Richard Levine
Richard Levine

Fellowship Title:

Television News and Television Sports — A Profile of Roone Arledge (Part One)

Richard Levine
December 27, 1977

Fellowship Year

There are other curious similarities between the two men. Both are genuine individuals in an industry whose top executives often seem to have been born at Groton and bred at Yale. Both seem to have some mysterious umbilical relation to popular taste — the so-called “golden gut” syndrome. Both watch the shows they produce with genuine absorption and infinite attention to detail. (When Arledge is not at an ABC Sports event he unfailingly views the broadcast in his Central Park South apartment or his weekend retreat in Sagaponack, L.I., calling in instructions to the truck on a special “Roone phone” that is set up at every location for his exclusive use.) And both are essentially adaptors rather than creators, people able to exploit the innovations of others for mass appeal. Arledge did not invent a single one of the technical innovations with which his name is so closely linked — including his most famous electronic toy, the instant replay — but he saw their uses. (In television, a medium invented by one Philo T. Farnsworth, application is by far the greater part of glory.) Ironically, Arledge and Silverman both first came to the attention of ABC executives in 1960, with treatises on the way things should be done — in Silverman’s case a master’s thesis on ABC programming, in Arledge’s a long memo on producing the network’s N.C.A.A. football schedule.

Before Arledge came on the scene televised sports was a loss leader operation designed to fill up long weekend afternoons with relatively inexpensive programming. Technically, it had not progressed too much beyond the stage when wrestling from Jamaica Arena shared the screen about equally with artfully designed “Please Stand By” signs. The idea was to train a few fixed cameras on a football field and hope that one of them kept the ball within range most of the time. The sound of the game was picked up by dropping a microphone from the sportscasters’ booth. Sportscasters themselves were — some still are — paid shills for the home team. Sports departments, which existed under the aegis of news divisions, were run by hail-fellows-well-met whose principal virtue was their ability to remember the names of club owners’ wives.

The young Arledge’s notion in his memo was a simple one. Over the years it has become refined into the slogan: “Take the fan to the game, not the game to the fan.” That meant covering the game with many more cameras, since the best seat in the stadium was clearly not on the 50 yard line but wherever the ball was at the moment. It meant capturing the atmosphere of the event as well as the event itself, so as to involve the audience emotionally. Technically, it grew to mean the use of directional and remote microphones, slow-motion and stop-motion videotape, instant replays and split-screens, isolatedaction cameras and hand-held cameras, blimp shots as well as honey shots. It meant the replacement of marching bands at halftime with highlights and analysis of the game as well as prerecorded biographies and interviews. The point was to reduce the “dead spots” in the game like huddles and time outs, to heighten the drama of the contest and quicken the pace toward what Arledge, in a phrase that has entered the language, called “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Arledge happened to be writing about football, but the real name of the game was sensory overload.

ABC decided to give the 29-year-old Arledge his shot at producing the collegiate football schedule. Within weeks he was also producing A.F.L. football. Within months he had introduced “Wide World of Sports,” now the longest-running and most successful sports program on television, a show which proved that America’s fascination with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat could encompass anything from a steeple chase up the Eiffel Tower to an intramural ABC softball game, from a chess tournament to jalopy derby (a “sport” that Arledge virtually invented). In 1969 Arledge picked up “Monday Night Football” after CBS turned it down because, says Bill McPhail, that network’s sports director at the time, “they told me we couldn’t preempt Doris Day — the wives wouldn’t stand for it.” It has been part of Arledge’s success that he does not often brook that kind of network programming interference (admittedly, over the years ABC had very few programs that could not profitably be preempted), just as NBC’s celebrated decision to interrupt the last two minutes of a hotly contested Jets-Oakland game for a Heidi special some years back — a decision that kept the network’s telephone wires incandescent with outrage for days — would never have happened on ABC.

From the beginning “Monday Night Football” provided ABC with its first inroad into the competition’s prime-time schedule and, not surprisingly, next season it will occasionally spin off, in the manner of successful series, into Tuesday and Thursday Night Football as well. But the real cornerstones of Arledge’s empire have been the past three summer Olympics, which he has “line” produced himself, spending two near-sleepless weeks before a 34-monitor panel selecting which parts of what events to broadcast. It is surely the decathalon of television production and an event at which Arledge is the undisputed champion, in part because he has never allowed anyone else to play. Last year, with rights to both the Winter and Summer Olympics, ABC aired 500 hours of sports programming, for which it won 32 out of a possible 34 Emmy awards. Since Arledge is the only network sports chief who lists himself as executive producer of every program his division produces — most of which he only sees when they are broadcast — he personally accepted each one of them.

