In 1994, Sports Illustrated named Roone Arledge, longtime executive producer of ABC Sports, the third most important person in the sports world since SI’s inception in 1954. Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan beat him out. Arledge, who died Thursday at age 71, should have been at the top of list. Without Arledge to boost sports into television’s spotlight, MJ would’ve been another Elgin Baylor, a great talent on display only on tape delay after midnight. And without ABC and Arledge’s most notorious and courageous hire, Howard Cosell, to relentlessly promote him, Ali would never overcome the hatred directed at him for opting out of military service to become the most popular athlete on the planet.
One Web site doesn’t have enough bandwidth to properly do justice to all of Arledge’s innovations and accomplishments, both in sports and later at ABC News, where he created Nightline, among other feats. (Click here and here to read obits that spell them out.) So maybe it’s best to look at how some of his schemes, however brilliant at the time, have made TV sports painful to watch and news almost impossible to finance.
When we watch sports on TV, we were reminded again and again last night, we are seeing Arledge’s legacy. But not all of his legacy is good. Arledge was determined, as he put it in a 1960 memo to his ABC bosses, to bring “show business to sports.” He elevated a simple football game to a three-hour drama by humanizing the combatants and identifying storylines that his cameras and replay machines could relay to the home audience. Unfortunately, since Roone left the ABC control room, the networks’ relentless focus on narrative has made TV sports excruciating. These days, being a great athlete no longer suffices—one has to have a back story, preferably one that tugs at the heartstrings. This trend is most noticeable at the Olympics, where NBC foists on the viewer gloppy featurettes about anyone who once accidentally hit themselves in the thumb with a hammer. A never-ending quest for ratings that can justify sky-high rights fees (another Arledge byproduct, enamored as he was of overspending) means the audience gets less sport, more soap opera.
Arledge also pioneered the technological improvements that we take for granted when we flip on the ballgame, like slow-motion cameras or graphics that show statistics. Now, those bells and whistles have been applied wholesale in production trucks and editing rooms across America. For every meaningful addition like the First-and-Ten digital stripe for football games, 10 other graphics clutter the screen for the innocent viewer. Audio wooshes, glowing pucks, animated robots—all done in the quest to improve upon an already superb product. Arledge was a great believer in star power, especially when it came to news programs. To see the anchor or play-by-play man reduced to a single quadrant of the screen, with the rest devoted to graphics crawls, must have revolted him.
Roone toned down his show-biz approach when he took over ABC News, surprising his critics by being every bit as innovative while keeping the “Capital J journalists,” as Arledge called them, happy by committing the network to hard-core news gathering. But he took his large wallet with him, and by instituting a massive salary structure to lure stars like Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer to ABC, he helped create the “anchor-monster—answerable to no one, convinced of righteousness by dint of paycheck, and scourge of producers who took the fall because the highly paid face wouldn’t. (Every one of these anchors, not coincidentally, toasted him on TV last night.) If network executives want to know why TV news is hemorrhaging money, they can start by looking at the anchors’ movie-star salaries.
Oh, and Arledge was also responsible for the rise of Geraldo Rivera, fancying him the news equivalent of Cosell. If nothing else, that should at least get Roone an asterisk on his plaque in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame.