Richard Levine
Richard Levine

Fellowship Title:

Arledge on Arledge

Richard Levine
May 17, 1978

Fellowship Year

This is, in a sense, a catch-up newsletter. I’ve heard many nice comments about my first two newsletters on Roone Arledge and television news as well as one persistent criticism: Why didn’t I quote Arledge more, give him his fair say. A couple of people close to Arledge, who knew I had done a long interview with him, were particularly vehement on the point. I have no adequate explanation to offer. I thought the interview was pretty interesting and Arledge every bit as engaging and articulate as I’d been led to believe. I sure worked hard enough to get the interview — he’s also every bit as difficult to reach as I’d been led to believe. Maybe that’s the point. After chasing Arledge down for two solid months and getting nothing but promises, promises but no interview, when it finally happened anything that wasn’t chipped on stone tablets might have seemed a disappointment. In any case, here are excerpts from a three-hour interview with Roone Arledge conducted last November. We talked in his leafy office at ABC News on the West Side of Manhattan, and although it was a Saturday evening, there were constant interruptions for telephone calls (somebody reaches him!) and conferences with various aides-de-camp. Since this meant that questions were often repeated more than once and elicited several versions of the same answer, I have done a certain amount of editing and eliminated the Q and A format in favor of a Roone Arledge compendium. Herewith:

On Being Unreachable:

“I’m sensitive about my image of being hard to reach. But unlike the setup in most organizations, where there’s an administrator on top and creative people or doers underneath, I’m basically a doer and I like to have administrative people underneath me. (ABC board chairman) Leonard Goldenson has meetings and I duck ‘em all the time.”

On Taking the Job of News Chief:

“A lot of people told me that the job of making ABC News competitive was so difficult and so long that it wasn’t worth the trouble. One of the towering people in this industry said, why don’t you go and make a five-year contract with somebody, make yourself several million dollars and put it away, then go and do whatever you want, work for public TV if you want. In fact, I had a series of offers which would have brought me a lot of money to make films and package TV programs. There were people who said to me, we’ll put a million dollars in your bank account tomorrow, which is a hard thing to turn down. I said to myself, why should so-and-so have a yacht in the south of France and not me? What makes him so great? But, finally, it wasn’t where my head is at. My head is not flying back and forth to Hollywood. That’s why I’ve turned down the head of programming job here several times. It’s not something I’d enjoy spending my life doing. I think I could do it but I don’t think anybody does as well at something he doesn’t enjoy and respect. I respect the game that goes on of putting this against that, but I don’t respect, nor do I enjoy, an awful lot of the actual programs that go on the air.”

On the Television Industry Being So Visible:

“I don’t think any industry was ever as closely scrutinized and written about and constantly in the public eye as television. Even at the height of the movie industry it wasn’t like that. Farrah Fawcett-Majors says she’s not going to be on a TV show and immediately it’s banner headlines everywhere. (Former CBS Television president) Bob Wussler can get up and make a dumb speech about the juggling of specials causing a profit squeeze and the stock of both CBS and ABC drops a couple of points.”

On ABC’s Commitment to News:

“In the past ABC has made half-hearted efforts or, worse, cosmetic efforts, to do something about news and I wasn’t certain about what their real aim was — nor am I now. While there seems to be a major commitment now, historically there hasn’t been. It’s not an automatic thing where they say we gotta cover that. I don’t expect to win every battle but I think Fred Pierce has enough respect for me that I can go fight my battles and win my share. I don’t think the news department will have to lie down and play dead like it has in the past. By and large the network has been understanding, but then so have I.”

On Pre-empting Entertainment Programs:

“You can pre-empt a program that gets a big rating and put something on that you think is important, but if you replace a 40-share program with a ten you could lose the whole week, which in turn would be played up in the Wall Street Journal and could have adverse effects on the stock. So you have a huge responsibility if you do these things. I don’t think people realize the extent to which TV networks are hurt when they carry public broadcasting. I think the estimate is that they lose a half-million dollars for a half day’s programming.”

On Paying High Salaries:

“It was silly for people to say that Cassie Mackin was second line, implying second-rate. That’s not true. Nobody said she was Walter Cronkite, but she’s a hell of a good reporter and we have to get the best people available. She was wasted at NBC. I didn’t pretend she was going to turn the franchise around. We probably paid Cassie a little more than we had to but it was done because I wanted to make a statement that we are here and we’re serious. I want everybody in the news business to think of ABC before they go any place else. If it costs us an extra few thousand dollars to do that, what does it mean?”

