Roone Arledge behaved like a living legend even before he was one. Fame looked good on him, partly because he seemed to take it in stride, partly because he seemed born to be famous. He was a television revolutionary who behaved much like the mighty moguls of ancient Hollywood -- smoking big cigars, riding around in big limousines, wearing shoes with big heels.
And casting a big, indeed a gigantic, shadow.
Even his detractors were in awe of him. Jim Spence, a former ABC executive who worked for Arledge and tried to debunk and "demystify" him in his 1988 book "Up Close & Personal" -- a phrase Arledge immortalized -- had to concede even then that "Roone Arledge is the most significant figure in the history of television sports in America, a true giant of the broadcasting business." Arledge reinvented TV sports and then went on to do the same for network news, at one time holding the titles of both news and sports division presidents at ABC.
His death yesterday at the age of 71 after a long and valiantly fought battle with cancer was not a shock to television insiders, nor to Arledge's own huge circle of friends and associates, because he had been seriously ill, and the subject of many whispered rumors, for months. It was not a great shock, but it was a terrible blow. Today, all of television is reeling from it.
Arledge, who in September became the first broadcaster to receive a Life Achievement Award from the news branch of the Emmy academy, was a survivor of the three-network era, one of the last of its titans and bold adventurers, a pugnacious pioneer who had his most splendid moments when the networks were at the height of their powers. When he started in the early '60s, cable barely existed except in rural areas, and there was no ESPN or Fox or any of the regional sports networks that have popped up since.
He was present at, and instrumental in the creation of, "Nightline" and "Monday Night Football," "Wide World of Sports" and "This Week With David Brinkley," modern-day Olympics coverage and "20/20." His influence will outlive him by decades, and "how Roone did it" will continue to be a standard throughout the industry he dominated. He was brash, he was bold. He was Elvis.
To his competitors at the other network news divisions, he was an ulcer-giving nemesis. Arledge more than any other individual promoted and escalated the star system in network news, staging talent raids on the opposition and in the process driving superstar salaries through the roof. The superstars themselves had few complaints. When Arledge lured a disgruntled David Brinkley away from NBC in 1981, he made Brinkley gruntled again, and rich. One of Arledge's great talents was his ability to stroke, coddle and pamper other people with talent.
After a lengthy and arduous contract tussle with Barbara Walters, another of Arledge's prime acquisitions from NBC, in 1996, Arledge waxed philosophical, slightly. "What makes them great stars is they're right on the edge all the time," he said. "Paying them all that money isn't enough. It's just a beginning. Then you have to work at making them happy."
In the Arledge obituary that aired last night on ABC's "World News Tonight," Walters said, "I can't tell you how much I will miss him." Ted Koppel, anchor of "Nightline," remembered Arledge as "my friend and my mentor."
ABC News had not enjoyed great respect or success until Arledge strode in back in 1977 and shook it up. Not everything worked. An attempt to pair Walters with Harry Reasoner as anchors of the network's evening newscast ended in acrimonious disarray, like a bad marriage. Arledge tried a tri-city, tri-anchor approach that also bombed. Unfazed, he installed Peter Jennings in the anchor chair and made ABC a major player in the arena.
He also made ABC more than just competitive in the Sunday-morning news-talk field -- owned for years by NBC's "Meet the Press," a program roughly as old as television itself -- by giving Brinkley his own hour.
"This Week" was an instant hit and dominated the field for years, until the emergence of Tim Russert's revitalized "Meet the Press," which expanded to an hour in imitation of the Brinkley format.
Repeatedly, Arledge plucked the thrill of victory from the agony of defeat. The premiere of "20/20," with two fusty print journalists as hosts, was an outright debacle, jeered at by critics and audiences alike. After only one telecast, Arledge scrubbed the show and overhauled it in one week, bringing in Hugh Downs as host. Walters came later and the show, of course, turned into a long-running hit.
What Arledge was doing for the news division he had already done for the sports division, revolutionizing the way TV covered sports by concentrating on individual athletes, playing up the emotional aspects of their struggles and taking full advantage of every new technological advancement in the business -- virtually willing some of them into existence. He was more celebrated for his work as a producer than as an executive, and he loved the hands-on feel of doing a live telecast of a major sports event.
Arledge expanded the range of sports on the air, proving he could make almost any game with more than one player into something televisable, something that would command and mesmerize an audience. He made inspired casting choices, like putting Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in the "Monday Night Football" booth, thereby creating a sideshow to go with the main event. He tinkered with the technology in somewhat the way Orson Welles played with moviemaking apparatus. Arledge introduced viewers to instant replays and intense close-ups of athletes' faces and slow-motion studies of the human body in motion.
As president of ABC Sports, Arledge had domain over an event that is essentially the equivalent of the presidential elections whose coverage he supervised at ABC News: The Olympics. Arledge brought all his resources, stars (like Jim McKay, one of his favorites) and creative energy to Olympic coverage, setting the standard that all other networks would try to emulate when their turns came to televise the Olympic games.
A veteran director marveled at the way Arledge could march into the control center for Olympics coverage at the very last minute, scan all the various monitors of all the venues, and bark out the order for the opening shots in the introductory sequence. When PLO terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Arledge supervised the coverage down to its final tragic moments.
Arledge was known for his personal eccentricities as well as his professional accomplishments. People could spend weeks trying to get him on the telephone; he was notorious at not returning calls until the mood struck him. Then when he did call, he might talk for an hour or more, even past the point where the person on the other end of the line wanted to keep going. Arledge was resplendent in his excesses.
The very definition of a visionary, Arledge sometimes seemed to be vulgarizing broadcast journalism, especially in his earliest days as ABC News president, and he could hardly be said to have been without his critics. But in time, many of them became converts, seduced by Arledge's tremendous personal charm and by his utterly tireless dedication to television, the medium he loved. Television loved him back, of course. They were happy together. It was, indeed, an affair to remember.