“I’ve been kind of an interesting character because I’ve been doing a number of different things,” says Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, as well as the former president of ABC Sports, the creator and executive producer of ABC's Wide World of Sports, The American Sportsman, and NFL Monday Night Football, and the producer of ABC’s coverage of 10 Olympiads.
Born in 1931 and raised in Forest Hills, New York, Arledge graduated from Columbia University and then served with the U.S. Army in South Korea. He began his television career in New York as a floor manager at the DuMont network in 1952, moved to NBC for six years, then joined ABC in 1960 as a field producer specializing in sports.
‘‘The most fun I ever had was being a producer,” Arledge says. “The further away you get from producing shows, the less fun it is and the less you’re doing the thing that's unique to the television business. I really haven't produced a show since the Calgary Olympics, but it’s great fun every once and a while to get back to it. The other night I had just left for home after World News Tonight, and suddenly we’ve got an earthquake. I came back and was running things in the control room, because we were in prime time and a lot of people were going to see what ABC News did.
“That’s the place for a general to be, not back somewhere at headquarters, but on the front line. There are a lot of executives who have never been in a control room because they haven't been producers. But if my strength is supposedly in production, then that’s where I should be a lot of the time.”
In 1964, Arledge became a vice-president of ABC Sports, and in 1968 he became the president of the division. He continued to revolutionize the coverage of athletic events by taking the viewer to the event, whether it was a football game in Miami or an Olympic event in Munich.
“I was interested in all the forces that play on an event,” Arledge says. “A lot of the experience of going to something happens outside the arena: What’s it like to be in that country, with its government and its history?"
In addition, Arledge helped to pioneer a dazzling array of technical innovations — advanced graphics, slow motion, freeze frame, and instant replays — that permanently altered how television covers sporting events.
“All the production devices are designed to get viewers inside the game,” Arledge says, “and to help them experience what it’s like. And to the degree that it is possible, we try to do that in news as well.”
NFL Monday Night Football announcer Frank Gifford, who joined that program during its second season in 1970, says, “Roone understands the technology of television and what lies ahead. For example, if he wanted to shoot a ski run from a mountain that was a mile and a half away, that’s what he wanted, and he felt there had to he a way to do it. He wouldn't take no for an answer. And in his own subtle, easy manner he would engineer a way to do it. He’s the kind of person who would have no chance in this business if you were to look at the stereotype. He really is gentle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry. He’s kind of elegant and quiet.”
In 1977, while still president of ABC Sports, Arledge was also named president of ABC News, and he held both positions until 1986.
Arledge’s ABC News achievements include Nightline, World News Tonight, This Week with David Brinkley, 20/20, World News This Morning, and Prime Time Live.
Arledge says his coverage of the Munich, Mexico City, and Montreal Olympics first called attention to his news judgment.
“I think it became obvious to people at ABC that I had a sense of news and knew how to handle it,” Arledge says. “I had thought about news for a long time, and in 1976 my contract was up. I was talking with [ABC Television President] Fred Pierce about a number of things. He mentioned news, and I said, ‘Oooh…’ I had several other opportunities that would have paid me a lot more money and been very interesting, but the possibility of doing news outweighed all those other factors.
“ABC News was in terrible shape at that time. It was not really competitive with the other two networks. If there had been 10, we would have been in 10th place. I don’t want to sound immodest, but one of the things I’m proud of is that I’ve built, really, two divisions from the ground up.”
ABC News’s Ted Koppel says, “Roone is an extraordinarily complex and brilliant man. When I first saw this guy — a sports producer in a safari jacket — I didn't realize what a Renaissance man he is. He knows about sports, ballet, opera, classical music, literature, politics, foreign affairs. … Woe to anyone who tries to slip a fast one by him and thinks, well, ‘Arledge can’t possibly know as much about this subject as I do.’ I’m always amazed to discover how much Roone knows about so many different subjects.
Arledge sees his broad range of interests as the necessary tools of his trade. “If you’re a really good television producer, you have to be a generalist,” Arledge says. “You have to have a wide range of interests. I think that’s certainly true in
the news business, and I think it's part of what made me good in sports.”
Koppel says, “Roone may describe himself as ‘a generalist,’ but that’s a very modest way of describing himself. He brings to that description surprising depth in a surprisingly wide spectrum of subjects.”
Arledge sees ABC News as a place where “there’s a crackle of stimulation and intellectual ideas. We try to find room for everybody — all of the people who are self-motivated power centers and all of whom have to be led in such a way that they have their own autonomy to a degree — because they are all part of a team for a greater good. You’ve got to create an atmosphere in which people like that can thrive and want to stay.”
Gifford says, “Roone wants to take everything to another level, and I think that is far more important to him than any recognition or any financial reward. He’s motivated that way. Roone’s pleasure time is his work time. He’s a great risk-taker. He ponders and listens to all the research people, but when he finally makes a decision, he does it by his own gut feeling, and he does it alone.”
Arledge says he will continue to pioneer new outlets for network news programs. “It’s a fine line between using methods that you know will work and just doing things the way you've always done them,” he says. “The industry as a whole has always considered news to be a kind of adjunct to entertainment, but we have to get over that perception. Programs like 60 Minutes and 20/20 have been much more successful than any entertainment programs that might have been on in their stead, because a lot of people want to watch news not just at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m.
“The best way I can serve the individual viewer is to assure the rock-bottom integrity and credibility of ABC News and to be sure it’s strong, independent, and viable so people can trust it.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Roone Arledge's induction in 1989.