When Roone Arledge was about to be named president of ABC News in 1977, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings paid a special call on the president of the network, Fred Pierce. “Peter and I went over to talk to Pierce to try to convince him that he was making a terrible mistake,” Koppel recalled during a recent interview.
Arledge, who wore safari jackets and palled around with sportscasters, was credited with revolutionizing TV coverage of the Olympics and other sports events as the head of ABC Sports. But playing TV monitors like a musical keyboard and creating “up close and personals” with Olympic athletes were skills of Arledge’s that alarmed many serious journalists. “I thought he’d be a disaster for the news division,” Koppel explained. “I thought he would be doing ‘Wide World of News.’ ”
Koppel wasn’t alone. Many observers, both inside and outside ABC, raised the specter of “Network,” Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical movie of the previous year in which a network news division had been taken over by an entertainment executive intent on enlivening the journalism with theatrical flourishes.
Instead, Arledge took ABC’s late-starter in the race against the older and more prestigious CBS News and NBC News and built it into what today is the top-rated, most successful news organization in network television.
“Roone has the most serious and professional evening newscast today, and he’s succeeded with other news programming that is serious, not schlocky,” said former CBS News President Richard Salant. “He took us into the entertainment business by paying big salaries for news talent, but today he has the best ‘bench’ of talent among the networks"--including anchors Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, David Brinkley, Barbara Walters, Sam Donaldson, Diane Sawyer and Hugh Downs.
At a time when there is speculation that not all three network news divisions will survive the accountants’ cost-cutting scalpel, ABC News has not only the highest-rated evening newscast in “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings,” but also a slate of news shows that are both prestigious and profitable. According to sources at Capital Cities/ABC, ABC News made nearly $100 million two years ago and is expected to be one of the most profitable divisions of the company again this year, even with the expense of covering the Gulf War and a recession that has lowered revenues in all areas of broadcasting.
What is striking about the ABC lineup is that each of the shows by itself makes a profit, and several--including “Nightline” and “This Week With David Brinkley"--were created and cast by Arledge. Arledge was ahead of other news executives in perceiving that one way to survive in network news today is to produce your way out, staking out new time-periods for news and creating a variety of outlets for news programming. ABC News is the only broadcast news division making a profit--and it is doing so at a time when previously sure-fire winners like sports are losing millions of dollars for the networks.
Yet even with the success of ABC News, Arledge recently acknowledged in an interview with The Times that his news division is not immune to cost-cutting pressures affecting all three broadcast networks. Indeed, some employees are concerned by the appointment two months ago of a new No. 2 executive to Arledge: Stephen Weiswasser, a 51-year-old graduate of Harvard law school who had been executive vice president of the ABC Television Network Group. His lack of any journalism experience leads some ABC hands to conclude that he was installed by corporate management to exert stronger control over fiscal concerns.
“If we’re under the pressure we’re under now, being a clear No. 1, I would hate to think of the pressure we might be under if we were No. 3,” Arledge said.
Arledge, 60, is notorious for not returning phone calls--even those of top management and famous TV talent--and for making decisions on a Zen-like timetable that can drive subordinates crazy. He is described by colleagues as both genuinely shy and genuinely uninterested in giving interviews. Only after six months of requests did he sit down with The Times, once last summer and once this winter--separated by the Soviet coup (and the Mikhail Gorbachev-Boris Yeltsin “town meeting,” for which Arledge “booked” the talent). Then he was focused and disarming.
“Once you get Roone’s attention,” said one correspondent, “it can be like a laser beam.”
The growing prominence of CNN, dwindling network ratings and a recession that has forced layoffs and other belt-tightening measures throughout the broadcast industry have fueled speculation that at least one of the networks would eventually decide to get out of the expensive news-gathering business. That network will not be ABC, Arledge said.
“I think all of this talk about network news divisions being an endangered species can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “I think it’s a big mistake . . . (for networks) to cut way back on their overseas operations and depend more and more on their affiliates for news. What are viewers to think if all they read is how you’re cutting back on coverage? We’re not cutting back on coverage--our coverage is better today than in the past. The day of putting on a program that loses money (simply to serve) the public interest just doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s a reality. But ultimately, I think you have to be a very serious news division to succeed.”
Other Capital Cities/ABC executives echoed the notion that they see an expanded role for news--and not just with the overnight news service that will be launched Monday. Yet Arledge conceded that there may be some further cutbacks in the coming months.
