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TV Executive Revolutionized the Coverage of News, Sports

Times Staff Writer

Roone Arledge, who transformed American television by infusing dramatic story lines, star personalities and vivid graphic presentations into the disparate realms of news and sports, died Thursday in New York City of complications from cancer. He was 71.

In his four decades as an ABC executive, first as ABC Sports president and then as president of ABC News, Arledge had a singular impact on the look of television, tapping into nascent technologies, using his keen eye to find the drama in any situation and nurturing on-air stars from Howard Cosell to Barbara Walters.

At ABC Sports, where he served as president from 1968 to 1986, Arledge created two of television’s most durable sports franchises, “Monday Night Football” and “Wide World of Sports,” and personally produced all 10 ABC Olympics broadcasts. In each case, the programs looked and felt different from other sports shows that had preceded them. He introduced the instant replay and slow motion, and made viewers care about athletes for their personal dramas, not just their statistics.

Improbably, he then went on to transform the sober and clubby world of television news, as ABC News president from 1977 to 1997, where his innovations included the late-night interview program “Nightline,” the evening newscast “World News Tonight” and the prime time newsmagazine “20/20.” He revived Sunday morning political talk shows, bringing David Brinkley to ABC and installing him on “This Week.”

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Arledge used multimillion-dollar salaries to turn serious newscasters into high-powered celebrities and sent correspondents and anchors out of the studio to exotic locations around the world. He was named ABC News chairman in 1997, a move widely seen as a demotion, as a new generation of news executives took over.

NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, who worked for Arledge from 1967 to 1974, on Thursday called him “the most creative force in the history of American television.” Arledge, he said, “invented television sports and then reinvented television news. He alone moved American sports from daytime to prime time, from small time to big time.”

Arledge could be a difficult boss, famous for not returning phone calls and for hogging credit when he didn’t have to, several proteges have said, but he had an instinctual eye for talent, making household names of sportscasters Frank Gifford, Jim McKay, Al Michaels and Cosell, as well as news anchors Walters, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Sam Donaldson, among others.

Behind the cameras, he groomed executives including Walt Disney Co. President Robert Iger, who along with Ebersol, worked for Arledge at ABC Sports.

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In a statement, Iger said: “Roone Arledge was a great friend and mentor to me, and when I think of him, the word perfection comes to mind. He was a visionary for those who were privileged enough to work with him, as well as for the millions of viewers who were fortunate enough to be enriched by his programming innovations, which transformed the way television is watched to this day ....”

“He was a brilliant man who saw the big picture,” Michaels said. “He emphasized telling stories and telling stories about people. He could take events such as barrel racing, demolition derby and toboggan racing and make them interesting.”

Shunning concerns about the bottom line, Michaels said, “He gave the impression that all he was concerned about was putting on a great show, and he knew how to do it.”

Twice, when he didn’t have one obvious star to put in the sports booth or the nightly news anchor chair, he improvised with three, making the move seem revolutionary, instead of possibly desperate.

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“This guy was a leader,” Donaldson said. “Sure, he didn’t return phone calls, but those of us who worked for him would have marched off a cliff behind him, and if he wanted to play golf first, we would have waited for him. He knew what worked; he knew it when he saw it.”

Roone Pinckney Arledge was born July 8, 1931, in Forest Hills, N.Y., and raised on Long Island. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from what was then Columbia College in 1952 -- a class that included Richard Wald, who would become president of NBC News and later a key Arledge deputy -- he joined the DuMont Television Network as a production assistant.

After a stint at NBC, where he won his first Emmy Award for his producing work with Shari Lewis and her puppet Lambchop, he joined ABC Sports in 1960 as a producer, drawing on the burgeoning television technology of the time to bring viewers at home closer than ever to the action, with hand-held cameras and on-field microphones. His first assignment at ABC Sports was producing college football, where he penned a now-famous memo of his planned approach, promising, “We are going to add show business to sports!”

Arledge, who once referred to sports as a “microcosm of life,” quickly made a mark with the creation in 1961 of the globe-spanning “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” coining its tag line “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” In “Beating the Odds,” ABC founder Leonard Goldenson’s history of the network, Arledge recalled that his proudest sports accomplishment was adding journalism to sports coverage, with the use of commentators such as the abrasive Cosell. In 1970, he created the prime time “Monday Night Football,” still on the air.

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Arledge, who had studied journalism at Columbia with an eye to being a writer for Time or Newsweek, was thrust into the unaccustomed role of news producer at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Overnight, the games turned from a typical sporting event into a dark news story, when Palestinian Black September terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.

It was the first hostage drama to air live. The world was transfixed as ABC’s cameras focused on the dormitories where the terrorists held the athletes hostage, and McKay went from hosting sports coverage to anchoring breaking news.

Five years later, Goldenson made the controversial move of handing Arledge the third-place ABC News, which he would run along with ABC Sports. In “Beating the Odds,” Goldenson equated that decision to “throwing the deed to the family farm on the casino table. I couldn’t be sure we’d win -- but if we did, I thought we would win big.”