On the Old ABC News Show:

“I think people tuned in a lot to see Barbara when she first came here and they just didn’t like the show they saw. I think it was dull. It was sterile. It was boring. Barbara and Harry would have stilted exchanges to prove they could relate. They had no graphics or sound on anything. Before they’d go into a commercial they’d sit on a wide shot of the two of them for 4 or 5 seconds, which was dead air. You add up a few of those in a show and it’s costing you a story. The stories were often redundant. They’d spend a lot of time saying, Today at the White House President Carter announced his new energy bill which for the first time, etc., etc., etc., and here’s Joe Blow at the White House. Joe Blow would say, Today at the White House President Carter….”

On the Audience for News:

“The audience for the news on all three networks is an older audience, although ABC’s audience is younger than the others. So you have a built-in dilemma. Do you want to go after older people who watch news or younger people who watch ABC entertainment shows. One of the reasons why when Elvis dies or the Son of Sam is captured ABC News’ ratings go up is because people who don’t normally watch news are watching then. The question is, do you want to attract people who don’t watch network news or fight over the people who do?”

On What Interests the Audience:

“People essentially like local news better than network news. As you put together a show you have to assume that you are their only source of national and international news. You have to be the paper of record. On the other hand you go in knowing that every time you feature one kind of story over another you’re much less likely to attract viewers. People do not care about the Middle East unless they think there’s going to be a war or an oil embargo. Then they care for a day. You know that every time you put a story on from the Middle East you are not going to attract viewers. People also don’t care about the daily comings and goings of diplomats and yet we must report it. Most of what we report from Congress they don’t care about unless it affects them directly. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mention a Lebanese cabinet crisis, for example, but we don’t have to spend two minutes with it from the Middle East. That’s where I disagree with (NBC News president) Dick Salant. I don’t think it’s our responsibility to sit and determine what people must see for their own good. I sat and talked to the head of radio and TV in the Soviet Union and that’s his opinion. They put a limit on the amount of popular music on the air because they think people should listen to classical music. Television is a powerful medium that has to be used for something better than sitcoms and police shows. On the other hand, if you don’t recognize the forces that play on what people watch and what they don’t then you’re a fool and you should be in a different business.”

On the Differences Between Network News Shows:

“The current wisdom now is that if the three networks are covering the news the same way the difference is the anchor people. I think that won’t be true in the future. Eventually, we won’t be covering the news the same way and we won’t be covering the same news. Certainly, we must all cover the important news of the day. But we have to be more relevant and within the structure of a half-hour news show find time to do other things, more popular stories, the kinds of things that are in the Living sections of the Washington Post and the New York Times.”

On Sports on the National News:

“One of the complaints I have about sports on the news is that you can cover the hell out of the America Cup yacht races and that’s acceptable, that’s fine. It’s dignified and smacks somewhat of educational television and it’s esoteric. I’ll leave out the Waspy, traditional part of it. The point is it’s acceptable precisely because nobody gives a damn about it except a tiny elite. But if you cover the World Series on the news or do a feature on an Ali boxing match then all of a sudden ears go up all over the place and people say what the hell are you doing. The reason for that is that we’re doing something that people are really interested in.”

On Being Too Conservative:

“I think we have erred on the side of being too conservative so far, to tell you the truth. Part of it is ABC’s third-place mentality of trying to get peer acceptance. CBS is delighted at having us be just like them. It’s only if we change the rules that they have to worry. They made them up. I think we have damn good people and I think it’ll take them a while to change the habits of a lifetime. I didn’t want to come in and scare them all to death and get them panicky. I wanted to find out who was good and who wasn’t without panicking them. Now I think I know.”

On Promoting the World Series on the News:

“If it’s lucky the “Evening News” on ABC gets 7-8 million homes a night. The World Series gets 65 million homes. Now if you think that I’m going to use the news to promote the World Series you gotta think I’m a moron. If it were the other way around, if we had a huge news audience and a struggling program somewhere that desperately needed the promotion and I said the hell with it, I’m going to promote it, then I’d say go ahead and criticize.”

©1978 Richard Levine

Richard Levine, a free-lance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is the making of the television season. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Levine as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.