ABC Sports, Inc., is at least as profitable as it is prestigious, doing a gross business last year in excess of $200 million (Arledge himself, reputedly the highest paid executive in television, did a gross business of nearly $1 million.) The company was the first to “regionalize” sports broadcasting by feeding different NBA games to different parts of the country and thus attracting local advertising. It does so much “cross promoting” on its own telecasts that upcoming ABC Sports events sometimes seem to be announced more frequently than the score. There are lavish parties for paying customers before every “Monday Night Football” game and free trips to far-flung events such as the Olympics. In between times customer relations are fostered by a group of attractive young women known as “Roone’s angels.”

Arledge’s business techniques receive more mixed reviews than his production talents. Perhaps befitting a man whose two favorite leisure pastimes are horticulture (his offices look like sets for “Tarzan” films) and big game hunting (he holds the record for the largest Cape Buffalo ever shot), Arledge’s genuine charm and affability belie a ruthless competitive instinct that his peers at rival networks feel often shades into the area of, shall we say, ethical relativity. Two of them have described him as “heap big speaker with forked tongue” and “too clever by half.”

As a negotiator Arledge generally wins the rights to events through the simple but effective expedient of paying more for them. He is also a good poker player, often using a technique that has become known as the “ABC closure,” a take-it-or-leave-it offer that must be answered within 24 hours. But the stick can just as easily become a carrot. “He knows exactly what the other guy needs,” says Barry Frank, vice president of sports at CBS and a former Arledge associate. “He’ll sometimes come in after the hard bargaining has been done and let you have your last demand. You may have lost the previous twenty but somehow you feel obligated to him.”

What is certain is that Arledge will go to extraordinary lengths to buy the rights to even minor events or to produce them once they are bought. Author Dan Jenkins (whose most recent novel, “Limo,” focuses on a television tycoon who is partially modeled on Arledge) tells of the day he joined his friend ski promoter Bob Beattie at Kennedy Airport for a flight to Denver. Beattie and Arledge had been negotiating the TV rights to a skiing package that morning and when the deal had not been completed by the time Beattie had to leave for the airport, Arledge suggested that they continue talking while his chauffeur drove them there. When certain details had not been cleared up by the time they arrived, Arledge suggested a quick drink. When there were still loose ends by flight time, Arledge simply got on the plane and flew to Denver. “He would have flown to Zurich if that’s where I’d been going,” Beattie added.

Arledge’s professional diligence proved to be “the last straw” in his marriage some years ago. As he described the incident in a Playboy interview, Richard Nixon decided to attend a Texas-Arkansas game at the last minute and Arledge, who was supposed to meet his wife in Hawaii that weekend for a vacation, abruptly changed his own plans. “I felt I had to produce it personally. I would never have forgiven myself if something had happened to the President and I wasn’t there.” “Because you felt you could have helped prevent an assassination?” the interviewer asked. “No,” Arledge replied, “because I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else making the decisions on how to cover one.” Arledge has evidently solved that particular conflict in his current marriage — to a former Miss Alabama who was once his secretary — by taking his wife along with him to the games. A striking brunnette, she can frequently be identified as the honey in many of the honey shots these days.

Part of ABC Sports’ success has been Arledge’s ability to inspire his staff to work as hard as he does. “Vince Lombardi and Roone Arledge,” says Frank Gifford, “are the two men I’ve known in my life who could make me go the extra yard.” Howard Cosell’s praise threatens to give loyalty a bad name: “Quite simply, he had the sublime vision to put me on the air when no one else would.” Chet Forte, the director of “Monday Night Football,” talks about Arledge’s ability to criticize his people without unduly bruising their egos. “I’ll never forget a Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game a few years back which Notre Dame won 35-22. It was a terrible game from a director’s point of view because one of our cameramen blew two touchdowns — just stayed with the passer instead of the ball. When I saw Roone the next day he said, ‘Nice going, Chet. Good, close game.’ I said, ‘Whaddya mean, Roone, it was a rout — 35-22.’ ‘That’s funny,’ he said. ‘I could’ve sworn it was 23-22.’”

