 at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards at New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel.
And how fitting that Betsy Arledge, one of Mr. Arledge’s four children by first wife Joan, is nominated for a news Emmy this year for writing an episode of “Nova.”

And how fitting that Ms. Walters will present Mr. Arledge with his award. She is one of many whose lives would have been very different but for Mr. Arledge. Back in the ’70s, as the newly named ABC News president, Mr. Arledge helped Ms. Walters, who was being given the cold shoulder by “World News Tonight” co-anchor Harry Reasoner, gain a reputation for getting the big gets.
Another whose life was dramatically changed by Mr. Arledge is Jim McKay, who did not meet Mr. Arledge until he was offered an opportunity to anchor a new summer replacement show that would, Mr. Arledge told him, “involve a certain amount of travel,” not to mention a lot of satellite time.
It was 1961 and Mr. Arledge had only the year before jumped from NBC to ABC, whose sports division essentially consisted of Ed Scherick’s production company. At NBC, where he had been a stage manager, producer and director for more than six years, Mr. Arledge produced everything from the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to a Saturday morning show starring Shari Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop.
Forty-one years and more than
4 million miles later, Mr. McKay is himself looking back on a storied career and a friendship that took off with “Wide World of Sports.” Then in 1972 Mr. McKay really became a first-rate newsman when he anchored ABC’s live coverage of the Munich Olympics, which was produced by Mr. Arledge and covered the shocking terrorist incident that left 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team and five Palestinian terrorists dead.
If it weren’t for Mr. Arledge, Mr. McKay said recently, “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, probably.”
Mr. Arledge quickly began putting his first indelible marks on the medium with a soon-to-be-legendary proposal to Mr. Scherick outlining how to improve NCAA football coverage: “We are going to take the viewer to the game! … We will utilize every production technique … to heighten the viewer’s feeling of actually sitting in the stands and participating personally in the excitement and color. In short, we are going to add show business to sports!”
“He had a great sense of what the audience would respond to in terms of contemporary visual presentation, in terms of what they were seeing and hearing and the pace of it,” said Fred Pierce, who was rising through the research and sales ranks while Mr. Arledge was buying sports rights and production toys and building ABC Sports into arguably the most powerful and profitable sports division ever.
In 1970, he gave ABC its first enduring prime-time hit, “Monday Night Football,” making stars of a lightning rod named Howard Cosell, a backup named Frank Gifford (who replaced Keith Jackson in the second season) and a cornpone philosopher and ex-Dallas Cowboy quarterback named Don Meredith.

His proteges became stars off-camera as well. “Monday Night Football” executive producer Don Ohlmeyer would take NBC from third place to first place in prime time during seven years as its West Coast president. Dick Ebersol, who first worked for Mr. Arledge as a researcher, would help launch “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, where he has been top sports executive since 1989. Bob Iger, part of Mr. Arledge’s sports management team, would rise to become head of ABC and chief operating officer of The Walt Disney Co.
“I think you can make a case that ABC might never have emerged from the real depths of desperation they were in, because as the ’60s ended, they had no real meaningful broadcast success,” Mr. Ebersol said. “They had a fourth-rate news division in a three-network environment. And as the ’70s were to begin, Roone was the only person in the country to believe that sports was worthy of anything other than what was called the ‘weekend afternoon ghetto.’
“Forget about television, he changed the sports business in America by successfully persuading Leonard Goldenson to let him have the money to put ‘Monday Night Football’ together. The Olympics in prime time in Mexico in ’68 gave Roone the assurance in his own gut that sports would work in prime time. Then ‘Monday Night Football’ in 1970, and then after that the whole sports business changes. You never saw sports anywhere on television other than Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The money in sports was very small. The average pay of a baseball player was $30,000 or $35,000 as the ’70s began and what is it today, $2.5 million average per player? But Roone did all that because he took sports out of its own little corner room and put it in the living room. And that really set ABC up, because suddenly they had one night of the week where they were ensured of being gangbusters.”
Mr. Arledge would produce 10 Olympics-using “up close and personal” athlete profiles to heighten the drama. No Games were as pivotal as the Munich Games, where his legendary calm-and gut instincts-were on display in the control room and around the world as ABC covered the terrorist attack.
“Roone wanted to make sure he got it right,” said Howard Katz, now president of ABC Sports but then a 22-year-old production assistant. “He better than anybody understood the enormity of the story that was unfolding and ABC’s responsibility in telling that story. The one thing he wanted to make absolutely certain of was that we got it right.”
“That’s why they made him president of ABC News,” said Sean McManus, now president of CBS Sports and then just a 17-year-old on another trip with his dad, Jim McKay.
