U.S. football fans owe a debt of gratitude to Roone Arledge, chairman of ABC News, for moving football games to prime-time television. By founding Monday Night Football, Arledge virtually revolutioned the way sports—and later, the news—were presented on television. His half-century career as a television executive and producer has tracked the growth of television, from his start producing 1950s puppet shows like that of Shari Lewis, to signing up the Olympics games for TV in the 1960s, to starting ABC’s Wide World of Sports of the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention creating the format of television news and shows like Nightline. He gave many television sports and news stars their start, including Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Ted Koppel. As Don Hewitt, creator of 60 Minutes, has said, “Just about everything that’s good on television has a Roone Arledge trademark on it.”
Television had not been around that long when Arledge got into it in the 1950s. The first live television broadcast was in the fall of 1951 with President Harry Truman’s speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference, followed by the first coast-to-coast broadcast of the premiere of See It Now on CBS. Development of programming was slow, with few shows and channels. The picture was black and white, and only 5 percent of Americans had a television set. But by 1960, 90 percent of the U.S. population had a TV set, and with the advent of cable and satellite television in the 1970s, programming expanded. Arledge was going to make it explode.
He was ambitious—or as news anchor Dan Rather would later describe him, “burning with a white-hot desire to win.” Impatient with grad school at Columbia, he left and got a job with one of the first television networks, DuMont, whose founder had made commercial television possible with the invention of a long-lasting cathode ray tube. But Arledge was drafted into the army and when he was discharged in 1955, he took a job at Channel 4 in New York, NBC’s New York station, WRCA. His first production was that puppet show featuring Shari Lewis, which won him an Emmy in 1958.
But Arledge was already promoting something else, a pilot he put together for a show he called For Men Only, vaguely modeled on the Playboy approach. NBC did not run it, but the pilot caught the eye of an ad executive connected with the ABC network, Edgar J. Scherick. When during his interview Arledge identified every sports figure in the photographs on Scherick’s office walls, Scherick hired him as an assistant producer and the two of them began working on sports broadcasting at ABC. Arledge’s input would change the way sports were covered on television. Previously, games were filmed from a fixed camera and shown only during the day with little commentary or fanfare. Arledge wanted to put some showmanship into it to get the fans involved, get women interested, and do some storytelling about the games and players. He wanted to show football games at night and weekends when people were home to watch, so he took advantage of videotaping (at the time, games could be videotaped and shown later because communications were such that fans would not already have known the results). And he instituted slow motion and instant playback so the fans could get a better look at major plays. As television reporter Sam Donaldson remarked, “Before Roone, if you missed the touchdown, you missed the touchdown. Roone said, ‘Why can’t we see it again?’ ”
In short, Arledge turned football into theater. As he told Sports Illustrated in a 1966 interview, ‘What we set out to do was get the audience involved emotionally. If they didn’t give a damn about the game, they might still enjoy the program.” Scherick and Arledge set up an ABC sports show, Wide World of Sports, which would showcase everything from track and field to football. It turned out to be the network’s longest-running program. A not insignificant side effect of this programming was the profit to be made from sports broadcasting and advertising, not only for the network but for the players as well. Ratings and advertising increased as football games (and later, baseball games) began to be played at night or on weekends, and other networks were inspired to start sports programs. New networks sprang up like ESPN (the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), which now broadcasts Monday Night Football and started in 1978 with ABC as major owner (now both are owned by Disney).
What distinguished Arledge in the early days of his career was his insistence on on-camera presence at the games (and later during breaking news). He was in the broadcasting truck himself at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, when Arab terrorists hijacked 11 Israeli athletes and held them hostage. Quickly switching gears from covering the games to covering the story, Arledge and ABC were on it for the next 17 hours, the only news outlet on the scene. He and ABC won 29 Emmy Awards for their coverage of this story. Arledge said later that he always remembered how crucial live coverage was because of what happened in Dallas after Jack Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. NBC had the only live camera in the police station and got the footage of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald right in front of it.
