Roone Arledge. Roone: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishes, 2003.
The author, who headed ABC News and ABC Sports, studied English at Columbia where he was classmates with Dick Wald and Larry Grossman, both future Presidents of NBC News. Arledge decided to try becoming a Middle East specialist in Columbia’s International Relations School. He couldn’t learn Arabic though and dropped out, taking a job as head waiter at the Wayside Inn in Chatham, Ma. Fate would intervene. He told a couple being turned away from their closed dining room that he would wait on them. Several months later, while job hunting in New York, he interviewed with the grateful diner, James Cadigan, programming head of the DuMont TV network. Cadigan hired him.
DuMont had only 16 stations on the East Coast and Mid West and would fial to compete with the other networks Yet they did have the first daytime schedule of programs, first soap opera, first prime time showing of an NFL game, and first news casting from Washington, D.C. Their programs included Jackie Gleason’s” Honeymooners”, “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour”, Bishop Sheen, Howdy Doody, and the Joe McCarthy Senate hearings.
Drafted into the Army, Arledge was made a base radio station announcer. After service, DuMont did not respond to his requests to return to work until he threatened them with a lawsuit as solders were entitled to return to the jobs. He discovered the DuMond network was in financial difficulties and someone would be fired in order for him to return. The FCC had stopped issuing broadcast licenses. John Klug purchased the DuMond stations, changed them to Metromedia, and earned billions of dollars.
Arledge found a job as a stage manager at NBC’s New York WRCA channel 4, earning $66 a week. He then became a unit supervisor, which included making sure all union rules were followed, including seeing only assigned union personnel did specified jobs or else a work stoppage would occur if someone else did such a job.
Arledge became producer of the Sunday morning programming of cartoons, talk, news, and dancing to music. This programming was a critical failure and was cut. Yet, Arledge was moved to producing a daily show “Hi. Mom” featuring Shari Lewis. Shari was an excellent puppeteer whose lips didn’t move. The puppets were a part of her personality and had to always be with her, even on her honeymoon. “Hi, Mom” won an Emmy. Jimmy Weldon replaced Shari Lewis. Weldon required more skillful directing as his lips moved, so the camera could only show his puppet when it was talking.
Arledge pitched ideas for shows that were rejected. Pat Schenck wanted to know who had produced one of the rejected ideas when learning of it and liking it. He asked Arledge to produce sports show for Gillette as Gillette was moving its sponsorship from NBC to ABC.
ABC then was the smallest of the three networks. ABC kept quiet that they were going to outbid NBC for the rights to broadcast NCAA sports. They waited until NBC submitted its bid, which they correctly surmised was a low bid, and then submitted a higher bid.
On Arledge’s third day at ABC’s Sports Programs, Inc., a trade article announced that a 29 year old local children’s show producer was now in charge of producing NCAA games. It was feared Gillette would disown Arledge. They calmed down and Arledge was able to stay. Arledge’s first broadcast was a heavyweight championship fight between Ingemar Johannson and Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium won by Patterson. Arledge noted the skills of the ring announcer, Howard Cosell.
ABC Sports added the American Football League to its broadcasts. The NCAA programs began regional broadcasts, meaning three shows had to be produced where before it was one national show. The author tracked all production personnel, which allowed him to know all the staff. Sometimes Arledge would travel to work on a production.
When it came to broadcasting baseball, Arledge found the Baseball Commissioner insisted that only distant cameras showing the entire field be used. The Commissioner argued that no TV viewer should have a better view than the person at the worst ball park seat. Arledge knew TV viewers required the best view.
Arledge enjoyed producing sports, declaring that “sports were life condensed”. He knew not all viewers appreciate sports but they liked a good show. High sports ratings helped AVC to have the revenues to develop as a network.
Arledge wanted viewers to feel the excitement of seeing a game. Cameras would show not just the game on the field, but reactions from coaches, fans, cheerleaders, etc. The human drama of the game would make for good show business. Referees would wear microphones. The hometown of the game would be presented. Gillette was hesitant to try these changes, because they feared Arledge did not have enough experience. Yet, they agreed to it. Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman were the first announcers. Alrledge than added even something else new by hiring Bob Neal to conduct sideline interviews.