“Like every other business in this economic climate, we have to look for ways to operate as efficiently as possible,” he said. “But whatever we do, we are not going to jeopardize our mission, which is to cover the news around the world.”
“Nightline,” for example, may undergo consolidation. “One thing we’ve talked about as part of (an internal committee on costs) was to originate ‘Nightline’ totally from Washington instead of from New York and Washington,” Arledge said. “We delayed that because we had a new executive producer. I think (the move) now will probably happen right after the first of the year. Things like that can save us a good bit of money--and not necessarily in bodies but in control-room time.”
ABC already has joined CBS and NBC in closing and consolidating some of its news bureaus, but it generally has avoided the public blood-letting that has characterized cutbacks at the other networks. In contrast to CBS, which brought in an outside accounting firm to look for ways to cut costs, ABC News last spring had its own in-house group, interviewing producers and examining costs. Last summer, ABC announced the elimination of some 80 jobs at the network as a result of the task-force study. Today, Arledge said, “There is no set goal of laying off people--we did that as a part of the commission. The only mandate we have is to be as efficient as we can be.”
Some sources at the network say that Capital Cities/ABC was not happy with the results produced by the in-house task force, and that one reason Weiswasser was brought in was to give the corporate chiefs more detailed data on staffing and other costs. One area that Weiswasser is expected to be involved in is the negotiation of contracts for correspondents and producers, starting with Donaldson, whose pact expires this month and who reportedly is unhappy about his diminished role on “PrimeTime Live.”
“I think there was some feeling before that news could run circles around (management) because they didn’t know that much about how news operates,” said one source. “With Weiswasser, they have one of their bright young executives there on the scene. Roone’s wings may be clipped in terms of absolute power, but Weiswasser is clearly not a successor to Roone, and having him there could actually work to Roone’s benefit in the long run.”
Weiswasser has not commented publicly on his role at ABC News and declined to be interviewed. But Capital Cities/ABC Chairman Thomas Murphy said: “Steve was sent over there to help Roone run this operation in the best possible way, but he was given no specific instructions to cut costs or anything like that. Roone spends all his time worrying about product, and to have an able executive like Steve over there will be helpful. If there are some excess costs, we’d like to see them taken out. But they’ll be looked at individually, and any decision will be made by Roone and Steve. And the actual editorial aspects are still to be completely handled by Roone.”
Some sources at ABC say that Weiswasser was appointed primarily to bring a stronger administrative hand to supplement Arledge’s creative style. Anchor Jennings, in fact, said that he had been in favor of bringing in Weiswasser for that reason.
“We’ve missed a piece since David Burke left,” Jennings said. “The only clear understanding I have about Roone--and I hope he won’t think me indiscreet for saying so, but he probably will--for me as a journalist, working in this shop, there are two essentials. One is to be led, and the other is to be managed. Now, Roone Arledge is a great leader. He is not a great manager, to finish the phrase.
“One example of Roone’s leadership is that he trusts (“World News Tonight” executive producer) Paul Friedman and me,” Jennings continued. “Roone talks about what we want to do in advance, and he’s the first to notice when the focus is wrong, or we’ve missed a story in our own back yard. But he doesn’t pay attention to the little details. He doesn’t ‘walk the deck’ a lot. David Burke used to be around here every day, taking the pulse. He’d go to Roone and say, ‘The pulse is beating a little faintly on the third floor,’ and Roone would say, ‘Fine,’ and he’d get the pulses equalized.
“Roone is first and foremost a producer--he’s quite a loner in many respects--and he likes to think and plan. Once he commits to something, he doesn’t second-guess you. But he’s not always the easiest person in the world to get to settle on something. I think Weiswasser will be good for that. I encouraged Roone to have Weiswasser and encouraged Weiswasser to come. This is a big, complicated division, and I think the two of them will give each other more energy. And there’s one thing I know for certain: Weiswasser and Capital Cities executives see news as a growth opportunity for the network.”
In contrast to General Electric and Laurence Tisch, who took over NBC and CBS during the time in the mid-1980s when all three networks changed hands, the executives at Capital Cities are broadcasters who had operated successful local stations before they merged with ABC in 1985.
“News has been important to us from the beginning,” Murphy said. “I never get tired of repeating (ABC News’ promotional slogan) that ‘more Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.’ I think it’s a great privilege and a great responsibility that people are looking to us to present the news accurately. I believe that the news division will become even more important to us in the future than in the past. News is what differentiates the network from being a movie studio.”