Mr. Pierce said, “[Munich] was the first time that I noticed Roone, not only his ability to televise sports but his journalistic aspirations. “At the time, I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it,”
But that would soon change. Mr. Pierce became president of ABC Television in 1974. Two years later he lured Ms. Walters from NBC to ABC with a groundbreaking million-dollar-a-year contract. The deal included four entertainment specials a year, which, Mr. Pierce recalled, “turned out to be extremely profitable and probably more than paid for her whole deal.” In 1977 Mr. Pierce offered Mr. Arledge the presidency of ABC News. Mr. Arledge’s mission: to make ABC News No. 1.
Purists and members of the old guard inside and outside ABC huffed and puffed that Mr. Arledge would l
ower news standards.
“He was derided when he took over the news department,” recalled Mr. McKay. “I happened to be at Harry Reasoner’s swimming pool one Sunday and another guy, who shall be nameless but who was the head of a news department-I will not speak of [then CBS News President] Dick Salant, said, ‘Isn’t this a parody? This guy from sports taking over a news department. Ha, the next thing you know, he’ll have music on the openings’-and he did, and so does everybody now.”
At the time “both Elton Rule and Leonard Goldenson [ABC’s top executives] had a lot of misgivings. A lot of people at ABC News thought I was off the wall,” Mr. Pierce said, who had to convince newsies that “the company was committed to making ABC News No. 1 journalistically and with the viewers.”
Before Mr. Arledge was appointed head of news, “We worked for years under this tremendous handicap of not having enough money,” said Peter Jennings, who joined ABC News in 1964.
“[Roone] brought operating money to the news division. So if I had to get on a plane in Johannesburg to fly to Cairo just to ask Anwar Sadat a question, because I had a relationship with Anwar Sadat, Roone said, ‘Get goin’. Why can’t you charter a plane?’ And I said, ‘Well, Roone, you can’t fly out of Africa and land in Egypt.’ You couldn’t find charter service in that day. And he said, ‘Well, get there and get there by tomorrow.’ I had to fly all the way to Switzerland and turn around and fly back to Egypt. Roone didn’t care as long as you got the story. It was great.
“We don’t have those luxuries today, there’s no question about that,” Mr. Jennings said, “but I wouldn’t say it was extreme at all. Here was a man who spent the company’s money in pursuit of what he truly, truly believed was a higher cause.”
Mr. Arledge did indeed build ABC News into a powerhouse, following patterns established during his sports heyday. He knew that ABC News had to make money to command money and respect.
He collected paid top dollar for anyone he thought could raise ABC News’ star and credibility quotients-and destabilize the competition by recruiting top news talent. Diane Sawyer, Jeff Greenfield and Robert Krulwich left CBS News, but Dan Rather didn’t; David Brinkley and Chris Wallace moved from NBC News to ABC, but Tom Brokaw did not. Mr. Arledge surrounded himself with so many bright and ambitious producers that many of them felt they had to leave to stretch the very talents he’d developed in them.
Often, egos clashed and fiefdoms warred. Generally, Mr. Arledge did not deal with it. Seasoned Arledge watchers describe his laissez-faire method as part procrastination, part leaving people the time to work it out themselves.
“He took his time on certain creative things,” said Mr. Pierce, who does not recall having the same trouble getting Mr. Arledge on the phone as would his Cap Cities successors. “We had a direct line, and I guess Roone needed me as much as I needed him.”
“I have seen the merit in my own career of something I call ‘Roone’s Rule,'” said Mr. Ebersol. “On really, really, really important decisions, the longer you can wait to make them, the more information you’ll have to base that decision upon.”
And there was “Roone’s Other Rule,” said Jeff Gralnick, who rose from producer to the executive entrusted with coverage of special events in his first tenure at ABC News and who would come back in 1996 for the abortive attempt to create a 24-hour news channel. “If he didn’t want to know about something, he didn’t know about it even if he did know about it,” Mr. Gralnick said.
Mr. Arledge was famous for being an elusive often absent and mysterious boss who shunned corporate cocktail parties and standard office hours and such mundane matters as appointments.
Health problems over the past couple of years have only compounded Mr. Arledge’s aversion to such commitments. The publication date for Mr. Arledge’s memoirs, “Roone,” has been delayed until January 2003 by HarperCollins.
Mr. Ebersol recalled that he was the first assistant Mr. Arledge ever had, and “for a short while, everybody went, ‘Hallelujah, now we’ll get our phone calls returned,’ [but] it did not work out that way at all. Roone would tell me what to tell ’em all,” said Mr. Ebersol. “Listen, whenever it was important, whenever it was really important, either to the business that mattered or to Roone himself, those phone calls got returned. And it didn’t matter whether you were the president of some large sporting organization or you were a member of the press or you were a member of his staff, he would get to you in his own given time. And let’s face it, for 40 years it worked.
