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ABC Sports: Arledge played key role in ABC Sports, News

 Fond Memories
ABC Sports' Keith Jackson, Jim McKay and Al Michaels remember Roone Arledge.
Standard | Cable Modem

 The Pioneer
Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC Sports, looks back at the great things Roone Arledge brought to TV.
Standard | Cable Modem

 'Like the '27 Yankees'
The Tony Kornheiser Show: Brent Musburger reviews a moment when Roone Arledge celebrated luring another star to ABC.

 'When creativity mattered'
The Tony Kornheiser Show: Al Michaels explains why a Roone Arledge-style visionary might not make it in TV today.

Friday, December 6, 2002
Arledge created Monday Night Football
By Mike Meserole
Special to

Roone Arledge, the TV sports visionary who made "Monday Night Football" a national viewing habit, and turned the earnest but ancient Olympic Games into a worldwide television spectacular, died Thursday, Dec. 5. He was 71.
Roone Arledge created "Wide World of Sports" and "The American Sportsman" for ABC.

Arledge died Dec. 5 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC News spokesman. The cause of death was complications from cancer, ABC News reported.

In 38 years as the American Broadcasting Company's most prominent and successful executive, first as guiding light of the sports division and then as mastermind of ABC's rise to the top of network news, Arledge was credited with popularizing such original programs as "Monday Night Football," "Wide World of Sports," "The American Sportsman" and "Nightline", and coining expressions like "Up Close and Personal" and "The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat." He made household names of the well-traveled Jim McKay and the ill-tempered Howard Cosell, and later did the same for such news anchors as Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel. He spent millions raiding other networks for major talent and hundreds of millions to keep those networks from taking major events from him.

Life magazine listed Arledge among its "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" in 1990, the same year he was elected to the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Four years later, Sports Illustrated ranked him third, behind Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, in its 40th anniversary issue, honoring the 40 most significant individuals in U.S. sports since SI was first published.

Of the truckloads of sports and news Emmy awards won on his watch, the ones that meant the most to him were the 29 earned covering the 1972 Munich Olympics and the kidnapping of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists. That coverage "changed television itself," according to authors Marc Gunther and Bill Carter in their book "Monday Night Mayhem": "From then on whenever a catastrophe struck, viewers no longer were content to wait for film at eleven; they expected television to afford them a chance to be eyewitnesses to history."

Roone Pinckney Arledge II was born in New York on July 8, 1931, and grew up on Long Island, more a serious follower of sports than a star participant. He had no trouble, however, going for the gold off the field, particularly at Columbia University, where he graduated in 1952 as president of his class, president of his fraternity and editor of the yearbook.

Arledge came into the world the same year Thomas Edison died and shared with America's greatest inventor a genius for innovation, industrial management and self-promotion that few had ever seen before, at least not in the wide-open early days of television sports. After a two-year hitch in the army, where he produced radio programs at the Aberdeen proving ground in Maryland, he took a job with NBC-TV's New York affiliate. Production talent was so scarce back then that when ABC acquired the rights to televise NCAA football in 1960, sports packager Edgar Scherick, who was running the nascent sports department, hired Arledge, a 28-year-old whose five-year resume included a regional Emmy for producing a morning puppet show.

"When I got into it in 1960," said Arledge, "televising sports amounted to going out on the road, opening three or four cameras and trying not to blow any plays. They were barely documenting the game, but nobody cared because the marvel of seeing a picture was enough to keep people glued to their sets."

Soon after arriving at ABC, Arledge sent a memorandum to his new bosses, laying out his plan to break with the tradition of "bringing the game to the viewer" and concentrate instead on "bringing the viewer to the game." The memo promised to "utilize every production technique that has been learned in producing variety shows, in covering political conventions, and in shooting travel and adventure series." It went on to say, "we will have cameras mounted on jeeps, on mike booms, in risers on helicopters, anything necessary. In short, we are going to add show business to sports!"

Like Edison's invention factory at Menlo Park in the late 1800s, Arledge's shop of free-wheeling innovators came up with one novel gadget after another to make whatever event ABC Sports was covering seem more interesting on television than it was in person. Instant replays, slow motion, freeze-frame, split screen, field microphones, hand-held cameras, end zone cameras, cameras in blimps, on cranes, under water; many were called gimmicks when they first appeared, but all have long since become production staples. That technology, combined with a scene-setting story line, bold graphics, lots of crowd shots and close-ups of everyone from angry coaches to nervous mothers to face-painted drunks, gave ABC events a unique look and feel. And at the center of it all was Arledge.

"Roone was great in his total control of the whole situation," said former ABC network president Tom Moore in Bert Randolph Sugar's "The Thrill of Victory: The Inside Story of ABC Sports". "He did it all, the acquiring of the rights, the administration of the office, the hiring of the personnel, the packaging of the product, the delivery of the product, the scheduling and promotion. But his greatest asset, which very few people know, is people. He's got the goddamnedest troop of people over there you've ever seen!"

With the sun at ABC rising and setting on Arledge, most staffers, like right-hand man Chuck Howard, never got the credit they deserved. Others, like proteges Don Ohlmeyer and Dick Ebersol, had to strike out on their own to get recognized. Nevertheless, from 1960 to 1986, Arledge's army was the best production team in television, beginning with the debut of "Wide World of Sports" on April 21, 1961.

