One of TV’s true giants departs

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

All the best people seem to be gone or going-in show business generally, and in television in particular. Certainly there are drastically fewer giants looming large on the landscape than there were 10, 20 years ago. We’re perhaps at the point where the deceased could be termed “fashionably dead.”
That elite club, that Hall of Fame in the sky, has, of course, a new inductee. Late last week, Roone Arledge, who always seemed like he had too much energy to stop for such an impertinent inconvenience as death, left this world and entered the next. The obit on ABC’s “World News Tonight” included testimonials obviously taped in advance-among them, warm words from Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel, two of Roone’s more celebrated stars-indicating Arledge’s demise was not unexpected.
Roone Arledge believed in stars and in rewarding them lavishly; he raised the stakes so that stars got paid commensurate with their drawing power. Anchors and correspondents are paid in what I call “teledollars,” meaning they get so much money that it almost requires the creation of a separate, institutional currency that most of us can only dream about. Roone’s star system has already begun to crumble, because the glory days when the networks ruled the roost are over. Thus did Peter Jennings reportedly settle for a new contract with no pay increase a few months ago. If the merger with CNN goes through (a merger I prefer to think Roone opposed), the belt tightening will be painful.
A touch of class
Roone reigned in a time when possibilities were grandiose. He managed to be both soft-spoken and flamboyant. I’m sure he could yell and scream, because network TV is a yelling-and-screaming business, but whenever I saw him, he was at his affable and disarming best. And unlike some of today’s network executives, he didn’t take criticism personally. He could read a bad review in the morning and be entirely cordial to the reviewer in the evening, should they happen to meet.
I wasn’t precisely a big booster of Arledge’s when he first took over at ABC News. I think I coined the term “Rooney Tunes” to refer to some of his glitzier techniques. But over the years, considering the cosmetic excesses at other networks and the dramatic deterioration of local news, the Arledge touch began looking gentler and gentler, and anyone could see the man had class. Perhaps there was even talk at ABC News in recent years-not widespread but in certain quarters-of breaking away from “old-fashioned” Arledge ideas of how to present the news to viewers, even though he once championed bold departures from stuffy traditions.
Eventually there were Arledge traditions. But none of them could be rationally termed “stuffy.”
Arledge never bitched or growled at me over a negative review. I remember talking to him not long after the disastrous debut of the original “20/20,” back about a hundred and five years ago. The show was universally panned. My review would have to be called scathing; Howard Simons, then the managing editor of The Washington Post, and no fan of mine, nevertheless liked the review so much he gave me a [tiny] raise for writing it. Arledge said he agreed with the “20/20” review and that he felt he’d paid insufficient attention to the show himself, instead entrusting it to others.
By the next week, it was all repaired. What had been daring but dreadful was replaced with a perhaps less adventurous but much more coherent approach.
Arledge did make one comment about my reviews that I managed to hear about. But he did it in a clever and joking way. One year Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn got a Christmas present from Arledge in a lavishly wrapped box. They opened one box and found another inside. The opened that one and found still another. And so on as the boxes got smaller and smaller until they got to the final box. It contained only a note: “Enclosed are all of Tom Shales’ best TV reviews from the past year.”
Fred Silverman once told me, during his tumultuous tenure at NBC, that he missed the “tummlers” who once populated the TV business. He meant the mavericks, the kind of seat-of-their-pants entrepreneurs who were taking a chance when they went into the TV business in the ’50s. He remembered ABC’s Ollie Treyz literally going door to door to sell commercial time on the network. The word also kind of means “troublemaker” in the good sense, somebody who raises a ruckus, makes a noisy impression. I think Roone Arledge was one of the last of TV’s tummlers. He had dignity and class and all that, but there was a showbizzy razzle-dazzle to him, too. He loved risky business.
He didn’t just excel at television, he delighted in television. He had fun with the technology, with pursuing an impossible shot. He was a little like Busby Berkeley, who used to take his movie camera up into the rafters or down under a soundstage to get new angles on beautiful girls. Arledge invented sports on television, it has been said (by his protege Dick Ebersol, among others), but he also loved the sport of television. He was a sportsman through and through.
Among the many controversies in which he was embroiled over the years, one of the hottest occurred in 1986, at what might be called the Long Dawn of Terrorism. TWA Flight 847 had been hijacked by terrorists and was sitting on an airport runway in Beirut. ABC News scored a terrific coup by getting exclusive interviews with the pilot and two of the crew members. But ABC was delayed by an hour in transmitting the tape back to the United States because NBC and CBS refused to do the polite thing and relinquish their satellite time. In addition, Arledge’s competitors began circulating the rumor that he’d paid at least $30,000 to the terrorists for the right to do the interview.
Arledge was furious. His integrity had been called into question. “Not only is it not true,” he said of the story, “but I find it outrageous that anybody would spread such a story. … What happened was those other guys got beat. It’s one thing to be grumpy about that and less than gracious about it, especially considering the fact that they denied us use of their satellite facilities, but to make an accusation like that is not only groundless, it’s distasteful.”
That was one day I had no trouble getting Roone to return my phone call.
Creature of television
Roone Arledge had a cherubic smile and a devilish sense of humor. He was a true creature of television who had a real passion for the medium. I hate always to be praising the good old days and saying things aren’t as wonderful anymore, but they aren’t, let’s face it. The balance between “the arts and sciences” of television has shifted way over toward the sciences; not that many people seem to care about the arts anymore. The population of true giants in the business is now so small that every time we lose one, it’s truly devastating.
Television will go on without Roone Arledge; it will survive and prosper and flourish and make tons of money and find a way to co-exist with the damn Internet. It will go on-but it won’t be nearly as much fun.