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Five minutes away from never
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ABC's Roone Arledge was there to help create the legacy that has become Wide World of Sports. In an excerpt from an exclusive interview conducted for the 40th Anniversary celebration, Mr. Arledge reflected on the early beginnings of ABC's Wide World of Sports and how it came five minutes away from never being on the air.

ABC Sports
ABC's Wide World of Sports in April of 1961. How did it come about and why did it happen in April?

Roone Arledge
I don't think April was anything, except it was kind of the beginning of the summer season, and we either had to do it then or it wasn't going to get on the air. But the three networks in those days had baseball packages of varying degrees of success. CBS had the best. They had the Yankees. We had the Dodgers and Giants, and we had a good package, but none of them -- baseball didn't allow you to go into the major league cities then.

So you had three networks fighting over 40 percent of the country, and people decided that this was not the long-term answer. Ed Scherick, who was the head of sports programs then, which ultimately became ABC Sports, in fact, was in the process of selling it to ABC, sat down with me one day, and he talked about something that we had to do that would be different. CBS had experimented a little bit with Sports Spectacular, but it wasn't really events. It was the birth of a ball club, and things like that. Although they had a couple of events, it was clear that there was a whole field, and Ed was very excited about it, and I was very excited about what could we do.

What we could do was that we could take the events that take place all around the world, that hundreds of thousands of people go to, that in many cases, the United States audience didn't know anything about. Some cases, the Indy 500 or something like that, they knew about. But they didn't know anything about the 24 hours of LeMans, and they didn't know much about the Japanese all-star baseball game, or some of the things that we did that first year.

So I was designated to go around the world and find these events that we could make a program out of. And Ed, in the middle of that, Ed was very supportive, and he was certainly a major part of the early impetus of doing this. Then in the middle of that, he sold his company to ABC, and he became the head of sales at ABC. And as such, his role in Wide World was diminished somewhat in the middle of that.

On the other hand, he played the critical role, because we couldn't get it on the air unless it was sold to a certain point. ABC Network had said they would put it on the air if it were, I think, sold. And with Ed in charge of sales, I went over to see him, and I said, you know, "I've got all these things" -- I had options on events. The AAU, and, U.S.-Russian track meet, and all British Open golf, and all these things that had not been on American television.

Ed, as he normally did, got all excited and said, "I'm running up a red flag, and we're going to get this done!" And it came down to the end of a day on a Friday that unless at least half of Wide World was not sold, it was not going to go on the air, and I was going to lose all of these options that I had on all of these events. There were two tobacco companies that not only could, but were major sponsors of sports events. Nobody wanted Wide World of Sports. They'd never heard of it. They didn't know what it was. In fact, I'm not even sure if we had a name at that point, but they loved NCAA football. And they set up this thing where, in order to get into NCAA football, you had to buy part of Wide World.

Brown and Williamson was willing to take a little bit of it, but they didn't want much. And ABC wanted to take their order for the college football, because they had had a bad experience in the past. Ed, to his everlasting credit, held out. I was sitting there in his office with him, and we sat there, and he said, "No. I want somebody who's going to take half of Wide World." And finally R.J. Reynolds called at five minutes to five. End of business on that day, that Friday, and said they would take it, reluctantly.

They had no real interest in it, but they would take it, just to get into NCAA football. And so a program whose 40th anniversary we're celebrating came within five minutes of not getting on. Because, had we not exercised all those options, CBS now was kind of getting excited about this concept, and so they were trying to get into the act, and several of those, had we not exercised our options, we thought that CBS would.

Thank God we held out, and we went over and had a celebration at Tavern on the Green, and Wide World was launched. That's also where we decided on the title. We were torn among Wonderful World of Sports, The World of Sports and Wide World of Sports. And, over a drink at the Tavern on the Green, we decided on Wide World of Sports. Otherwise, it would never have been on the air.

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