To appreciate what Roone Arledge did for ABC, you'd have to remember how bad ABC was in the 1960s and how disregarded ABC News was during the Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley era.
When he died at age 71 last Thursday from complications caused by cancer, Arledge left behind a history of innovation that probably would have been possible only at a place like ABC was then: What the heck, who'd notice?
Everybody, as it turned out. Arledge won an amazing 37 Emmy Awards and four Peabody Awards; probably no news executive since Fred Friendly did as much to improve and invent television news; nobody did more to create a standard and a style for television sports.
In 1994, when Sports Illustrated
selected 40 sports figures who had altered or elevated the sports world in the past four decades, Arledge was third, behind Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
He gave up the presidency of sports in 1986 and news in 1997. He was named, instead, chairman of ABC News, but, for at least the last two years as the cancer took its toll, he was not a constant presence. About two or three weeks ago, those who knew him best quietly began telling his other friends that his end was near. He leaves behind a wife and four children by a previous marriage.
Arledge gave ABC everything from The Wide World of Sports
to World News Tonight
to that marvelous Olympics coverage. He gave us the first slo-mo, instant replays and hand-held cameras on the field—huge improvements that changed sports television forever. Much of what we now understand in the video context as parts of sports coverage—natural sound, for example—Arledge toyed with when ABC covered the largely unseen American Football League.
"Since nobody was watching anyway … we had the freedom to do new things," Arledge said in a Playboy
interview in 1976. "That's how we invented the isolated camera, just by fooling around during one of those early AFL broadcasts. ... Nobody knew about them because no one was watching." (An engineer sketched out the technical requirements for instant replay on a cocktail napkin, he once recalled.)
Arledge had vision, nerve. He was the first executive who refused to let sports owners or leagues approve the announcers, and that gave us an obnoxious, outspoken attorney named Howard Cosell, who, on Monday Night Football, began to tell us "the way it was." Though as reviled as he was revered—"too Jewish" for most of America, said some critics even inside ABC—Cosell represented, like Arledge's technological inventions, a new way to see sports. Arledge also convinced both ABC and the NFL to try pro football in prime time.
Up close and personal: Did he and ABC invent the phrase or merely capture it? Whichever, Arledge at ABC Sports and then later as the president of ABC News, too, never gave up the mission. This may sound second nature to television producers and viewers now, but Arledge invented the pre-event taped package, so that, for example, viewers learned about the life of an Olympic skier before you saw his or her performance. That simple idea transferred to ABC News when he also became the president of that division in 1977, and those personality packages are still a big part of ABC's (and now everybody else's) way of presenting the news.
Arledge's appointment to the news division (he also kept heading sports) was met with derision by the nation's print press and by many inside ABC News itself; Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel and others went to top brass to try to prevent Arledge's getting the job. At the beginning, his secretary would cut out unkind references about him from the daily papers before he could see them. But he quickly made believers out of doubters.
The audacity! During the Iran hostage crisis, he started a nightly show America Held Hostage
(anchored by Koppel) and put it up against Johnny Carson, and eventually Nightline
Arledge was famous for not being found, not just by journalists who covered him but even by ABC News staffers and top executives, who often couldn't even reach him by phone. Jennings last week called him "eccentric to the point of infuriating us on occasion" and an "astonishingly difficult character." But he also called him what everybody in the business knew him to be: absolutely unique. There will never be another Roone Arledge. In this business, he really knew the thrill of victory.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com