Television pioneer transformed medium

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Roone Arledge, chairman of ABC News, died Dec. 5 after a long battle with cancer. He was 71.
Mr. Arledge effectively created ABC Sports and was its president from 1968 to 1986. He later breathed life into ABC News and was its president from 1977 to 1997. He served as president of both divisions simultaneously for nine years.
Mr. Arledge was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992 and had been treated with apparent success. There was a recurrence in 2000, and a number of health complications since then kept him largely out of the public eye and prevented him from attending a 2001 gathering in his honor of people who had worked with him at ABC Sports in 1972 or before.
He was unable to accept in person the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in September. Instead, he made his comments by videotape. What earned Mr. Arledge the Lifetime Achievement Award was his unparalleled career, which garnered 36 Emmys and multiples of essentially every major TV programming award.
TV visionary
He joined also-ran ABC in 1960 as an independent producer of sports programming. His most significant credit at that point was a stint as a producer on Shari Lewis’ children’s show “Hi, Mom,” which aired on WNBC-TV in New York. He won the first of his Emmys for his work on that show, on which a then unknown sock puppet named Lamb Chop appeared.
ABC was desperately hoping that sports could make it a TV player, and Mr. Arledge was determined to make viewers feel as if they were there on the 50-yard line or the 18th green or even hunting rattlesnakes-one of the offbeat segments that contributed to the long-lasting appeal of “Wide World of Sports,” the anthology that debuted in 1961 and would push the envelope of live television.
He would indeed prove that with the right storytelling and packaging, there was almost no sport with which he could not attract avid audiences. After jazzing up coverage of college football-“In short, we are going to add show business to sports,” he said in the summation of a legendary memo in which he outlined how he planned to “take the viewer to the game!”-he created “Monday Night Football” in 1969. Football on TV would never be the same. Stodgy was out; technical razzle-dazzle and booth repartee were in. The network had a big hit and a breakout character in commentator Howard Cosell, the man America loved to hate.
Over the course of 10 Olympic Games, Mr. Arledge redefined Olympics coverage and turned it into blockbuster programming for which networks would make multibillion-dollar bids.
“Every sports fan in America should stop and observe a moment of silence for Roone Arledge,” said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. “Roone was the book. Those that have followed are just footnotes.”
He redefined himself and the articulate sports crew that included sportscaster Jim McKay with stunning and confident live coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Black September terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. The coverage turned what had been feel-good Games into the world’s first experience watching terrorism unfold live before transfixed eyes.
Still, the announcement five years later that he would take over ABC News horrified news traditionalists inside and outside the network. Once again, he was at the helm of a division that got no respect. Once again, he would gather around him producers and on-air talent who cost a lot. (Barbara Walters broke the salary barrier in 1976, when she left NBC for a million-dollar-a-year contract at ABC.)
The next level
Well-read and intuitive, Mr. Arledge capitalized on America’s interest in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980 with a late-night newscap that became “Nightline.” He staged live diplomatic TV events with world leaders. He took newsmagazines to the next level with “PrimeTime Live” in 1989.
“More than anything else he loved live television,” said “ABC World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings. “Roone believed in being involved in every aspect-but he could be unbelievably difficult, and there were times when we wanted to wring his neck. Especially for people like [Ted] Koppel and me-he had been a godfather, our patron, almost like a father in some ways. He made our careers possible. He had the most terrific instincts, and the business will never be quite the same without him.”
“Roone Arledge was a great friend and mentor to me, and when I think of him, the word `perfection’ comes to mind,” said Disney President Robert Iger, among the many Roone proteges who have put their own marks on the industry. “He was a visionary for those who were privileged enough to work with him as well as for the millions of viewers who were fortunate enough to be enriched by his programming innovations, which transformed the way television is watched to this day. Giants like Roone only walk this way once, and I, like so many others, am grateful that I got to know him and learn from him.”
Stories about Mr. Arledge abound in our industry. Here’s one from Ron Gleason, a former ABC manager who has a passing resemblance to Mr. Arledge:
“It was the late ’70s, and I was working for ABC News on 67th Street. I had just returned from lunch and was standing at the elevator, waiting to go up to my office on the fourth floor. Suddenly, a wide-eyed man came up to me. `Please Mr. Arledge would you look at my idea for a program?’ and thrust a manuscript in my face. `Sorry,’ I said, `but I’m not Roone Arledge.’
This obviously didn’t satisfy him, because he again asked me to read his document. `I told you, I’m not Roone Arledge,’ I repeated.
I looked over and saw our guard at the door. He had been there for years. `Look friend, ask the guard over there if I’m Roone,’ I suggested, thinking that would settle the matter, but the fellow said, `I did when I came in, and he said you’re Roone Arledge!’
On the way to my office, I stuck my head into Roone’s office and told him the story. He looked at me for about 10 seconds, and then said, `Can you do speeches?”’
The halftime portion of the Chicago vs. Miami game tonight on “Monday Night Football” will be devoted to Mr. Arledge’s legacy.
A memorial is scheduled for 10:30 this morning at St. Bartholomew’s Church, 109 East 50th St. (between Lexington and Park Avenue) in New York City.
Mr. Arledge is survived by his wife, Gigi Shaw Arledge, and his children from a previous marriage, Roone Arledge Jr., Susan Weston, Betsey Arledge and Patricia Looney.
The family has suggested that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to Childrens Leukemia Research, c/o Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Box E, 1275 York Ave., New York, N.Y., 10021.