Walters recalled Thursday that Arledge was “ridiculed and vilified” at the time, which meant “we had a lot in common.” Walters had left NBC News to become co-anchor with Harry Reasoner of ABC’s nightly newscast and, she said, “I was a failure here. Roone made the decision to send Harry back to CBS’ ‘60 Minutes’ and bet on me, and nourish me and resurrect my career.” Walters went on to conduct groundbreaking interviews with Middle East foes Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel.

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Money was key to Arledge’s reinvention of ABC News. Donaldson was ABC’s White House correspondent when Arledge took over, and he soon read that Arledge was trying to lure a top NBC correspondent to ABC for the then-unheard-of annual salary of $100,000, far more than the $55,000 Donaldson was earning as ABC’s top-paid reporter. Donaldson sent Arledge a cheeky note, and the next day, his salary was raised to the same level.

“If Roone thought you were the guy or gal he wanted in a particular spot and as long as you were producing, he would pay,” Donaldson said.

Even rivals benefited. Arledge went after NBC News’ Tom Brokaw, and dangled big money at CBS’ Dan Rather in the early 1980s. To keep him, CBS agreed to make Rather anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” replacing Walter Cronkite. Arledge was gracious when Rather declined the offer, Rather recalled, “where a lesser person would not have been.” The CBS anchor added that one of the things that attracted him to working for Arledge was that “not only did he have an eye for quality on the air, but he had a great eye for quality people around him.”

The high salaries would make multimillionaires of the likes of Walters, Jennings and Diane Sawyer, and turn them into celebrities, putting ABC News on the map at the same time. Though programs such as Walters’ “20/20" and Sawyer’s “Primetime” would earn millions for the network in return, the mega-salaries ultimately proved to be a costly and perhaps unsustainable trend, as the television news business has become more competitive.

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Even with two major jobs, Arledge was at the top of his creative game. In one year, 1980, he mined the drama of the underdog U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Russians at the Winter Olympics from Lake Placid, N.Y., and transformed the late-night Iranian hostage crisis special reports into “Nightline,” one of television news’ most honored programs. His Olympic coverage, filled with “up close and personal” profiles of the athletes, turned the quadrennial events into advertising bonanzas, one that NBC has benefited from with recent games.

Arledge’s work habits were quirky; for years his usual uniform was a safari jacket; he would refuse to return phone calls and then, when finally reached, “you’d have him for five hours,” Walters said. Goldenson, in his book, cited a joke that made the rounds when Arledge added news to his portfolio: “Roone will now have two offices where he can’t be reached.”

Arledge may not have been easily found, but sports and news producers and correspondents soon learned that he had his own way of ensuring his constant presence, through the so-called “Roone phone.” The control room phones were wired directly to his home, so he could weigh in on what his staff was doing at any minute, and he often would.

“The biggest compliment and biggest fear was when you were on the air, and Roone called,” Walters said. Even when Arledge didn’t call, the trick worked.

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“Nightline” executive producer Tom Bettag recalled an editor who didn’t want to finesse a minor glitch in a report for fear that the “Roone phone” would ring, evidence that “that man shaped an organization absolutely top to bottom, whose power and influence was something beyond what most mortal men achieve.”

Arledge won the loyalty of employees because “if he trusted you, he would let you go out there and try something,” said Jeff Gralnick, one of Arledge’s top executive producers for many years.

Gralnick said he took the job after Arledge poked him in the chest and said, “ ‘I’m going to make you work harder than you’ve ever worked, and make you better than you ever thought you’d be.’ There was a mystique that he fostered.”

When he was attentive, he was hands-on. Gralnick recalled a 1980s election set that simply wasn’t looking right on camera. “None of us could figure it out and then we heard Roone grumbling in the background, and he cried out, ‘It’s the stairs,’ ” Gralnick said. They were removed and “suddenly it became a magical, huge place. He just saw it.”

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“Roone believed in being involved in every aspect -- but he could be unbelievably difficult and there were times when we wanted to wring his neck,” Jennings said.

“Especially for people like Koppel and me -- he had been a godfather, our patron, almost like a father in some ways. He made our careers possible.”

The 37-time Emmy Award-winner was cited by Life magazine in 1990 as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century, and he was the first television executive to receive the International Olympic Committee’s Medal of the Olympic Order.

In 1989, he was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, and in 1990 into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He received four George Foster Peabody Awards, including a personal award for his work at ABC News.

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“Roone Arledge revolutionized television and with it the way people see and understand the world,” said ABC News President David L. Westin on Thursday.

Arledge died at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Thrice married, he is survived by his wife, Gigi Shaw Arledge, and his children from a previous marriage, Roone Arledge Jr., Susan Weston, Betsey Arledge and Patricia Looney.

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Times staff writer Larry Stewart contributed to this report.

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