Outside of Arledge’s staff the consensus about his managerial abilities breaks down. Other ABC executives complain that he refuses to delegate responsibility and has never designated a number two man at ABC Sports even now that he spends most of his time at News. But the most universal complaint about Arledge — the one around which he has built a reputation of near-mythic proportions — is that he is unreachable. Now that Roone Arledge has two offices, the standard joke goes, there are two places where he can’t be contacted. He seems to live in transit. When he isn’t off in Siberia signing up the Yakut bear wrestling champion, he is shuttling between offices in his chauffeur-driven Jaguar or from home to work or lunch to an appointment. If his several secretaries know where he is, they aren’t talking. Although staffers swear that they can reach Arledge when they need him, I know of one man who produced a regular ABC Sports series for three years and saw Arledge exactly three times. “The problem,” the producer says, “is not just that you can’t reach him but that no one else makes decisions in his absence.”

That kind of invisibility is part of Arledge’s mania for keeping his options open until the last possible moment. In the unscripted, unrehearsed world of TV sports production, last-minute decision making often works to Arledge’s advantage. A few Saturdays ago on “Wide World of Sports” Arledge learned that the Trenton 150 motor race, which CBS was covering live on its competing show, “Sports Spectacular,” would be rained out. Because motor racing always draws a sizable audience he quickly canceled a segment of the show to cover an auto race in Michigan, where the weather was fine.

By contrast, on the one entertainment series Arledge has produced, the mercifully short-lived “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell,” Arledge’s eleventh-hour ministrations helped make the show the unmitigated disaster that it was. “It wasn’t until Friday afternoon,” says sports writer Bob Lipsyte, who worked on the show, “that Arledge would allow the guests and the script to be nailed down. When he saw the ratings nosedive he scheduled anything he thought might attract a young audience — animal acts, bubble gum acts and lots and lots of Mason Reese. The show got so bad that people were not only tuning it out themselves but going into their neighbor’s house to turn it off.” While admitting that “there is no way to exaggerate Arledge’s technical brilliance,” the experience left Lipsyte skeptical about the future of ABC News. He recently quit his column in the New York Postbecause of editorial interferences and finds some disturbing resemblances between his two former bosses. “Both Murdoch and Arledge are concerned only with circulation or ratings. They have no vision of how to use their power. Both have fashioned enormously successful careers out of blurring the distinction between news and entertainment. Frankly, I don’t much care if my news is dull as long as I know it’s accurate.”

Arledge always operated best on the interface between news and entertainment — that’s what sports is about, in any case. It shares with news the characteristic of being an unfolding real-life event with an unpredictable outcome and with entertainment the fact that it is a staged spectacle. Arledge was interested in drama, in impact, and he didn’t much care whether he got it from the news or the entertainment aspect of sports. If he has a philosophical creed it is the showman’s “Never a dull moment.” He used his technical wizardry to extract every last ounce of drama from the event itself, even creating confrontation when it wasn’t really there — or at least visibly there, which is the same thing in television. By splitting the screen he could make skiers racing against the clock seem as if they were competing directly against one another, just as he could pair off two golfers putting on separate greens.

But if there wasn’t much drama to be squeezed out of the event itself — if it was a 3-0 football game slugged out inch by inch in ankle-deep mud — he had to exaggerate the news value of sports. For instance, he would create instant stars in each of the Olympics by focusing on their events and profiling them in “up close and personal” biographical vignettes. To a lesser extent the same star treatment was accorded certain athletes between the Olympics. The useful thing about a star is that he can be most newsworthy precisely when he is least entertaining. If Joe Namath connects on one-third of his pagges in a Los Angeles Rams game it is mildly entertaining. If he doesn’t hit a single receiver throughout the game it is — flash! — news.

By the same token Arledge made sure his announcers became stars. He deliberately encouraged Howard Cosell to “play the Dorothy Kilgalen role,” as he puts it, in order to stir up controversy. And then he provided him with Don Meredith as a foil. If there’s not much drama happening on the field Cosell and Meredith can whip up some in the booth or a camera can pick up a fan holding a sign which reads, “Go Home Big Mouth,” or some such thing. Or if the action is inch by inch in ankle-deep mud Cosell can solemnly intone that the game is possibly the worst one ever held in the history of the National Football League. That’s news — sort of. The apotheosis of this kind of thing may have occurred in 1975, when ABC Sports telecast George Foreman fighting five different patsies in a single afternoon. When the event began to turn predictably sour Cosell started talking about it as “the ultimate travesty of boxing,” etc., without mentioning that the network had originated the whole idea. It’s a kind of pseudo-journalism that brings to mind that great Jimmy Cannon line about Cosell: How can you trust a man who changed his name and wears a toupe to tell it like it is.” It isn’t exactly the Network routine of arming the revolutionaries and then filming the inevitable carnage, but it’s too close for comfort.

