Leonard H. Goldenson, 94, the pioneering television executive who raised a struggling American Broadcasting Co. to parity with the CBS and NBC networks, died Dec. 27 in his home in Longboat Key, Fla.
The ABC network announced his death but did not disclose the cause.
Mr. Goldenson was overshadowed in the public eye by the overlords of the other two networks, William Paley, of CBS, and David Sarnoff, of NBC. But he proved his mettle with ABC. Starting later, with many fewer stations and without the stars, tradition and money of its rivals, he muscled ABC into first place in viewer popularity in 1977. The network remained on top for the next three years, riding the success of shows like "Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley" and "Charlie's Angels."
"ABC was as Apple was to IBM or MCI was to AT&T. It was always the also-ran," said Ken Auletta, author of "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way." "But the also-ran is also the company that will do the boldest things."
Under Mr. Goldenson, ABC invested heavily in news and sports, and he let another prominent executive, Roone Arledge, run both divisions. With ESPN, he also invested in cable when other early broadcasters shunned it, a move that still pays off big for ABC's owners. His early business plan for ABC was followed later by Rupert Murdoch with Fox.
"He kind of sneaks up on you," Auletta said, "but he winds up with quite a large legacy."
"We had to gamble. We rolled the dice a lot," Mr. Goldenson said in 1991 in an interview to promote his autobiography, "Beating the Odds."
Along the road to the top, Mr. Goldenson got Hollywood movie studios to start producing for the medium, nurtured unknowns into stars to compete with the other networks' established names and built audiences by covering and promoting sports.
Before Mr. Goldenson persuaded Warner Bros. and other Hollywood studios to begin producing TV shows, television was dominated by live shows and fare bankrolled by advertisers, said Marvin Wolf, co-author of Mr. Goldenson's biography.
"It was Goldenson's vision that movies and television could not only co-exist but also that their synergy would produce two even more robust industries," Wolf said.
Mr. Goldenson didn't mind twitting the competition as his network prospered.
ABC moved into its own building in 1965, a 40-story tower on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, across the street from the 38-story "Black Rock" building of CBS. Paley was not amused, Mr. Goldenson recalled.
"So I arranged to have an ABC logo put on top of the building facing directly at CBS," he said. "And at night it was illuminated."
He once said his aim was to anticipate public taste: "I have to watch trends from all sources. . . . I talk to people all the time . . . cabdrivers, elevator men, maids, executives."
It was 1953 when Mr. Goldenson, as chief executive of United Paramount Theaters, grabbed the opportunity to buy the near-bankrupt ABC--born 10 years earlier when RCA was ordered to divest itself of one of its two networks.
At the time of the purchase, ABC was No. 4, behind CBS, NBC and the now-defunct DuMont network. ABC had only 14 stations--five of its own and nine affiliates, compared with nearly 100 stations each for CBS and NBC.
Thirty-three years later, when Mr. Goldenson stepped down as day-to-day boss after engineering a $3.5 billion merger of ABC and Capital Cities Broadcasting, the network had eight stations and 210 affiliates. The company's list of other properties included ownership or substantial interest in three cable networks, 17 radio stations, 11 daily newspapers and numerous trade and speciality publications.
In 1996, Capital Cities/ABC was bought by Disney for a then-record $19 billion.
For Mr. Goldenson, success had come slowly, largely through courting young families and present and future young spenders. "Disneyland" went on the air in 1954, and the following year, along with the Lawrence Welk Show, ABC offered "The Mickey Mouse Club" and a Western series, "Cheyenne."
Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" came in 1957. "Wide World of Sports" began in 1961 and the first prime-time sports series, "Monday Night Football," grabbed ratings and launched the improbable stardom of Howard Cosell beginning in 1970.
Other performers whose careers were made in early ABC successes included James Garner in "Maverick," David Janssen in "The Fugitive" and Vince Edwards in "Ben Casey."
"Good Morning America" premiered in 1975 and for a time became the No. 1 morning show. The smash miniseries "Roots" was shown in 1977, the year ABC ended CBS' 20-year reign as the prime-time audience champ.
After turning over the reins to Thomas Murphy in 1986, Mr. Goldenson moved to Florida, but for a time afterward, he commuted to New York to advise the company in his role as chairman of the Capital Cities-ABC executive committee.
In a 1991 Associated Press interview, he said networks had a future, even though cable TV was making inroads.
"You have to realize the number of homes using television is increasing," he said at the time. "By the year 2000, there'll be basically 100 million television homes, compared to 93.1 million now." His count, at least, proved accurate: There are an estimated 100.8 million TV homes in the United States.
Mr. Goldenson was born in Scottdale, Pa., a coke-and-steel town where his father ran a clothing store. He attended Harvard University and graduated from its law school in 1930.
The young lawyer was thrust into show business during the Depression when he was hired to help reorganize a group of Paramount Pictures' movie theaters, then in bankruptcy court.
The movie company hired him for increasingly important executive positions and in 1950, after the government decreed that studios could not own theaters, he took over Paramount's national string of nearly 2,000 movie theaters.
Mr. Goldenson was a founder and president of United Cerebral Palsy. He had served on national commissions for the handicapped.
He and his wife, Isabelle Weinstein, were married in 1939 and had three daughters. The first, Genise Sandra, suffered from cerebral palsy and died at age 29. The other two, Loreen Arbus and Maxine Goldenson, became television producers. Survivors include his wife, two daughters and a grandson.