Arledge’s own “up close and personal” coverage of athletes helped turn them into personalities in their own right and gave sports programming more appeal. On Wide World of Sports and at the Olympics, he brought little-known players and athletes, like gymnast Olga Korbut, into the spotlight, weaving a story around them. The Wide World of Sports’s taglines, “spanning the globe” and “Thrill of victory, agony of defeat,” were attributed to Arledge and sports broadcaster Jim McKay. Some critics said that Arledge’s undergraduate years at Columbia College under the influence of renowned faculty like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren had given him an understanding of the power of narrative and a search for heroes that showed up in the way he created stories around games and athletes. However he acquired it, Arledge’s instinct for storytelling did not hurt his sports coverage. And in his ambition to cover sports, he wanted it all: horse racing, golf, baseball, basketball, even big game hunting, adding cameras, new techniques, and microphones wherever he could to enhance the viewer’s enjoyment.
His success at signing up the Olympics in 1964 gave ABC the inside track and 20 years of broadcasting the games. The Olympics, up to then little noticed, became a major television attraction. Arledge also arranged for the matches of boxer Muhammad Ali to be broadcast on ABC during the 1960s. The sports division of ABC was fast becoming its most important and influential unit. ABC sports programming was turning sports into big business. But there was considerable controversy when the network appointed Roone Arledge as president and CEO of its news division in 1978, concurrent with his presidency of the sports division. Not only was ABC’s news division struggling, but critics doubted that Arledge could handle both news and sports. But ABC itself was struggling with its image. ABC had tried to shore itself up in 1976 by luring Barbara Walters away from the Today show with a $1 million payout to do the evening news with Harry Reasoner. The two did not like each other and the program lasted less than two years.
Arledge replaced them with three anchors and renamed the evening news World News Tonight, putting Frank Reynolds on the desk in New York, Peter Jennings in London, and Max Robinson in Chicago. And as it turned out, by the late 1980s under Arledge’s guidance, ABC News had become the dominant news network. He inaugurated more new programs like World News Tonight, with 20–20 and Nightline, all of which are still running after more than 20 years. Other networks took notice, and by 1980, Ted Turner had started up CNN with a 24/7 all-news format. Nightline began as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, which, true to form, Arledge and anchors Reynolds and Ted Koppel covered assiduously in a series of “America Held Hostage” reports, which aired every night at 11:30 with the latest updates. The programming was a breakthrough, and when the hostage crisis was over 400 nights later, the format remained as Nightline. Arledge told Newsweek, “I’m prouder of that show than of almost anything I’ve ever done.”
In 1986, he was eased out of his post in ABC Sports by Capital Cities Communications, which bought the network and began cost-cutting. Arledge now was focused solely on the news side where he created another new program, Prime Time Live, with Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson. Earlier he had hired David Brinkley away from NBC and installed him in a Sunday morning news show that became a must-see. News was not traditionally a profit-making enterprise, but under Arledge, ABC news was starting to make money, particularly with the three news programs, World News Tonight, Prime Time Live, and Nightline. ABC dominated news broadcasting for the next 10 years. In 1996, the Walt Disney bought the network and in 1998 installed David Westin as president of the news division, retaining Arledge as chairman. But he was suffering health issues and stepped back further, eventually into retirement. In September, 2002, he won the first Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, his 37th Emmy.
Roone Pickney Arledge Jr. was born on July 8, 1931, in Forest Hills, New York, to parents Roone Sr., a lawyer and associate general counsel of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, and Gertrude Arledge. He was raised in Merrick, New York, where he graduated from Mepham High School and went on to earn his BA at Columbia College. He began graduate studies at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs but left for a job in television. After a tour of duty with the U.S. Army, he came back to New York and was hired at NBC, then began his 25-year career at ABC.
His first of three marriages was in 1953 to Joan Heise, with whom he had four children, Roone III, Elizabeth, Susan, and Patricia. Arledge and his wife divorced in 1971, and in 1976 he married the former Miss Alabama, Ann Fowler. After their divorce in 1984, he married Gigi Shaw in 1994.
In its list of the 40 people who had had the most impact on sports, Sports Illustrated ranked Arledge third after Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. Life magazine included him in its 1990 list of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” Dan Rather, longtime CBS news anchor, said Arledge simply was “burning with a white-hot desire to win.” “Roone doesn’t just want to start,” Mr. Rather said. “Roone doesn’t want to be just all-league. He doesn’t want to be in the Hall of Fame. He wants to be on the all-forever team.”
Arledge, Roone. Roone: A Memoir. New York: Harper, 2004 (published posthumously).
Carter, Bill. “Roone Arledge, Pioneering TV Executive, Dies at 71.” The New York Times, December 5, 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/05/obituaries/05WIRE-ROONE.html?pagewanted=all .
Gunther, Marc. The House that Roone Built. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1994.