Just to emphasize that he really does know how to mix news with sports, that ABC hasn't been tossing an Olympic blanket over everything negative at the 13th Winter Olympics, Roone Arledge began the conversation by saying:
"The other night it looked like there might be a break in the hostage situation, so at one point (in the Olympic telecast) I said (over the headphones) to Jim McKay: 'We're either going to Washington for a bulletin -- or to speed skating."
Because his network did invent athletic competition that later included men carrying refrigerators on their backs, it is only natural for much of the United States to assume that Arledge also started the Olympics.
It is fair to say the Olympics -- summer and winter -- would not be so Olympian without him and his 1,100 minions and 109 cameras, that the Winter Games were made both for television and by it. No lovers ever embraced more quickly.
These Games also have focused sharply on some issues basic to journalism, both television and print, for no Olympics in memory has offered so much significant but peripheral news: the Summer Games boycott threats by President Carter, the Taiwanese ban, the transportation mess.
Which leads to the question of how to allocate limited space in newspapers and limited time on television, known to some in the business as Twinkies vs. spinach. How much should we offer of what the public wants, as opposed to what it needs?
Some thinkers insist ABC has offered too much puff in its Olympic coverage, that it ignored reality -- the politics and spectators confusion -- until it was no longer possible. The attitude thereafter, it seemed, was like the announcer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the death of Art Pollard two hours before the race for the pole a few years ago.
It certainly was too bad about poor Art, the announcer told the crowd for perhaps 30 seconds. Then he paused and said, his voice crackling once again, "Now it's back to the thrill and speed. . . ." This was ABC, almost grudgingly reporting the sour side here -- and as quickly as possible.
Back to you, Roone.
"You walk a fine line," Arledge said. "You try to report all the stories -- and I think we've done that. And we've done a lot more (of the non-sports angle) on our news programs. But so many people who watch are neither sports fans nor interested in the IOC problems.
"Half our audience watches just for the entertainment. It's different from a normal prime-time sports program, say, Monday Night Football. There most everyone either knows a lot about the teams, or at least a lot about football.
"Here you don't have that knowledge, but you still must try and cover all sides of the stories: bobsled and the IOC, Taiwan and traffic. But I also think there's a tendency for the New York press to greatly" -- he paused and changed direction -- "this reminds me of the gold tour, how reporters will go around to smaller cities and write about one-way streets going the wrong way when it's only of local interest. The rest of the country couldn't care less about it.
"The transportation thing was grossly overplayed (by newspapers). We had 20 inserts. The fact was that when the governor declared an emergency (on Saturday) it was a technicality, so public vehicles could be gotten easier and the men working longer hours.
"It was not because people were dying on the side of street corners. We reported that right away (on radio and before anyone else, the network public-relations staff said), then we had to come back and clarify -- to show no one was going to die.
"We tend to neglect stories ourselves. But we're here to inform, not to build up stories that aren't there."
As president of both news and sports at ABC, Arledge spoke of a newspaper-like concept with regard to the Olympic coverage, with reportage of the IOC-vs.-Carter and transportation stories emphasized on the news portion, the events in the prime-time sports segment.
The major papers, he said, did much the same thing. They played the spiciest political stories in the first section, some of the nonevent stories in the metropolitan section.
Clearly defensive, the network released nearly two pages of notes indicating it had at least touched on the Taiwan and boycott issues. Also, it said, a planned transportation report had to be bumped from Thursday to Friday because the U.S. Czechoslavakia hockey game was so stirring.
In fairness it should be noted that after the horror stories of transportation difficulties to opening ceremonies, some newspaper, including this one, suggested to their reporters they might turn their attention to competitors and events. That idea, however, was scrapped the next day when transportation and logistical problems grew worse.
But ABC's choice of reporters indicated it did not spend $15.5 million in rights and another $25 million in production costs to clutter its show with controversy. Howard Cosell ("I can't see Howard in stretch pants," Arledge said) is not here.
Of the three street reporters, only Jim Lampley would recognize news without being slapped in the face. The first instinct of most of the others would be to keep it off the air.
Television's buying of the rights to sports events always has seemed unsavory. Arledge and others say there would be too much confusion and inconvenience if all three networks simply showed up, like newspapers, and went to work, CBS would have its 1,100-person crews, too, as would NBC.
This would be unmanageable, they say.
What they are saying is nonsense. If none of the networks had exclusive coverage, none would give the event much attention. Without ABC's money and attention the Winter Games hardly would thrive.
Arledge was in a casual and agreeable mood this morning. The snipers had taken their shots and he still was unmarked. The ratings have been better than expected, even higher than the ones in 1976 that Arledge used to launch ABC's prime-time rocket.
"Before Innsbruck," Arledge said, "No one ever heard of Franz Klammer or Rosi Mittermaier -- and only people who watched Wide World of Sports ever heard of Dorothy Hamill. I said before the Games: 'Well, we've got the Alps, a postcard we can send back each night.'
"Lake Placid didn't even have that. It's a little town with no snow and traffice tieups. Everything was a downer, except those (athletic) moments that became magic. And most of that left when (Tai) Babilonia and (Randy) Gardner had to withdraw.
"(Eric) Heiden is different. It's just him going around and around all the time. There's no special rival, but the interest is building about whether he can get five golds. There is nothing to sustain interest except the athletes.
"But people watch in great numbers."
"We had a special segment explaining why the 70-meter ski jumping was reordered after the American went too far," Arledge said. "We had Art Devlin talking, a mockup of the hill, everything. Five minutes after it ended, a woman called and asked why that poor American couldn't keep his jump.
"All this is a high-wire act."
But he seemed quite pleased to be there.