"Hey, Fred, you sure are lookin' powerful today." At first it's hard to see exactly who's taking such liberties with New York elevator etiquette — face front, no talking, eyes glued to the steady progression of lighted numbers. Fred Pierce, the president of the ABC television network, the man whom New York magazine has recently called "The Most Powerful Man in Television" in a cover headline, turns the corners of his mouth upward ever so slightly in a zippered smile that warns: Shhh, elevator time! He looks more funereal than powerful, in fact: black chalk-striped suit, black lace-up shoes, specks of color on a dark tie like a sprig on a casket. His boss, Elton Rule, the president of the whole corporate shebang, doesn't even allow the specks of color in his tie or the pained smile on his face. Like the other ABC executives riding shoulder to shoulder up to the Trianon Ballroom of the New York Hilton, he is into his elevator yoga with a vengeance: face front, no talking, silently counting the lighted numbers … five … six … seven … eight. "Boy, doesn't Fred look powerful. Fred, you're sure lookin' powerful today. Jee-zus, Fred looks pow-er-ful. Hey, Fred ….

Only after the door opens and the pressure eases is it possible to see the culprit behind this unsettling incident, since he is still, despite a hefty boost from elevator boots, several inches shorter than the rest of his colleagues. He seems out of place in other ways, a pocket mogul who exhibits neither the official mortician's look of those on the top rung of the network jungle gym nor the Cardin-clad, Gucci-shoed style of their middle-level subordinates. He has fluffy red hair and gold-rimmed aviator glasses on a friendly cherubic face that looks like what Howdy Doody might have looked like if he had eased his way into affluent, high-caloric middle age by learning how to pull other people's strings. Although he is dressed with somewhat more restraint today, Roone Arledge is famous for going tieless in those glass-walled, neo-Philistinian media Gazas along Sixth Avenue wearing polka-dotted shirts with the sleeves rolled over Abercrombie and Fitch bush jackets and waving around unlit Monte Christo cigars like a baton master who has lost his parade. In fact, last June, when he added the presidency of ABC News to his long-held fiefdom at ABC Sports, he told the convention of network affiliates that Elton Rule only gave him the job so that he would be forced to wear a coat and tie to work.

That was not the reason, needless to say. In the lean years when CBS and NBC could outdraw most of ABC's prime-time programming with test patterns, Arledge's sports division was the only bright spot on the corporate ledger. He made money and won awards covering everything from Olympic decathalons to barrel jumping at Grossingers, becoming in the process the most powerful man, not just in television but in the wide world (lower caps) of sports. If, as some suspect, the real religion in this country takes place on Sunday afternoon before the television set rather than Sunday morning before the pulpit, Roone Arledge is its High Priest. For better or worse, he brought America Howard Cosell and instant replay and braless starlets in T-shirts doing warm-up jumping jacks at celebrity tournaments. There are those at ABC who will tell you out of earshot of Fred Pierce and Fred Silverman that it is no accident that the network's current resurgence began in the fall of 1976, immediately following its coverage of the Montreal Olympics — Roone Arledge's Olympics, really, since he is the one who decides which portions of what events Americans get to see, and television history's longest and most successful lead-in. A few months ago ABC televised the World Series, and that most hallowed of American sports events was also Roone Arledge's World Series, for it took place largely in television's prime time rather than baseball's (surely the crisp Indian summer afternoons of yore) and it starred a collection of mini-conglomerates who squabbled among themselves and fled from the "recreational violence" of home-town fans at their moment of triumph like second story men hitting the ground — a situation to a large extent created by the huge influx of television money into sports, most of it dispensed with a liberal hand by Roone Arledge. Be that as it may, the bottom line on Roone Arledge is that he has always batted cleanup in the corporate lineup. He could probably walk around the thickly-carpeted white-on-white corridors of 1330 Sixth Avenue in a fur-lined jockstrap without anyone daring to blink.

Clearly, Arledge had been appointed to his new job to give the network the same ratings and, hopefully, respectability in news as he has given it in sports. And the fear and trembling that greeted his appointment last spring, both within the ABC News organization and at the other networks, grew out of an understandable concern that he would use the same visual gimmickry and show biz hype in the relatively constrained world of TV news — that he would "bring on the elephants and the dancing girls," in the words of one senior ABC correspondent — that has long been his trademark in the rough-and-tumble world of television sports.