As Murphy readily admits, news is also a source of inexpensive programming for the networks. The Capital Cities executives have asked Arledge to develop other programs that could join “20/20" and “PrimeTime Live” in the prime-time lineup. “There are a couple of spots in our prime-time lineup that could benefit from another news show,” Murphy said.
ABC has been looking for a magazine for Monday night, where this week it will move the entertainment division’s “reality” series “FBI: The Untold Stories” and “American Detective.” But another possibility under consideration is to challenge the genre’s granddaddy: “60 Minutes.” There is some concern that the show on Monday would have to run at 8 p.m. once “Monday Night Football” began in the fall. Going against the CBS powerhouse on Sundays at 7 p.m. would be a much tougher competitive situation but the thinking is that it would position ABC to strike when “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace, 73, and executive producer Don Hewitt, 69, might retire.
“It would obviously be very difficult to go up against ’60 Minutes,’ ” said one network source. “But if you’re there in place with a show, it would be better than waiting for them to quit.”
Arledge declined to say when a new show might begin, although others say it could be this spring. Phyllis McGrady, a longtime ABC producer, and others are developing several different possibilities for the new hour, he said.
Arledge’s dreams don’t stop with a third prime-time hour, however. “I’d love to ‘strip’ news programming--either different programs or similar ones every night--from 10 to 11 p.m.,” he said. “We’d have to do it a step at a time, but that’s clearly a good time period for news and something we’d like to do.”
When Arledge came to ABC News in 1977, the news division had some talented people, but it was not considered a serious competitor to the much older news divisions at CBS and NBC. With a mandate from then-ABC Chairman Leonard Goldenson (who, it is said, wanted a strong news division in part because he wanted some bragging rights with CBS founder William Paley), Arledge went out and raided the other networks for news talent.
Arledge was instrumental in creating the star system in news, paying higher salaries not only for on-air personnel but also for producers and others behind the scenes. He gained a reputation as a lavish spender that is said to have hurt him initially when the Capital Cities executives came in. But, he said: “When I came here, nobody wanted to work here. It was the same way it had been when I took over ABC Sports and found out that the organization was considered below zero because they’d reneged on half their contracts. We were so far behind in news that I felt we had to make a fairly big splash to tell people we were serious. I don’t want to compare myself to Bill Paley. But I think that, in the early days when Paley raided NBC for Jack Benny and Amos and Andy, you can look at it that he spent lavishly--or that he was building a network that lasted for years as the ‘Tiffany network’ in this country.”
The son of a lawyer, Arledge graduated from Columbia University with a liberal-arts degree and went to work after college at the old Dumont Network as a producer in 1952. He worked as a producer at NBC for six years before his skill at producing live events brought him to ABC Sports in 1960.
“I was always fascinated by sports, and I thought that it was one of those things that television ought to be able to do very well but wasn’t doing well at the time,” Arledge said.
Named president of ABC Sports in 1968, Arledge outbid his rivals for Olympic events and won awards for the network’s coverage. He increased usage of the instant replay and slow-motion technologies, created inexpensive anthology series such as “Wide World of Sports” and “American Sportsman,” negotiated for Monday-night National Football League games and made Howard Cosell a household “mouth.”
When he became head of ABC News in 1977 (he maintained his position as head of ABC Sports as well until 1986), Arledge was surprised by the Bronx cheers from TV critics and journalists. “I felt that my whole emphasis in sports had been to elevate it, getting rid of announcer approval, introducing journalism to it,” he said. “I turned down a lot of offers at the time to do movies and entertainment because I loved the news, and I thought ABC News was a wasted institution.”
In 1978, Arledge replaced the evening news anchor team he had inherited, Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner, with his own triple-anchor-system of Jennings in London, Frank Reynolds in New York and Max Robinson in Chicago. It was an improvement over Walters and Reasoner--who, Arledge said, looked like a bickering married couple on the air because Reasoner resented his high-paid female co-anchor. But the three-man team was still awkward and, after Reynolds’ death, Arledge named Jennings as sole anchor of “World News Tonight” in 1983.
