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A legend remembered

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The world without Roone?
Some of us were talking about that very thing as it became clear in the way things always became clear about Roone-by indirection-that he was not only sick, he was terminally sick and would be gone before too long. The giant presence that he was in our lives and so many other lives was, physically at least, going to be gone and that was unthinkable.
Unthinkable.
But think about the world of broadcast news had there been no Roone Arledge and that is equally unthinkable, because he recarved the landscape and built it in ways that only he could. By force of will.
When he added the presidency of news to the presidency of sports in a power play of his own design in 1977, he took over a news division that was essentially dead and not in the least bit relevant. “Fourth in a three-team race” was the way it was described, and that was totally fair. ABC News didn’t compete with the big guys and apparently didn’t care to.
Roone did care to compete, and out of that caring and desire and need to dominate and win, he built ABC News into what was-for a long while-the dominant brand in broadcast news.
Most of the stories are told and retold.
The creation of “Nightline” and news dominance at 11:30 p.m. to the point that during periods of major news, Johnny Carson would joke about wanting his audience back from Ted Koppel. Roone did that.
The transformation of the evening news broadcasts from the kinds of ponderous half-hours America had gotten used to into vibrant engines of information. “World News Tonight” was much demeaned-much demeaned-when it launched, but look at any evening news broadcast on any network today and you see where they came from. Roone did that too.
And the same is true of magazine shows. “60 Minutes” is and always will be “60 Minutes,” but all other magazine shows on television bear the stamp of “20/20,” which Roone created because he saw what these kinds of information programs would become. He just saw before anyone else.
And think about the careers that wouldn’t have been without Roone.
Would Ted Koppel be as dominant a figure as he is if not for Roone and “Nightline”? I don’t think so. And the same is true, I would argue, for Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and Roger Goodman and Tom Bettag and Paul Friedman at ABC and for Neil Shapiro, who is now president of NBC News, and for so many others, including me. His vision of what broadcast news could be and should be, drove him and then he drove us all.
In a way he was saying to every one of us what he said to me directly the first night we met. In answer to my question “Why should I want to work for you?” he stuck his index finger squarely in my chest and said, “Because I’ll make you work harder than you have ever worked and let you be better than you ever imagined you could be.”
And he did. And he did it to us all.
In the end, in a way, he was a Peter Pan taking all the children to a never-never land where anything was possible. He said we could fly, and we did, and because of that, the world of broadcast news is a far, far different place … and in the eyes of many a far, far better place.
The world without Roone?
Unthinkable.
Jeff Gralnick held a number of top spots at ABC News, where he worked with Mr. Arledge.