He was the Emmy-award-winning producer of a puppet show when he left NBC for ABC Sports in 1960. But Roone Arledge felt more like the Emmy itself—a gilded figure with wings, the whole world held in his cupped hands—as he prepared for his new assignment: producing college football telecasts. "Friends told me that I'd be bored producing sports," recalls Arledge, his ruddy face reflected in the dozens of Emmys that now cover a wall of his ABC office. "But there were all of these things that I wanted to bring to sports on television. It struck me that there was so much beauty to work with, such a journalistic opportunity here."
Thirty-four years later television is largely responsible for having made sports the global and moneyed enterprise that it is, and Roone Arledge is largely responsible for having made sports on television look and sound and succeed the way it does. He made the Olympics a quadrennial television spectacle in part by showcasing figure skating and gymnastics and track and field on Wide World of Sports. He created not only Wide World of Sports but also The American Sportsman and Monday Night Football. Howard Cosell is the unholy offspring of Roone Pinckney Arledge Jr. as surely as Dr. Frankenstein birthed his own monster. All of Arledge's programs, in fact, served as a kind of mad-science laboratory in which he and his engineers helped to pioneer the use of handheld cameras and isolation cameras and underwater cameras and split screens and field microphones and graphics superimposed on action.
Named president of ABC Sports in 1968, Arledge was the staff bearer who led the NFL into prime time two years later with Monday Night Football. Soon the World Series and the Super Bowl followed, sheeplike, into this klieg-lighted land of milk and money. Likewise the Olympics: In 1972 the Summer Games in Munich were broadcast almost entirely in prime time by ABC. The medium would never be the same.
Beginning early on the morning of Sept. 5 in Munich, after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists, Arledge coordinated 18 continuous hours of network coverage, with Jim McKay anchoring field reports from Cosell and Peter Jennings. One day after the Israelis were killed, Arledge produced and aired a documentary on the tragedy. ABC won 29 Emmys for its Munich coverage and "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." In 1977 Arledge was made president of ABC News as well as Sports. Jennings would become his anchorman.
Now 63 and the president of ABC News exclusively, Arledge can see his own influence on the nine television screens in his office, in everything from CNN to the O.J. Simpson saturation coverage. But much of his legacy is more subtle. Arledge refused, for instance, to give the NFL, Major League Baseball and Olympic organizing committees the right to approve his announcers, which was standard practice in TV contracts only 25 years ago. "Obviously, that's all changed," says Arledge. "With ESPN and sports-talk shows and call-in radio, you wouldn't dream of having announcers approved today."
But in 1968 his stance was outrageous. He broke a network blacklist to use Cosell, who piqued many Americans by calling broadcast partner Muhammad Ali by his chosen Muslim name at the '68 Olympics. "Of course, being named Roone myself," says Arledge, "I wasn't about to quarrel with anyone who wanted to be called something else." In truth, he was giving viewers what they wanted—candor—before they knew they wanted it, a talent of his that is uncanny.
At another Olympics, in Lake Placid a dozen years later, ABC was serving the nation a Miracle on Ice. But all that Arledge heard the cabbies and bellhops talking about were the American hostages in Iran. He told his news staff that he wanted the story on every night. "When it was midnight here," Arledge explains, "it was eight in the morning in Iran, and we could sign off saying that the hostages had survived another night." Unbeknownst even to himself, he had just created Nightline. The Arledgian legend beat on.
ABC TV, 1968