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Champions of High Technology

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC has scored touchdown after touchdown on the technology field, beginning with a long list of innovations for sports coverage. “Instant replay, slow-motion and super slo-mo, freeze frames and the development of lavalier micophones came from ABC,” said Carl Girod, director of engineering at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
Technical innovation at ABC is synonymous with Roone Arledge, who is often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing sports coverage. “Roone had a vision and a way of thinking outside the box-and a real willingness to take risks,” said Preston Davis, ABC president of broadcast and engineering operations.
From the time the 29-year-old Mr. Arledge was given control of ABC’s NCAA football broadcasts in the early 1960s, he looked for a way to shake things up. ABC was the network of the Olympics from 1968 to 1988, and beginning in 1964 Mr. Arledge used The Wide World of Sports as a test bed for new gear to be implemented at the Games. Slo-mo and super slo-mo, for example, were developed for use at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Arledge, a 36-time Emmy winner, achieved many of his innovations in concert with Mr. Davis’ predecessor, Julius Barnathan. “Julius is the unsung hero,” said Ron Simon, curator of television at New York’s Museum of Television and Radio. The impact of their work together reverberated far beyond individual broadcasts.”
“ABC transformed the Olympics from a minor sport to an international spectacle through its innovations in video,” Mr. Simon said.
The Wide World of Sports spun off other technical innovations, including “point of view” cameras, which ABC pioneered in 1980 by adapting security cameras for television and affixing them to the driver’s cockpit for NASCAR racing and the Indy 500. Within a short time, ABC found a way to place POV cameras in precarious and unlikely spots, such as the tops of a ski jumper’s poles.
“Proximity was a key word at ABC-they wanted you to get up close and personal to the event and the athlete,” Mr. Simon said. “All these innovations gave an intimate sense of the events and the athletes.”
UCLA School of Theater, Film & TV professor Jonathan Kuntz said these innovations also helped boost professional football and baseball. “Our ability to watch it on TV in a way that could isolate and show details of the game helped football in particular become more popular,” he said.
ABC also pioneered the interconnection of the scoreboards in the stadiums with its graphics devices, so the network could display statistics on screen to viewers in the stadium. And the network came up with the idea to pre-build remote production facilities into a container that could be shipped anywhere in the world for the Olympics. “That way we saved the expense and labor of trying to build it on site,” Mr. Davis said.
In the 1960s, ABC introduced the use of satellite technology to distribute events to other countries, Mr. Simon said, listing coverage of JFK’s assassination and the 1969 moon walk as two examples. By the late 1970s, ABC was using satellite transmission to enable Ted Koppel’s conversations with international figures, and in 1981 ABC became the first network to migrate program distribution to its affiliates from telephone lines to satellite.
The network also played a leading role in developing closed captioning for the hearing impaired. In 1972 the National Bureau of Standards and ABC demonstrated closed captions embedded within a broadcast of The Mod Squad. Mr. Barnathan co-founded the Captioning Institute in 1980, and ABC captioned its first live sporting event with the 1981 Super Bowl.
ABC News also benefited from the Arledge-Barnathan technical powerhouse. “ABC was a pioneer in the development of electronic news gathering in 1976,” Mr. Davis said. “Prior to that time, almost 100 percent of news material was gathered on 16mm film, and ABC pushed the transition to video.” SMPTE’s Mr. Girod added that ABC innovated in political convention coverage as well, including introducing anchor booths.
More recently, ABC has led the HDTV charge among the networks, launching in fall 1998 with 101 Dalmatians on The Wonderful World of Disney and continuing with a season’s schedule of HD movies. Beginning with the 1999-2000 season, ABC switched Monday Night Football to high-def, and beginning in 2002 all its scripted prime-time programming has been done in HD, including 5.1 Surround Sound.