The reaction was no doubt heightened by the special niche that the news division occupies in the hierarchy of network values, for it is the only area where prestige can be mentioned ahead of profits and virtue is assumed to be its own reward, at least financially. News is where the networks maintain the polite fiction that the public's airways are licensed to them in return for serving the public's interest, a function which the weekly incursions into our living rooms over the years of talking horses and flying nuns and disappearing Martians have not been deemed fit to fulfill. But ABC News has traditionally been as bankrupt journalistically as financially and the assumption among television newsmen was nearly universal that the network, suddenly outdistancing the competition in the prime-time ratings race, had sent in this pinch hitter from sports to buy itself some respectability in the crass and cocky way of the newly rich. Roone Arledge was the moneychanger in the temple of television news.

Rumors of his appointment first began to circulate about the same time as the movie Network opened, and that cautionary fable about the takeover of a news operation by a ruthless, ratings-happy programming executive suddenly seemed uncannily prophetic. Would Arledge let Rona Barrett play Sybil the Soothsayer on the "Evening News"?

The fact of the matter was that what everybody was fearful would happen had, to a large degree, already happened. Network was more history than prophecy. On the local level Happy Talk News — with its infestation of blow-dried, finger-popping anchors and its journalistic mix of sex and mayhem — was already a bloated, ad-rich institution on most big-city news stations. On the national level the ratings success of "60 Minutes" continued to spawn illegitimate offspring, while Fred Pierce's hiring of Barbara Walters at $1 million a year seemed less significant by itself than the fact that half of her salary was being paid by the network's news division and half by its entertainment division. It is safe to say that network news was undergoing a sea change as unsettling as it had ever experienced since John Cameron Swayzee first began hopscotching the world for headlines a quarter century ago.

All of which was very much in evidence when the group of ABC executives walked into the Trianon Ballroom for the International Radio and Television Society's luncheon, Arledge still yapping at Fred Pierce's heels like a puppy let off the leash. The luncheon was billed as a panel discussion about changing news concepts by the executive in charge of each network's news division, but it quickly became a study in changing network news executives themselves. To be sure, the old familiar on-camera faces were reassuringly in attendance on the dais — Walter and John and Barbara, with David off in Washington and Harry off wherever Barbara wasn't. But among the featured speakers, once you got past Richard Salant, who had been the president of CBS News since 1966, there was Roone Arledge, who had three months of on-the-job training, and Richard Wald, the president of … but no, that curly-haired fellow with the hand-penciled namecard wasn't Wald but his replacement, Les Crystal, who had been head of NBC News, the time now being one o'clock, exactly an hour and a half. The recent changes in his network's evening news program that Wald had planned to talk about clearly hadn't worked out as well as had been hoped.

The fact was that the audience for the networks' news shows, which were all on at an inconvenient early-evening hour when the kids were eating dinner and many middle-class types were still commuting, was probably the most conservative audience for any TV program outside the Lawrence Welk show, older (the average viewer was over 50) and less educated than the prime-time audience. It was not an audience that suffered change lightly — and its patience has not often been tried. In the early days of television the model for the network news was the radio commentator who "ripped and read" wire copy into a microphone, with an occasional Movietone newsreel interlude of some dignitary waving from the ramp of an airplane. By the late ‘50's (nearly a decade later for ABC) the model had become the front page of the New York Times, a "headline service" directed by "managing editor" Walter Cronkite — and there it has remained ever since. For two decades the other networks followed that safe and respectable format — a case of the bland leading the bland. The secret of Uncle Walter — of the entire anchorman concept, really — was not so much his widely praised trustworthiness as what TV news people sometimes refer to as the "loneliness factor" — the fact that for a half-hour every day sometime between five and seven Walter would drop in on an audience made up to a vastly disproportionate extent of elderly stay-at-homes. No wonder the model remained so conservative. It was invented by people who had gotten their start either in radio or print journalism speaking to people who had grown up with both. TV news people were always slightly embarrassed by their new-fangled contraption. In a now famous exercise in masochism former NBC news chief Reuven Frank counted the words on a script for one broadcast and discovered that they would fill less than a column and a half on the front page of the New York Times, which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that television news was not the front page of the New York Times. But pretending it was, if not the whole of the front page of the New York Times then at least a portion of it, suited Dick Salant and CBS News fine. It was always nice to play a game with rules that you invented. But what if the rules suddenly changed? What if one of the good grey ladies of the air became a scantily-clad belly dancer?