“He was never a believer in being in the office in the morning, or sometimes for days on end, but he wasn’t throwing that time away by idly hanging out on the golf course and stuff. He usually had some great piece of music on and he was reading,” said Mr. Ebersol, who described Mr. Arledge as the best-read and “most thoroughly grounded television executive, news or sports, who ever lived, because he has a great brain and a breath-taking range of curiosity.”
“The longer I am in this job, the more I understand why he did some of the things he did,” said David Westin, a lawyer-turned-network-executive who was named president of ABC News in 1997 when Mr. Arledge was named chairman of News. “There is a certain genius to the method.”
Someone who’d been trying to get in to see Mr. Arledge for days or even weeks might get a call at 2:30 in the morning that started with a genial “Let’s chat” and could end hours later with the recipient of all that undivided attention determined to work even harder and do even better.
And there was the fear factor: No one ever wanted to let him down.
Mr. Arledge staged a weekend retreat with senior management and “bright young people” in Montauk on Long Island, N.Y., shortly after he took over as news president, Mr. Gralnick said. “Why should I want to work for you?” Mr. Gralnick asked Mr. Arledge.
“‘Because I’ll make you work harder than you ever thought you could, and I’ll make you be better than you ever thought you could be,’ was the reply,” Mr. Gralnick, said, adding, “And he did.”
NBC News President Neal Shapiro spent 13 years at ABC News, the last five as a broadcast producer of “PrimeTime Live,” before moving to NBC News in 1993 to become executive producer of “Dateline NBC,” which had shot itself in the journalistic foot more than once with inaccurate reporting and was in danger of collapse.
“Leaving ABC was very difficult for me,” said Mr. Shapiro. He agrees that Mr. Arledge had a genius for “amassing talent,” for producing and honing in on what was wrong with a piece. “One of the bravest things he did was to say, ‘You know what? I just don’t understand this. It just isn’t clear to me.’ He was never afraid to say that,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I think every time I was with him and he would look at things, he always made them better.
“I think Roone, in a very good way, sort of infused modern production techniques into news, modern promotion techniques into news, and old-fashioned storytelling techniques into news. News was certainly good before Roone but I think he made it more modern,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I think he encouraged people to take chances. Just because things were done this way in the past didn’t mean they had to be done this way in the future.”
“Nightline” evolved from “America Held Hostage,” a late-nightly update on the Iranian hostage crisis that was carved out of 15 minutes of local stations’ time and that would, along with Mr. Koppel, become American institutions-seemingly inviolate until parent company Disney’s failed attempt last spring to replace both with David Letterman.
Of course, not everything on Mr. Arledge’s watches went off without a hitch or to great acclaim. ABC Sports’ recurring “Battle of the Network Stars” inspired the genre known as “trash sports.” Former player Fred Williamson was in and out of “Monday Night Football” in 1974. A variety show called “Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell” was in and out of the ABC lineup four months after
it launched in 1975. Carl Bernstein was a star as Robert Woodward’s Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, but not as Washington bureau chief and a correspondent for ABC News in the early ’80s.
“20/20” debuted in 1978 with Hugh Hayes and Robert Hughes as anchors. The show was a disaster. A week later the anchors were replaced by Hugh Downs. “PrimeTime Live’s” shakedown phase included an infamous segment in which viewers were invited to watch a tree die. The newsmagazine’s Food Lion investigation led to charges of fraud, trespass and unfair trade practices against ABC News and a hard-fought trial in 1997 that resulted in a $315,000 judgment against ABC that two years later was reversed on appeal. The once-powerful “Good Morning America” was losing steam when it was under the entertainment division but went into a ratings tailspin after News took it over and began to recover only after Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer were named temporary hosts more than three years ago.
However, say those who know him well, Mr. Arledge was less bothered by flops than he was by carelessness and inflexibility and mediocrity. He had his visionary eye trained ahead of the common curve and he wanted those around him to do the same.
Mr. Westin, who has built a comfortable relationship with his predecessor over weekly lunches, also believes that at the core of Mr. Arledge’s genius is an ability to strip away what he knows about how a story got done or the name of the person who did it and to “just look at it like a clean slate and react to it as is, which is critically important.”
“He’s a wonderful editor. He’s never stopped being an editor,” said Peter Jennings, who didn’t click as “World News Tonight” anchor in the late ’60s but found success on his second go-round, which started in 1983. “He’s never stopped being a producer, and to have someone like that who is also leading a division was just great.”
“Roone would create order out of chaos,” Mr. Katz said. “He would create chaos and then create order out of it.”