He did it all, the acquiring of the rights, the administration of the office, the hiring of the personnel, the packaging of the product, the delivery of the product, the scheduling and promotion. But his greatest asset, which very few people know, is people. He's got the goddamnedest troop of people over there you've ever seen!
former ABC network president Tom Moore on Roone Arledge
According to Pulitzer Prize winning TV critic Ron Powers, "Wide World of Sports" quickly "established a truth that had never been tested before: that instead of telecasting events because people were already interested in them (the World Series, the Rose Bowl), clever programmers could make people interested in events because they were on television."

From track meets and cliff diving to sumo wrestling and barrel jumping, Wide World consistently lived up to its signature opening, a promise most young viewers could recite from memory better than the preamble of the Constitution. As first written by Arledge on the back of an airline ticket and recited excitedly by host Jim McKay, it went: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport: The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC's "Wide World of Sports!"

Wide World was Ed Scherick's idea. He thought it up, negotiated the early rights contracts and sold the advertising. He then handed the ball to Arledge, who ran with it and never looked back. Forty years later, talking to Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, Scherick credited Arledge with making the show a success but not with devising the concept. "Roone had nothing to do with the formation of Wide World," said his old mentor.

Jim Spence, a former senior vice president of ABC Sports told Sandomir: "Roone executed [the show], but he didn't create it. I think Ed's complaint has been that while Roone didn't take credit for creating it, he didn't deny it when someone else said he did." Within three years of Wide World's debut, ABC was covering its first Olympics, the Winter Games at Innsbruck, and even though the United States won only one gold medal, Arledge fell in love with the production possibilities of the quadrennial pageant. Over the seven Olympic cycles from 1964 to 1988, ABC would carry 10 of the 14 winter and summer games and escalate its coverage from 17 hours at Innsbruck in '64 to 180 hours at Los Angeles 20 years later. Rights fees also skyrocketed from $597,000 for Innsbruck to over 500 times that much ($309 million) for Calgary in 1988.

ABC's Olympic broadcasts focused on track and field, gymnastics and figure skating to lure women and casual sports fans into the tent, and were sprinkled with a steady stream of Up Close and Personals, the two-minute profiles of medal hopefuls who were more often than not Americans. But there was still plenty of air time for the unexpected, like Franz Klammer's wild, gold-medal ride in the downhill at Innsbruck in 1976, the U.S. hockey team upsetting the Russians in 1980 and, of course, the tragedy at Munich in 1972.

In 1969, the year after ABC had carried both the winter and summer Olympics for the first time, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle approached Arledge about a Monday night game of the week. CBS and NBC had already turned down Rozelle, citing their well-established prime time line-ups, but ABC was a ratings wasteland on Monday nights. Arledge paid a hefty $25.5 million for the three-year, 39-game package, but it was easily the best buy of his career.

Another good move was pairing the caustic Cosell with country quarterback Don Meredith as color commentators. Much has been made of Arledge's refusal to ever give the NFL or any other league veto power over ABC announcers, but the fact is that Rozelle respected Cosell as a journalist and didn't mind his presence in the booth. The rest is broadcasting history. Within a year MNF had a weekly audience of nearly 30 million and would become the longest running prime time show in television history. And by the show's eighth season, a TV Guide poll revealed that Cosell was the most-liked and most-hated sportscaster in the country. America's favorite blowhard also figured in the only out-and-out failure of Arledge's career--"Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell," a 1975 attempt to reprise the old "Ed Sullivan Show" that folded in 18 weeks.

Arledge, who had been named president of ABC Sports in 1968, was appointed president of ABC News as well in 1977. Despite a less than warm welcome to the club ("People in news were outraged that I hadn't been a reporter or worked my up"), he went about building the perennial No. 3 network news division into a winner. First he broke up the disastrous evening news anchor team of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters, brought back Peter Jennings as one of three new anchors and renamed the show "World News Tonight." He also launched a pair of newsmagazines, "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live"; beefed up his stable of reporters by raiding CBS for veterans Jeff Greenfield, John Laurence, Richard Roth and Morton Dean, among others; stole the redoubtable David Brinkley from NBC and gave him a Sunday morning talk show called "This Week"; and at 11:30 p.m., where no news program had ever prospered before, he created "America Held Hostage" in 1980 with Ted Koppel reporting on the Iranian hostage crisis every night for 15 minutes to a half hour. When the crisis ended a year later, Koppel, the show and its one-story-a-night format remained as "Nightline."

Back in the '60's Arledge and Tom Moore drew up a list of 15 events they wanted to secure the rights to so that ABC would be the unquestioned leader in worldwide TV sports. Since then, ABC has covered just about all of them--the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the World Cup, the U.S. and British Opens, the Indianapolis 500, Wimbledon, heavyweight championship fights, and the Tour de France, among others. One of the few events they missed was the Masters; a cozy relationship among Augusta National, Cadillac, Travelers Insurance and CBS has always prevented any other network from making a pitch for the tournament.

Too bad. Getting the notoriously protective Cliff Roberts to take ABC's money and allow Cosell inside the gates would have been the supreme test of Arledge's legendary negotiating skills.

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