No doubt, that very possibility accounted for the fact that Salant, normally the very model of decorous above-the-fray "broadcast journalists," kept sticking verbal pins into Roone Arledge that afternoon at the Hilton like he was lunching with a voodoo doll. It started when Arledge responded to a question from the audience about ABC's sensationalized 20-minute-long treatment of the capture of Son of Sam on the "Evening News" last August. The program had elicited a politely-worded protest to Arledge from ABC correspondents and news producers in the Washington bureau, who complained not only about the length of the coverage (which allowed about two-and-a-half minutes for whatever else might have been happening in the world that day), but more specifically about the breezily unprofessional commentary by Geraldo Rivera, who called the Son of Sam suspect "a fiend." In defending his pet correspondent Arledge admitted that "Geraldo is given to making a statement like he did on the Son of Sam thing, when he didn't say 'alleged' about someone who had already killed six people and wounded seven others." Well, it didn't take a libel lawyer to realize that Arledge had missed the point by a country mile. Salant leaned over toward Arledge and said, his voice dripping with sarcasm like oil from a crankcase, "What should he have said, Roone, 'alleged fiend'?"

After a bit more verbal sparring (Arledge: "Gee, Dick, they told me you were dry and dull." Salant: "Never trust your own people.") the discussion turned to a more revealing matter, since it involved the kind of subtle judgments that news executives must make every day of the week and that, cumulatively, decide the quality of their broadcasts. On the day Elvis Presley died Gerry Ford and Ronald Regan announced their respective positions on the Panama Canal treaty, the former for, the latter against. On their evening news shows ABC went with Elvis in a long opening story, a decision which Salant, whose network led with four minutes on the treaty, had already criticized publicly. "I think primarily our job is to give the people what they ought to know," he said now, "because what they want to know is often not very productive. Our job is not to respond to public taste. Elvis Presley was dead — so he was dead."

Arledge was quick to spot the weakness in the argument. "It smacks to me of elitism," he countered, "to sit here and say I'm going to give them what they should have and not what they want. Elvis Presley affected the lives of millions of Americans who are clearly interested in him and the day on which he dies — unless there is an overwhelming story somewhere — is a major story that should be dealt with." Afterwards, Arledge wished his response had been less temperate. "Boy, that guy's uptight about us," he said. "I should've told him we put it on first because we figured that Elvis Presley dropping dead of a heart attack at the age of 42 was just a little less predictable than Ronald Regan coming out against the Panama Canal treaty."

It was a good point, and several weeks later, when the "CBS Evening News" chose Bing Crosby's death as its lead story, Arledge may have been correct to assume that the whole discussion had less to do with objective news judgment than the fact that he and Dick Salant simply marched to different bands and that his own tastes were more in tune with the audience he needed to attract. If, as Salant had pointed out at the luncheon, surveys showed that two-thirds of all viewers got their news only from television, and Salant chose to be weighed down by the "terrible responsibility" of that fact, so be it. CBS had a lock on that audience, anyway. The figure from the same surveys that impressed Arledge much more — fairly made his hair stand on end, in fact — was that 25 percent of all television viewers didn't watch the news at all. Here was a group of people who clearly weren't getting what they wanted. And in any discussion about whether to give people what they wanted or what they ought to have, there was little doubt where Arledge stood. He had fashioned a brilliant career by knowing exactly what people wanted and giving it to them first.

Roone Arledge is indeed, as his friend Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes," put it, "a creature of television." Now 46, he graduated from Columbia University in the early ‘50's, took a stage managing job in the newly burgeoning industry, and has been there ever since. By the late ‘50's he was producing Shari Lewis' children's show, "Hi, Mom," for which he won an Emmy. It is probably no accident that Arledge and Fred Silverman, the two most successful programmers in television today, both got their start in children's television (much aside from the obvious similarity between Silverman's prime-time "kiddie porn" shows and Arledge's penchant for lingering "honey shots" of bouncing starlets). After all, what better way to learn about a medium where pictures come before words than by programming for an audience where they must. Nor has the career of any television executive ever been hurt by a healthy respect for the 8-year-old mind.

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 Post because 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.