On page 30 of Roone Arledge’s new memoir is a memo, part of an ABC pitch to cover NCAA football and written in two hours over a beer on a Sunday afternoon, that amounts to a manifesto for modern television. “Heretofore,” he wrote, “television has done a remarkable job taking the game to the viewer—now we are going to take the viewer to the game.” Arledge proposed to loose the cameras from their mountings and send them roaming around the stadium and outside, capturing not just the game but also the spectators and the pageantry, all to be chopped up and reconstituted by a smart producer with a story to tell.
Arledge’s ideas were finally so powerful that even the Pentagon came around. The embedded journalist was an idea Arledge, who died of cancer last year at 71, would have loved. The Iraq war as seen on TV, with its endless “up-close-and-personals” (an Arledge innovation) whipping back and forth from soldiers’ hometowns to the desert, resembled nothing so much as a vast, militarized Olympics—one of Arledge’s signature events. Bill Hemmer’s overactive eyebrows and studiedly sensitive mien seemed designed (a poor imitation, but still) to approximate Jim McKay’s dictum, as inspired and remembered by Arledge, that “the emotion always comes first.”
In 1960, when Arledge composed his manifesto, ABC was the distant third among networks. A bright Columbia graduate with a ventriloquist-dummy shock of red hair, Arledge had jumped the year before from NBC, a move that his friends found deeply clueless. Over the next 25 years, he would build ABC’s news and sports departments into the most glamorous, innovative, and profitable in the business, with shows from Monday Night Football to Nightline to his credit and a string of stars—from Howard Cosell and Geraldo to Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer—who were among the most vivid in the business.
A highly literate man, as this memoir demonstrates, Arledge saw himself as an outsider. He was that infuriating person, known to any organization with significant traditions, who arrives with little knowledge and succeeds precisely because of it. His greatest human creation, certainly the one Arledge was fondest of, was Howard Cosell. In Cosell, snobbery became ironic: the intellectual as buffoon. Putting together Monday Night Football, he reaches Cosell “in the post-prandial phase of a liquid lunch at Jimmy Weston’s” and orders him to his office. “From the desperation of your tone,” says Cosell, “I can only conclude that the bon vivant who is Roone Pinckney Arledge is beseeching me to rescue the trifle he’s devised for Monday evenings. Am I not correct? … And you no doubt expect me to shoulder this Stygian burden without additional compensation.” Arledge simultaneously loved Cosell and mocked him, playing his dark, near-Nixonian passion for comedy, taunting America with this beetle-browed man who poked fun at the country’s golden boys.
This memoir often resembles a bedroom farce, with Arledge, the cheerful seducer, rushing breathlessly from tryst to tryst, whispering sweet nothings over dinner at Nanni’s, springing his forever swelling wallet on his new conquests (memo to cost-cutters: Size matters), then rushing back to soothe the jealous ones pouting in their dressing rooms.
Inevitably, with all the romancing going on at work, home was neglected. Presented with a choice between producing an NCAA football game at which President Nixon would be present (it was 1969, and the worry was that Nixon might be assassinated—great television) and a Hawaiian vacation with his wife (they had four children), Arledge chooses Nixon. He tells his wife in a 6 a.m. phone call, which his wife understandably terminates by hanging up on him. Not long after, she hung up on the marriage too. “Hard stuff,” Arledge writes. “But as often happens in life, the loss brought me a gain—a close friend who was going through his own split at the time. His name was Frank Gifford. Like survivors clinging to the same life raft, we became all but inseparable, hanging out at Toots Shor’s, golfing at Wing Foot, playing pool … ” These were the days when men were men: Come back to the raft, Huck, honey.
“This memoir resembles a bedroom farce with Arledge as the cheerful seducer rushing from tryst to tryst.”
A fascinating game of inside baseball played 24-7 in Arledge’s head. Sunny, unflappable, he had so much confidence that he could appear egoless—when he wanted to. Appointed head of ABC News in 1977, he swiftly mixed it up and seems to have enjoyed doing battle with his new charges’ sanctimony. “What do these guys know,” he says at one point. “They’ve only spent their whole lifetimes in TV news.”
To this “temple of the unwatched,” as he calls it, he brought a whole new value system—ratings and, ultimately, profits. He fussed with their suits, wooed big personalities like Sam Donaldson, and, for This Week With David Brinkley, created a loungelike greenroom with a bartender, which made it the preferred Sunday-morning destination for Washington insiders for years.
In the chapter introducing the creation of Nightline, he writes, “I was itching for the world to have a crisis. Not a calamity on the scale of nuclear war or global pestilence, mind you (even the ambition of a television news producer knows some limits).” This isn’t wag-the-dog, but it’s something like it. Arledge was serenely unconflicted about his priorities. If he’d had the option to start a war to boost ratings, one has to wonder if he would have used it.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, the pie stopped growing, and Arledge—and everyone in network television—switched from playing offense to defense. Cable began picking around the edges. Cap Cities, which purchased ABC in 1985, imposed a regime of brutish cost-cutting. Arledge’s delicacies and emoluments to the stars, all that nuance, had to be explained. “You don’t need someone to hold their hand when you give someone this much money,” says Steve Weiswasser, brought in to ride herd over Arledge in what must have been a colossal negation of Arledge’s life’s work. Arledge is too scrupulous to make a stand on principle against these revolutionaries, having been a revolutionary himself. Rather, he accuses them of stupidity—to him (high-school nickname: Genius) a much more serious crime.
The last dinosaur doesn’t know it’s the last. Arledge stayed in the game, inventing new strategies to battle the cost-cutters, and to make the best of what had become an increasingly untenable situation. Disney having bought ABC, Arledge finally passed the News reins to a young lawyer named David Westin, with even less experience than Arledge himself had. Cancer having spread to his bones, he describes a Lou Gehrig–like good-bye in front of an audience of TV luminaries, most of whom he’d personally created—a lucky man, indeed.
Roone By Roone Arledge, Harper Collins; 432 pages; $25