The formula proved immensely successful, but a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. It used to be said that television, with its ability to transmit the drama of live events instantaneously, was made for sports, but it became increasingly apparent that sports were being made — or made over, anyway for television. Televised sports is a stunning illustration of a kind of sociological Principle of Uncertainty in which the instrument of observation radically alters what is observed. The major inconvenience in broadcasting live events outside a studio was precisely the reason television was attracted to them in the first place — their spontaneous, unpredictable quality. In most cases television sports producers didn’t care which team won so long as it won on time, for in television time was money with a vengeance — upwards of $150,000 a commercial minute for the major sporting events these days.

All sports had their own special visual challenges for television coverage but they all shared one overriding scheduling problem in that they were open-ended and also exhibited an unfortunate predilection for taking place when the television audience was smallest, which is to say in daylight. Certain sports, such as tennis, threw themselves at television like a chorus girl at a high roller. In the space of a few years tennis, once the most visually monotonous and open-ended of sports, blossomed into living color, encouraged spectator participation and completely changed its scoring system by instituting the tie breaker. (In trying to push tennis into a mass-audience sport television was responsible for the tennis boom, and starting this year, now that the attempt has been judged a ratings failure, may be responsible for the tennis bust.) But as television came to represent a greater source of revenue to the teams than the box office, even the major sports responded to its needs. The most celebrated example was the NFL’s decision to redo the second half kickoff in the 1967 Superbowl because NBC was caught in the middle of a commercial break. But at every “Monday Night Football” game there is an ABC employee standing on the sidelines whose job it is to signal the referee to interrupt the game if the network needs a commercial break. The players then mill around until the referee receives a second signal that the break is over and play can be resumed.

Television not only changed individual sports but altered the balance among them. Much of Arledge’s success can be credited to his original instinct that football, with its continuous action, linear progression and dramatic oppositions, was a more televisable sport than baseball (where, he has pointed out somewhat scornfully, “the function of the principal player, the pitcher, is to impede rather than promote the action”) and so would eventually become more popular as well. It was, of course, a self-fulfilling prediction by the leading television sports producer.

If television — and most especially Roone Arledge and ABC Sports — could buy that kind of influence over sports through its financial commitment, the price was nevertheless exceedingly high and the control never enough. The rights to NFL football, to choose one example among dozens, more than doubled to over $200 million in the new four-year contract that Arledge has recently signed. Indeed, there were certain prestige events that began to lose money for the networks, so high were the rights paid for them (the 1980 Olympics, which NBC bought from the Russians for $85 million, may well become the most celebrated example).

Although Arledge had almost single-handedly created the problem, he was also quick to see the solution — namely, what have come to be known as “junk sports” as well as made-for-television events. Compared to what even a minor but legitimate sport could command Arledge could buy the rights to cliff diving or firemen’s competitions or jalopy derbies for a song, and if they were properly presented people would watch them in droves. It was all in the packaging. Arledge almost never put on tennis (except perhaps for his friend Ethel Kennedy’s invitational tournament) but as a show the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King estravaganza on Mother’s Day (Mother’s Day, for heaven’s sake!) of 1975 was a natural, particularly if you put a grotesque father-and-daughter act like Rosie Cassals and Howard Cosell in the announcers’ booth, which Arledge did. And in terms of ratings an updated carny routine like Evel Knievel’s “death defying” Snake River jump also couldn’t miss, even (especially!) if Evel could.

If the event itself couldn’t command the ratings, the participants would — an old Arledge trick. He was the first to introduce the various made-for-television celebrity specials that have proliferated to such an extent that hardly a week goes by that does not afford viewers the opportunity to watch Gabe Kaplin and Farrah Fawcett-Majors squaring off in apple bobbing or some such thing. (Arledge scheduled the first such event, the “Battle of the Network Stars,” opposite an American Basketball Association game when that league defected from his network to CBS two years ago and it received a 40 share, better than any “Monday Night Football” game has ever done.) And the beauty of it all was that there were no truculent apple bobbing commissioners around to tell Arledge where he could place his cameras or how he could promote the event and no hide-bound apple bobbing purists to cite infractions of time-honored rules. The dream of perfect control had become a reality in televised sports.

