Nineteen fifty-four was a dizzying breakout year for television. Steve Allen starred in the network debut of The Tonight Show on NBC. Johnny Carson starred in the network debut of Earn Your Vacation on CBS. The Army and Joe McCarthy starred in the Army-McCarthy hearings on all four networks—NBC, CBS, ABC and Dumont—as Senator Joe rooted out Reds through the riveting summer of 1954.
In that same summer Roone Pinckney Arledge Jr. was a 23-year-old corporal waiting at Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Grounds for his imminent discharge from the Army, at which time he could begin to transform television, and television could transform sport into something truly stupendous. Upon graduation from Columbia University in 1952, Arledge worked briefly at Dumont, and ever since, though his duties in that job had been menial, TV had coursed through his veins.
In 1954 a New York attorney named Howard Cosell left the practice of law (and his $30,000 salary) to embark on a career in sports broadcasting (for $250 a week), despite the fact that he had turned 36 years old that March, his receding hairline in need of reseeding.
In 1954 a 12-year-old child in Louisville had his red Schwinn bicycle stolen. "I'd walk out of my house at two in the morning, and look up at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do," the boy turned man would later tell biographer Thomas Hauser. Cassius Clay learned boxing to avenge the theft of his bike.
Soon all of these celestial events would be confluent, meeting before the world on television, which stood poised to dwarf every other communication medium in 1954. That year Jack Warner forbade the appearance of a television set in the home scenes of any Warner Brothers movie, the film industry futilely attempting to wish TV away. It was too late.
"By 1954," wrote David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, "there were 32 million television sets throughout the country, CBS television's gross billings doubled in that single year, and CBS became the single biggest advertising medium in the world. The real money, money and revenues beyond anyone's wildest dreams, was in television and above all in entertainment. The possibilities of nationwide advertising were beyond comprehension; afternoon newspapers quickly began to atrophy; mass-circulation magazines, which up until the early fifties had been the conduit of national mass advertising—razor blades, beer, tires, cars, household goods—were suddenly in serious trouble; within little more than a decade they would be dead or dying—Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life. Television was about to alter the nature and balance of American merchandising and journalism."
Amid all the withering print, 1954 also saw the birth of a mass-circulation magazine. The launch of SPORTS ILLUS-TRATKD on Aug. 16 was especially propitious, for television, beginning almost that very year, was going to infuse sports with fabulous wealth, beam iconic images of athletes through space and around a wired world, push the major leagues to realize their manifest destiny in the American West, elevate interest in games to unprecedented heights and attract the professional interest of some vastly talented men and women, not to mention Rudy Martzke.
As Corporal Arledge riffled through those first issues of SI, the magazine seemed to encompass all that interested him about sports. "It incorporated art and journalism in a way that was totally compelling," he says now, and he wondered then why TV couldn't do the same. He and friends lived a Sunday-to-Sunday existence as followers of the National Football League. Looking at photographs of these warriors, their hands gauze-wrapped like burn patients', steam clouds bursting from their mouths, he wondered why you never saw that on a telecast?
A magazine could offer a tight, clear photograph of Y.A. Tittle at the instant he stepped out-of-bounds. Why couldn't television? A scribe could write what he saw happening on the field, no matter how unflattering. So why couldn't a television announcer...tell it like it is?
Despite the wild success of its all-octogenarian talk show, Life Begins at 80, the Dumont network went telly-up in 1955. When the newly discharged Arledge found a job that year, it was as a stage manager at NBC, where he would soon become a producer for a Saturday-morning children's show. The program, hosted by Shari Lewis, was prophetically titled Hi Mom, a phrase that would resonate in NIL end zones some 10 years later when Arledge took the NFL to prime time.