Changes in evening-news ratings generally occur at a glacial pace because viewers tend to be loyal. It took five more years for “World News Tonight” to climb into second place. Then, in 1989, it moved into first and has remained there for the last two years. Among the factors cited for its rise are Jennings’ perceived expertise in foreign affairs and producer Friedman’s introduction in 1988 of a newsmagazine approach to the nightly newscast. Friedman’s feature, “American Agenda,” an in-depth report on an issue facing Americans, has been imitated by NBC’s “Daily Difference” and CBS’ “Eye on America.” (“World News Tonight” reached an average of about 9.6 million homes each weeknight during 1991, compared to about 8.1 million each for “CBS Evening News” and “NBC Nightly News.”)
Meanwhile, in 1980, Arledge secured a late-night time-slot for nightly bulletins on the Iran hostage crisis, casting Koppel, then the network’s chief diplomatic correspondent, as anchor. “I saw Ted as an extremely intelligent person whose broadcasting skills had not been used very well,” Arledge said. “When he interviewed various people around the world at the same time, that struck me as the nucleus for a new program.” Thus was born the acclaimed “Nightline.”
In 1981, Arledge hired longtime NBC anchor David Brinkley and reformatted the traditional Sunday-morning talk show into the lively “This Week With David Brinkley.” It is typical of some of the lower-profile moneymakers at ABC News: The audience isn’t especially large but its commercials sell for a premium anyway because, advertisers say, it reaches an audience that includes many corporate executives and opinion-makers.
Not everything has worked that smoothly. Yet some of his critics say that Arledge has been skillful in distancing himself publicly from the ideas that haven’t panned out. He is also praised for his willingness to change concepts that don’t work.
“PrimeTime Live” premiered in 1989 with former White House correspondent Donaldson and Sawyer as co-hosts, Sawyer having been wooed away from “60 Minutes” by Arledge with calls critiquing the way CBS was handling her, secret negotiating lunches and the promise of her own prime-time show. Despite a flurry of publicity (including a Time magazine cover story), the opening program was an embarrassment, from the lack of chemistry between the co-anchors to an embarrassing interview with Roseanne Barr and a live studio audience whose silence was deafening.
Arledge said that he had become more involved in “PrimeTime Live” over the last year. The show has been doing more investigative stories and, in a triumph of packaging, has abandoned the live element while keeping its original title. Its ratings have improved this season.
“The live element was the idea of (all of the creators and producers of the show), but it was mine in particular,” Arledge admitted. “I thought it would work because Sam is so good with audiences, but it just never worked.”
Worse than the “PrimeTime Live” launch, however, was the first broadcast of “20/20" in 1978. A critical and ratings disaster, it is still regarded as one of the worst premieres ever of a show that went on to be a success. Despite months of publicity that had preceded what was to be ABC’s answer to “60 Minutes,” Arledge and executive producer Bob Shanks moved within days to change the format, including getting rid of hosts Robert Hughes and Harold Hayes and replacing them with Hugh Downs. The program not only was salvaged but has gone on to become a consistent winner in the ABC arsenal. Barbara Walters joined Downs as co-anchor in 1984.
“It used to take us forever to change something that wasn’t working,” said former CBS News President Salant. “Roone changes things right away.”
Despite Arledge’s idiosyncratic style, some producers say that reports of his elusiveness are exaggerated. “He is elusive, but I have also sat with him for several hours going over a documentary,” said producer Phyllis McGrady. He also is known to phone producers in the control room on “the Roone phone” after a broadcast, critiquing everything from the journalism in a story to a minor technical aspect in the production. He leads a weekly meeting of all of the ABC News executive producers.
“If you asked me the secret to Roone’s success,” Koppel said, “I’d say it is his considerable intellect, his tenacity, his personal charm--and, at some moments, some ruthlessness. Anyone who has succeeded as he has, has that.”
Tom Bettag, who joined “Nightline” as executive producer last year after being fired as executive producer of the “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,” said, “I saw five news presidents in five years at CBS News. Roone has been here at ABC News the whole time, and he’s dramatically different from other news presidents in his raw energy and enthusiasm for the medium.”
That is evident as he looks into his own future.
“I don’t have to leave here at 65,” he said, referring to the fact that he has a multimillion-dollar, “emperor-for-life” contract. “Whether I will or I won’t, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll being doing something at that time, probably here.
“You know, I don’t regret not having gone to journalism school, but I have many times regretted not going to law school. If you could become someone like (Washington trial lawyer) Edward Bennett Williams--that would be interesting.
“I’m sure there are other things I could do that would be challenging logistically as well as creatively,” Arledge said. “But something like the town meeting between Gorbachev and Yelstin--you could make all the movies in the world, but you couldn’t make that happen if you weren’t here in news.”