Alas, something had been lost along the way. The delicate balance between sports as news and sports as entertainment teetered perilously toward entertainment. Production values had replaced all others, ethical ones included. The fact that the networks now produced rather than simply broadcast many “sports” events involved them in an inevitable conflict between good business and, shall we say, good sportsmanship. By last fall the incidents of dubious practices had mounted to the point where the House Subcommittee on Communications decided to investigate the relationship between TV and sports — and uncovered the worst television scandal since Charles van Doren took a dive on the quiz show “Twenty-One” at ‘50’s prices.

The Congressional investigation focused on two events, a series of CBS-sponsored tennis matches between Jimmy Connors and several opponents which the network falsely advertised as winner-take-all events even though each participant was guaranteed “appearance fees” of $150,000, and ABC’s “U.S. Boxing Championships.” The ABC tournament (which Arledge was going to call the “World Championship of Boxing” until someone reminded him that there were no world champions in it) was put together by boxing promoter Don King in association with Ring magazine (the “Bible of Boxing”) and bankrolled with $1.9 million of the network’s money. From its inception rumors proliferated that fighters had been forced to pay kickbacks to managers to get into the tournament and that the Bible of Boxing had turned Apocrypha, falsifying the records of certain participants (one fighter who had not fought in over a year found himself credited with victories in two phantom bouts supposedly held in Mexico) in order to justify their inclusion. Certainly, a disproportionate number of the fighters in the tournament were managed by King cronies and relatives. It was difficult to believe that ABC Sports was not hearing what everybody else even vaguely connected to boxing was hearing, especially since a boxing expert hired by the network to protect its interests, Alex Wallau, had circulated an internal memo listing 14 of the 56 fighters in the elimination tournament as out and out “disgraces” and many of the others as simply “marginal.” Nevertheless, the network continued to broadcast the tournament for three months, until an incident occurred that television executives could hardly ignore, if only because it happened on television.

Last April heavyweight Scotty LeDoux, enraged after a controversial decision against him, charged over to winner Johnny Boudreaux and started kicking him while he was being interviewed by Howard Cosell, whose toupe came unstuck along with the tournament. At that point Arledge, who was watching the incident at home, made a curious and not uncharacteristic decision. With the telecast over and producer Chet Forte already out of the truck, Arledge ordered him to go back on the air so that Cosell could question LeDoux about his charge that the fight was fixed, Johnny Boudreaux being among the stable of boxers managed by Don King’s associates. A lackluster entertainment had suddenly become a news event and Arledge had decided to cover it.

Later, after ABC suspended the tournament and a Maryland grand jury began looking into it, Arledge claimed that the interview helped establish ABC’s good faith in the whole seamy affair. He also hired Michael Armstrong, formerly the chief counsel of the Knapp Commission, to conduct an independent inhouse investigation and he put out the word that any fighter who felt he had been unfairly treated should contact him. Not surprisingly, the in-house investigation absolved all participants in the tournament of engaging in “conduct which would warrant criminal prosecution.” (This sort of thing is known as a “laugher” in the boxing world.) As for contacting Arledge, when a producer for CBS’ “Who’s Who,” which did a segment on the tournament, got a gruff-voiced colleague to call ABC and pose as a boxer who felt he had been unfairly treated, Arledge’s assistant referred him to, of all places, Ring magazine.

In terms of the network’s culpability the very least that can be claimed, even accepting Arledge at his word that he never heard the widespread reports of malfeasance, is that Arledge should have scrutinized the tournament more closely (even on its very best behavior boxing is not exactly ring-a-levio) and answered his telephone more frequently. As Rep. Marty Russo pointed out to him during the Congressional hearings: “You had everybody warning you but you did nothing. Nobody was listening.”

Another matter touched upon by the Committee was as relevant to Arledge’s new job as to his old one. In an interview with San Diego magazine last summer Dick Carlson, a former reporter for KABC in Los Angeles, charged that Arledge put a stop to an investigation he had already begun into alleged Mafia involvement in the La Costa resort because of a golf tournament he was planning to televise from there. “He said to me in no uncertain terms,” Carlson told the interviewer, “that the Tournament of Champions was being carried by ABC and that La Costa was very upset about an ABC-owned station being down there asking questions …. ” Arledge denies any interference, saying he had called KABC merely to find out what the investigation had uncovered so that he could broadcast it during the tournament. Carlson’s response was, “That’s bullshit.”

(To be continued in RML-2)

Received in New York on December 27, 1977

©1977 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.