On the eve of his appointment yesterday as President of ABC News and Sports, Roone Arledge seemed more anxious to look out at the ocean from the deck of his weekend retreat and talk about the geese flying overhead than to discuss his new post.
Ten hours later, after cocktails and dinner - during which he sent back as unworthy several bottles of vintage burgundy opened for him by his wife Ann - and hourly trips to the deck to observe the full moon, Arledge had made four central points about television news in general, and his new role in it.
He is irritated by accusations that he will make ABC News into show business.
He does not like the idea of individuals anchoring the evening news, and is undecided about the future of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters in those roles.
His single greatest worry is being overwhelmed by advice from the journalistic establishment.
He thinks the reason why an estimated 25 per cent of the TV viewers in the country do not watch any of the evening news programs is because nothing on them is relevant to their lives.
Arledge, who has been president of ABC Sports since 1968, takes over his new double-barrelled post on June 1 from William Sheehan, who has been named senior vice president of news. Arledge does not think that recent allegations of dubious boxing matches televised by ABC sports have in any way compromised his integrity in assuming his new duties. "The normal thing would have been I guess to cover it up and say 'Well, boxing it thay way.' I said baloney. We're going to expose every but of it."
The U.S. Boxing Championships tournament financed entirely by ABC, was suspended last month after charges that the records of some contestants were inaccurate. Kickbacks from fighters to managers were also alleged. A grand jury in Baltimore is investigating and ABC has hired an independent investigator as well.
Arledge, 45, said he was not paranoid," just irritated, about charges that he will take ABC News into show business. "I think," he said, "that there are people who don't know me who buy this fantasy that I'm going to be like [the movie] "Network" and have dancing girls open the Evening News.
He cited a remark by a newsman for another network to the effect that "Arledge is going to take over the news and turn it into a circus," and told of "a writer in Chicago who . . . asked me did I think there was a place for Howard Cosell on the Evening News. And I answered him one word, 'no,' which he printed accurately.
"A writer in Cleveland who is picked up in many newspapers in other parts of the country wrote that I was putting up a trial ballon to see if Howard Cosell as a co-author on the Evening News would sail with the American people." And a New York columnist, Arledge complained, "wrote it as a fact that Howard Cosell and Barbara Walters were going to be the another people on the Evening News, and they both would be on location all the time. This came out of one simple word. 'No.'
"When asked if Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner were the problem with the ABC Evening News, Arledge said "No. I don't think so.I think they are a problem however. This is partly the result of the way they were presented by ABC but much more importantly, how they were perceived by the press and the public.=
"It cam across that Barbara was a pancea. Harry was the same way if you'll remember when he came over from CBS. He was a panacca. He was going to solve all the problems. And the two together were going to be the answer to everything. That has not happened and it was never going to happen."
"The addition of Barbara to the Evening News has been a very positive thing. And whether they get along or relate to each other is really irrelevant to presenting the news. The problem is, how do you make the news interesting and relevant to the lives of people who watch it? I don't think that Harry and Barbara, who are both excellent in the fields they are in, who have excellent credentials, and who have both been really superb in their past accomplishments, really matter that much at all.
As for their future on the ABC Evening News, Arledge said "I don't really know," and added, "I think both have a very important part to play in the future of ABC News, I don't know what that part will be."
Arledge took the opportunity to expand on the subject of having individuals anchoring the show singly or in tandem. "I would like to experiment with a number of people presenting the news," he said. "I would like to see us, if it's technically and financially feasible and I'm not sure that it is, expand the base of the news, I would like to expand the role of anchor people so that people who are best qualified to cover a given story on location covering that story. I would like to see us have anchor positions in many places other than New York. And whether or not Barbara and Harry relate is to infinitessimally irrelevant in terms of what ABC should be relating to people that I hope it will become an issue that people won't even talk about it any more."
The single greatest concern he has about taking over ABC News, Arledge revealed, "is that I will be overly influenced by the journalist establishment. There is a beguiling kind of temptation to try and please your fellow broadcasters, your peers and everybody in the news establishment," to have them say "He's all right, he's a hell of a guy and he's not what I thought he was going to be. If I do that then that's probably the worst thing I can do."
"There is no question that based on every indication I get, the changes needed in the news today and what people are interested in is not just what's happening in Zaire or Lebanon, or in all these things that are on the Evening News every night that don't really affect the lives of most people."
Arledge is concerned that 25 per cent of the nation's television viewers do not watch any of the evening news shows. "They are not watching them or they are watching something else. So somewhere something is lacking in involving the people of America on the single most important thing that there is in their lives on television - and that's network news."
"This isn't meant to be pompous," he said. "But I think there's probably an awarenss on the part of people who are involved in network news that they haven't done the job of reaching out and involving the American people. So they see in me a threat in that first of all, they don't know what the devil I'm going to do, and secondly, deep in their hearts they must know there is something wrong when 25 per cent of the people are not watching the evening news."
Aredge, who has been discussing the matter of running ABC News with ABC Television President Frederick S. Pierce for more than a year, yesterday received a commitment from Pierce that ABC would back his effort with money and air time to achieve what Pierce called "a journalistic organization that will be the equal of any in television."
In the short history of broadcast journalism there have been until now two distinct periods in its growth. First there was the CBS news organization started in the late 1930s by William S. Paley, Edward R. Murrow and Paul White. Then in the 1950s there was the news department put together at NBC by Robert Kintner, William R. McAndrew and Reuven Frank. The question posed yesterday by Arledge's appointment is whether broadcast journalism has now entered the Pierce-Arledge era. As they say along broadcast row on the Avenue of the Americas in New York, time will tell.