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How We Got Here - Chapter 1: The Titan Of Television
August 16, 1994
History has thrown a thunderous combination. Blacks are voting in South Africa today; Richard Nixon awaits burial tonight. In the office of the president of ABC News, nine muted televisions, recessed in a mahogany wall, monitor global events. Nine TVs, arrayed in a grid, frame the faces of Clinton, De Klerk, Mandela: They look like the Hollywood Squares of high office.
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August 16, 1994

How We Got Here - Chapter 1: The Titan Of Television

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A few years earlier Arledge had signed Cosell to appear as a boxing analyst on Wide World and to cover the sport at the 1968 Olympics. Cosell instantly seized a high profile with his interviews of Muhammad Ali, whom Cosell insisted on calling...Muhammad Ali. This was deemed outrageous and deliberately provocative, even though Muhammad Ali was the man's legal name and had been for four years. "We've forgotten how weird some people's opinions were," says Arledge. Indeed, when ABC asked Ali—who had been stripped of his heavyweight title for resisting the Vietnam draft—to commentate on its boxing coverage, it did so despite warnings against the idea from the U.S. State Department.

In those first giddy days following those first Monday nights, Arledge had to dance a conga to his desk, sidestepping bushels of letters and telegrams tottering in piles throughout his office. He could peel one off a stack at random and invariably the missive would read, "Get him off the air!" Of course, "him" was Cosell, who later estimated that half of his mail began with the cheery salutation "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."

The essence of the outcry was clear. "We were desecrating something," says Arledge. "CBS had Ray Scott, and now we had this loudmouthed Howard on TV questioning everything, yelling about what a dumb trade that was, and asking, 'Don't football players have rights?' And a lot of the owners just couldn't deal with it."

It was clear, too, that television could create a collective national experience, could unite a country in something, if only in its distaste for this toupeed boor spouting polysyllables in a broadcast booth. By the fall of 1971, 30 million viewers were tuning into ABC on Monday nights.

With those kinds of numbers, it became a fait accompli: Within four years the World Series was made a primarily prime-time affair, and by 1978 the Super Bowl had also encroached on that rarefied space. Don't blame television or him, says Arledge; blame baseball and football owners: "Because they want to get more money, and the way to get more money is to play your games in prime time."

Sure, advertising dollars were wallpapering the networks' Sixth Avenue offices as well, but before long those dollars would return to the NFL as $10 bills. CBS paid $14 million a year to televise the NFL in 1964 and '65. By 1982 the three networks paid a combined $2.1 billion to televise NIL games for five years. By 1990 five networks paid $3.6 billion for three years. And in 1993 Rupert Murdoch and the Fox network paid $1.58 billion for the rights to televise just the National Football Conference for four years.

Football would be played no more in the CBS cathedral but in a Fox-hole where coverage will likely owe more to ABC and Arledge. In 1974, when he hired Fred (the Hammer) Williamson to briefly join the Monday Night lineup—a position that in 1983 would be filled by a more glamorous football entity, O.J. Simpson—Arledge noticed, on a chain around the Hammer's neck, a clenched black fist and a solid-gold penis, two items of jewelry seldom worn by Ray Scott of the CBS television network.

His ABC press-kit biography used to end with the unbecoming (and highly dubious) boast that Roone Arledge holds the records "for shooting the largest leopard and Cape buffalo—the latter considered the most dangerous animal in the world—on an African safari." How could anyone know that those two animals were the largest of their kind ever shot on an African safari? As for that clause between dashes—the most dangerous animal in the world—it seems a rather subjective and gratuitous flourish, does it not?

Arledge has occasionally been accused of creating yards of his legend from whole cloth. Tony Verna, a former director at CBS, will tell you that he and his network were first on the air with slow-motion instant replay, on an Army-Navy football telecast on New Year's Eve in 1964, though the historical record is obstinately unclear on the matter.

Certainly Arledge has known virtually every world leader and athletic giant of our time as head of the News and Sports divisions at ABC, and his is the world's grandest TV résumé. But even among his myriad achievements, one stands above all as the Cape buffalo of his accomplishments. It happened in Munich in 1972.

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