Hi Mom brought Arledge his first Emmy, in 1959, and within two years he was producing sports at ABC, where everything he touched turned to gold statuettes. There was really little hope of competing with him when you think back on it; after all, the man had won an Emmy producing a puppet show. What would he do with the Olympic Games?
Before he made the Olympics Olympian, fathered Wide World of Sports, The American Sportsman, Monday Night Football, The Superstars, Nightline, 20/20, This Week with David Brinkley, Prime Time Live and Howard Co-sell; before he pioneered and/or perfected the use of instant replay and handheld cameras and isolation cameras and sophisticated graphics and underwater video and split screens and field microphones; before he miked a dead zebra so that Sportsman viewers could better hear its being devoured by lions; before this ruddy-faced man named Roone fashioned a grand, safari-going, desk-dodging, expense-vouchered, limo-driven life for himself, he wrote a famous memo to his superiors at ABC telling them he was going to do all of that. The year was 1961.
Nineteen sixty-one happened also to be the year that ECC chairman Newton Minow famously called television "a vast wasteland." Television's presentation of sports, specifically, was something worse altogether.
"The prevailing attitude was summed up by baseball commissioner Ford Frick," wrote Marc Gunther and Bill Carter in their book, Monday Night Mayhem. " 'The view a fan gets at home,' Frick once said, 'should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat of the ball park.' "
Turnstile-obsessed baseball owners agreed, and the networks fulfilled their wishes with primitive coverage. It would be uncharitable to say what your typical baseball owner was at the time, but it rhymed with Frick: If you wanted to see a ball game, went their shortsighted thinking, you would simply have to buy a ticket to the ballpark.
None of this mattered to ABC, which had no pro football and only a piece of baseball when Arledge arrived. But the development of videotape and the DC-8—cassettes and jets—allowed him to go "spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport," which was really a fancy, Roone-ified name for auto racing.
To be fair, Wide World of Sports also brought heavy coverage of figure skating and gymnastics, sports that would stir a quadrennial appetite for ABC's coverage of the Olympics and vault a few female athletes into the ether of superstardom: Olga Korbut and Peggy Fleming, Nadia Comaneci and Dorothy Hamill, Mary Lou Retton and Katarina Witt, Tonya and Nancy. Nevertheless, it was a measure of television's meager interest in the Games that ABC paid $50,000 for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and then skittishly reneged on the deal. But the space race was on, the cold war was at its hair-trigger, missiles-in-Cuba, shoe-pounding peak, and, says Arledge, "it became apparent with the Olympics in those days that if you had an American against a Russian, it didn't matter what they were doing, they could have been kayaking and people would watch it."
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been shot into space, and U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane had been shot out of it. So eager were Americans to see vanquished Russkies of any athletic stripe that even 20 years later, when the host nation would finally beat the Soviets in ice hockey at Lake Placid, the U.S. would go bananas over a sport about which it knew precious little. The victory would be consecrated by many as the greatest sporting achievement of the second half of this century, and the moment of triumph would be punctuated by announcer Al Michaels's asking in all sincerity, "Do you believe in miracles?" The game was brought to Americans by Roone Arledge and the American Broadcasting Company, which had been serving the cold war hot for two decades.
In the mid-1960s the Olympics and a new college football package were ABC's only familiar showcases, which meant that Wide World lavished extraordinary attention on exotica, Arledge flying around all creation to buy the rights to anything that wasn't already owned: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, golf's British Open, the Japanese All-Star baseball game. While in Tokyo to negotiate the rights to that extravaganza, the peripatetic Arledge took in a Japanese film. The action often occurred at half speed, in the grand tradition of the bad martial-arts movie. Not for the first time Arledge wondered: Why couldn't this be done on television?
His return to New York included a layover in Los Angeles. In a bar called Julie's, Arledge asked ABC engineer Bob Trachinger how TV could become master over time itself. Trach sketched it all out on a sodden cocktail napkin—how an image could be taken off an Orthicon tube and replayed at half speed and....