The NCAA feared that TV would destroy game attendance. The University of Michigan Athletic Director stated he would not be fully cooperative. So Arledge put in additional requests for things he didn’t need that Michigan refused to provide so that Arledge got what he wanted from them.
The NCAA began trying to restrict TV access to big while by pushing the broadcast of Ivy League games.
Arledge, while watching slow motion in a movie, realized it would be good to show plays in slow motion. The first experiments looked grainy. It took three months of work before instant replay was developed.
Arledge came up with the idea of showing many kinds of sports, many of which were little known. “The Wide World of Sports” was created and is the longest running sports program. Arledge notes the concept from the show evolved with input from several people. The rights to some sports were inexpensive to purchase since no one else was interested in showing them. Foreign sports presentations were shown in cooperation with foreign networks. The show presented sports in 53 countries.
ABC created a sports division and hired Arledge to run it. Arledge produced ten Olympic games for ABC. He got Chris Schenkel to move from CBS, where he earned $175,000 in 1964, by offering him $250,000 to work for ABC.
Arledge, without knowing ABC was no longer bidding to continue to broadcast the Orange Bowl, suggested it could improve its ratings by being moved to New Year’s Ev. The Orange Bowl made the move and its ratings improved, but for NBC.
The first sports broadcast from the Soviet Union, due to the time difference, had to preempt Porky Pig on Saturday morning. It took a decision by CEO Leonard Boldenson to get the sports even shown instead of Porky Pig.
AC was outbid for pro football yet had the highest bid for NCAA football, paying $15.5 million for the 1966 and 1967 seasons, $2 million more than NBC had paid. With no pro football, ABC promised their top announcers would broadcast college football. Arledge sold the NCAA on the idea that ABC would be their own network and, as part of the bid agreement, had Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson broadcast the games.
ABC won the rights to the 1968 Olympics by topping CBS and NBC’s opening bids, which were both around $2 million, with a close out bid of$4.8 million. The Olympics grabbed the ABC bid. Crtics claim ABC overpaid, yet it was possible, without a one time offer of a closeout bid, bidding could have gone even higher.
Howard Cosell had been banned from local TV sports broadcasting for informing viewers that Mets manager Casey Stengle napped during games. To boost dragging Olympic baseball ratings, Arledge hired the self-destructive pompous Cosell.
The Federal government banned broadcasting pro football on Friday and Saturday nights so they wouldn’t compete with high school games. Sunday day broadcasts made it iffy if Sunday evening broadcasts would be successful. Games Tuesday through Thursday would upset weeklong practices. Arledge though Monday night broadcasts might work. ABC bid for Monday night football. NBC insisted on giving CBS and NBC rights of refusal for matching the NBC offer. CBS had a strong Monday night lineup and wasn’t interested. NBC had a weak Monday night lineup yet worried that overtime games could hurt their financially successful “Tonight Show”. ABC won Monday night primetime football. Howard Cosell became the announcer people watched to hate while announcing with Don Meredith to about 30 million viewers.
In bidding for the 1972 Olympic games, ABC had figured that $10 million was the most that could be offered without suffering a loss. NBC’s bid was $11 million. Then, Barry Frank determined that if Olympic coverage was broadcast over 67 hours during all prime times, selling commercials averaging$48,000, revenue would be just under $24 million. This allowed for a good profit. ABC bid $13.5 million. The Olympics profit would be useful as ABC had lost $20 million the previous year, 1968.
The 1972 Olympics were marred by the Black September holding and killing Israelis athlete hostages. The sports broadcasts turned into live news broadcasts.
ABC Sports earned almost $200 million in 1973, which was more than the total earned in aggregate by CBS Sports and NBC Sports.
Arledge led ABC Sports in gaining the rights to the 1976 Olympics by going straight to the Olympic Committee instead of their intermediary with a $25 million take it or leave it offer. They took it. Arledge felt the intermediary was guiding the award towards CBS so he decided instead to go straight to the body that awarded the deal. Arledge also got the rights to the 1976 Winter Olympics for $10 million. Only NBC was mildly interested in also attempting to broadcast them. Noting the Winter Olympics lacked any notable athletes, ABC focused on ice skater Dorothy Hamill.
