On December 5, 2002, the legendary television producer and executive Roone Arledge dies in New York City, at the age of 71. Born in Forest Hills, Queens, Arledge won his first producing job from New York’s Channel 4, where he worked behind the scenes on a puppet show starring Shari Lewis. After unsuccessfully pitching a pilot called For Men Only to NBC, he was noticed by ABC executive Ed Sherick, and began working at ABC’s fledgling sports division in 1960.
From the start of his tenure at ABC, Arledge aimed to “add show business to sports,” as he put it. He pioneered a number of new techniques in college football programming, including hand-held cameras, aerial footage and improved sound. With Sherick, he introduced ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a weekly roundup of sporting events—featuring many less mainstream sports from around the world—hosted by Jim McKay. The groundbreaking show became a hit, and by 1964 Arledge was a network vice president; he became president of ABC Sports four years later.
More than anyone else, Arledge brought sports programming out of its limited weekend niche and into prime time, beginning with the broadcast of the Olympic Games in 1968. In 1970, Arledge solidified his impact with the premiere of Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, which opened the floodgates for all major sports to move into prime time. Arledge’s enormously influential style—including “up close and personal” stories about athletes’ lives and technological innovations such as instant and slow-motion replays, split-screen views and isolated cameras—aimed to thrill audiences and get them emotionally involved in the broadcast. His philosophy continues to define sports programming today.
Notoriously detail-oriented, Arledge truly showed his mettle during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when Arab terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. As the U.S. broadcaster of the Games, ABC had exclusive access, and under Arledge’s guidance, the network covered the unfolding crisis continuously for the next 17 hours, up to and including the announcement that the hostages had been killed. ABC, Jim McKay- and Arledge won a historic total of 29 Emmys for the Munich coverage.
Arledge took over ABC’s struggling news division in 1977, retaining control of ABC Sports as well. Renaming the nightly newscast World News Tonight, he nurtured the careers of top newscasters such as Peter Jennings and oversaw the coverage of such momentous topics as apartheid in South Africa and the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, Arledge produced a nightly special on the crisis, a first in network news. The show later became Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel. Arledge put another network star, Barbara Walters, at the head of the first news magazine show, 20/20. By 1990, ABC News was turning a yearly profit of some $70 million, another first for a network news division.
In the mid-1990s, Arledge began to relinquish day-to-day control at ABC; the Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of the network in 1996 accelerated this process. Three months before his death on December 5, 2002, Arledge was awarded the first-ever lifetime achievement Emmy—his 37th Emmy Award overall.