The three networks agreed to split coverage of the 1980 Olympics. Yet there were no broadcasts due to the US boycott of the games.
Arledge was asked to run ABC News as well as ABC Sports. Its broadcasting of Barbara Walters with Harry Reasoner was ridiculed and had half as many viewers as watched Walter Cronkite at CBS and two thirds the viewers as had NBC’s David Brinkley and John Chancellor.
Alrdge saw Walters as the future and took Reasoner off the show. He removed non-news information segments. Sandy Vanocur was placed in charge of a news investigative unit.
Arledge took the U.S. Boxing Championships off the air after discovering some boxers had altered boxing records.
Arledge was informed and had confirmed by Massad that Anwar Sadat, if so asked by ABC News, would agree to an invitation to fly to Israle for a joint interview with Menachem Begin. A suspicious Peter Jennings was sent to interview Sadat who indeed agree to this arrangement.
In 1978, “World News Tonight” became ABC’s mews show with Barbara Walters, Frank Reynolds, Peter Jennings, Max Robinson, and Howard K. Smith. Smith became upset at the little amount of air time he received. He felt his seniority entitled him to more air time. He left at the end of his contract.
Arledge noted how CBS’s “60 Minutes” began in 1968 yet it did not achieve strong ratings until 1972 when it was aired an hour earlier at 7 pm Sundays. Arledge decided ABC should have a similar show but not a copycat. “20/20” was created. He admits the first show was one of the worse shows he’d seen. He replaced Harold Hayes and Bob Hughes as the hosts. He decided to take great control over the show.
Barbara Walters made being added to “20/20” as a part of her contract renogiation demands to remain on “World News Tonight”. She initially asked to be made the show host. Yet Arledge writes that Hugh Downs was the soul of the show.
ABC began nightly news coverage of the Iranian hostage coverage. They announced they would continue nightly updates as long as the crisis continued. They did not realize there would be no quick resolution. Frank Reynolds hosted “America Held Hostage” for three weeks. Ted Koppel substitute for Reynolds on his birthday. When Reynolds began Presidential campaign coverage, Koppel took over permanently. Ratings rose and occasionally even outdrew NBC’s “Tonight Show”. Arledge sold ABC on making the show a permanent news show after the crisis ended. A powerful affiliate’s stations manager, Larry Pollack at WFIL in Philadelphia, objected as he feared his highest rated ABC local news show was being hurt being followed by another news show. In order to get WFIL to broadcast Ted Koppel’s news show, ABC agreed that Koppel’s show would run for 20, not 30, minutes and only four nights a week.
Arledge produced the 1980 Winter Olympics. When the American hockey team pulled ahead of the Soviet team, it was decided to show a tape delay of the game following the local news. The game ended with a U.S. upset win.
“Nightline” with Ted Koppel became the late night ABC news show. The show remained successful following the hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days. WFIL withdrew its objections 10 months later and the show began running five days a week for half an hour.
David Brinkley was upset at being switched from co-anchor of NBC’s “Evening News_ to being weekly host of the lowest rated news program than ran opposite the top rated TV show “Dallas”. Arledge told Brinkley of his idea of a Sunday morning news show which Brinkley agreed was the type show he wanted to do. Brinkley switched to ABC for a four year $850,000 a year contract. Some at ABC objected, arguing ABC’s overall push for a younger audience would be harmed by hiring the 61 year old Brinkley. Arledge believed Brinkley would improve the stature of ABC News.
“This Week With David Brinkley” made news by getting Mulammer Qaddafi to provide an interview. This news boosted the show’s reputation and ratings. Sam Donaldson was added to give the show more zip. The show overtook the ratings lead from longtime ratings holder “Meet the Press”. ABC also liked the profits it earned.
“CBS with Douglas Edwards” was the first long running top rated news program until NBC’s “Huntley Brinkley Report” became the top rated program in the late 1950s. Walter Cronkite became the ratings leader in the late 1960s. ABC News consistently was third in ratings. ABC’s “World News” tonight improved by about two million households total watching. It moved into second place for two and a half years.
Arledge tried to lure Dan Rather from CBS. When Rather was picked by CBS to take over from retiring Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd left CBS for ABC.
The Los Angeles District Attorney investigated $30,000 weekly payments ABC made to producing partners Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg. There were concerns the payments were designed to avoid splitting them as required by contract with co-creators Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. The financial issue was settled out of court. No criminal charges resulted. “World News Tonight” researched and broadcast the story. Arledge approved even though the story was embarrassing to ABC. He felt the news department’s reputation was at stake.
Frank Reynolds died. Arledge had to convince Peter Jennings to become the new anchor, and he finally agreed.
Howard Cosell drew great controversy in 1983 for calling an African American football player a “little monkey”. He took three weeks off but his star image began fading.
ABC won the rights to broadcast the 1988 Olympics for $304 million. This was $217.5 million more than for the rifhgts to the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. The rising costs of the Olympics changed the game, as professional athletes were then allowed to compete. The Soviet Union and other Communist nations withdrew from the 1984 Los Angeles Winter Olympics as payback for the US boycott of their Olympics. Arledge predicted this would increase viewership as this meant more medals for Americans. A record 180 million Americans watched the Winter Olympics, bringing ABC a record $75 million profits.
Howard Cosell, who had resigned from announcing football several times and been convinced to return, resigned again. He had just published an autobiography where he criticized Arledge. This time his resignation was accepted.
ABC got Bishop Tuto and South African Foreign Minister F.P. Botha to discuss apartheid. This broadcast helped shed light onto this issue.
Capitol Cities Broadcasting, a group of affiliate stations, purchased ABC for $3.5 billion. This was four times what ABC was worth in 1981.
ABC was projected to earn $70 million in 1985 but was forecast to break even in 1986. This did not please the new owners. As sports advertising was down, ABC Sports lost $40 million in 1985, with “Monday Night Football” losing $25 million of that.. Ironically, ABC’s own ESPN, purchased from Getty Oil, accounted for some of that loss due to its competition. Right fees had risen to 82% of the budget. Half of all sports advertising for all networks went to the Los Angeles Olympics.
Cutbacks were made. Football rights were cut by one third. Rights to other events such as World Cup soccer were left to other networks. Hirings were frozen and production costs lowered. ABC let the Olympics go to another network.
News broadcasts were required by the FCC and traditionally were expected to lose money. Arledge disagreed and made news broadcasts profitable. ABC News had a $55 million profit in 1985. ABC News had a $275 million budget then, an increased from a budget of $55 million in 1977. ABC News had more airtime than other network news did, and did so with the smallest network staff. CNN and later Fox News began drawing away viewers.
The United States Football games were shown on ABC. When they moved from a spring season to a fall season, saturating the football market, the league folded.
CBS News, once the dominant leader, fell to last place. ABC News had a $37 million profit in 1986 while NBC News lost $64 million. The new owners of ABC continued to demand costs be cut.
Diane Sawyer had been impressive at CBS. Arledge hired her for a new ABC newsmagazine, “Prime Time Live”. Diane Sawyer would later have the good fortune to be in Moscow broadcasting during the fall ofGorbachev and the rise of Yeltsin.
Capital Cities continued tightening finances. The Gulf War reporting cut into profits by $20 million. Arledge created a plan to reduce costs by $25 million.
Alrdege saved Sam Donaldson from leaving ABC when cost cutting reduced his salary by $500,000. Arledge was upset at the restructuring that Capital Cities created. Arledge had Sam Donaldson’s salary cut reinstated. Bureaucratic changes, though, began to pit parts of news divisions against each other.
Disney then bought ABC. Disney wanted a round the clock news and network created that would appeal to 18 to 49 year olds. NBC’s MSNBC, started in 1996, lost $100 million. Disney withdrew their plans for a similar network.
In 1998, David Weston replaced Arledge as the head of ABC News.