Arledge produced 10 Olympics, and they are collectively the pride of his 25 years at ABC Sports. But the prices were dear, and he can tick off each of them to this day: Innsbruck in 1964 cost $250,000. Mexico City in 1968 cost $3 million, and that one really got to him. His colleagues thumped him on the back after he won the rights to those Games, but Arledge felt like vomiting. "Why are you congratulating me?" he asked. He was sick and remorseful, bedeviled by the buyer's guilt you and I might get after shelling out for a Chevette.
Munich ran $13.5 million, and tour years later the '76 Games in Montreal cost $25 million, and suddenly it was all insane. "It used to be in those days," says Arledge, "that you'd rebuild an entire city if you had the Olympic Games." Montreal got new roads, a refurbished infrastructure and a soon-to-be-domed stadium for its two weeks before the world.
Still, there were two sticking points with the Montreal Olympic Organizing Committee as Arledge was negotiating the rights to those Games in the middle of a Quebec night. The MOOC-a-mucks demanded 1) that Cosell not be assigned to the Olympics and 2) that no mention be made of the Munich Games in ABC's coverage of the opening ceremonies.
Arledge calmly responded with a question of his own, not out of anger but with a bemused, almost clinical detachment: "Are you out of your minds?"
The Montreal rights had drawn such a high price precisely because of what had happened in Munich. For starters, the 1972 Games had been the first to take over the whole of a network's prime-time schedule. (The Mexico City Games had been shunted to ABC's worst time-slot ghettos.) What's more, those Olympics had been a riveting athletic success: When they were over, Mark Spitz had more gold hanging from his neck than Fred (the Hammer) Williamson, and the U.S. men's basketball team had had its own gold stolen by those villainous, still-invincible emissaries from the Evil Empire in an epic final.
Yet the lower-case games themselves had become but a jot on history's seismograph after the events of Sept. 5, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in the athletes' village at 4:30 that morning.
Jim McKay, ABC's Olympic studio host, was preparing to take a dip in the hotel pool on his only day off in the fortnight when he was summoned to duty. He would be on the air for the next 18 hours, anchoring field coverage from Cosell and from Peter Jennings, the network's Beirut correspondent, who was in Munich for the Games. Citizens of the world sat gathered around their televisions, the electronic hearth hissing and spitting bad news like sparks. In the end even some relatives of the hostages themselves received the sickening news from McKay, who, wearied and wan, could say little more than, "They're all gone."
Within a day Arledge and his staff had produced a 40-minute instant documentary on the murders, featuring reaction from Willy Brandt and the Munich chief of police and members of the Israeli Knesset and Golda Meir. He was puzzled when, Rozelle-like, Avery Brundage ordered the Games to go on that day; he was puzzled, likewise, when ABC News told him it did not want his documentary, that this was somehow still about sports. So Arledge moved all of his commercial spots in that day's Olympic programming to the beginning and middle of his show and ran the damn documentary in his own time, 40 minutes uninterrupted at the end of the Olympic program. And don't think he forgot the slight when he took over last-place ABC News (in addition to Sports) in-1978 and made it the More-Americans-Get-Their-News-from-ABC-News-Than-from-Any-Other-Source king of Broadcast Row.
Arledge's coverage from Munich "changed television itself," wrote Gunther and Carter. "From then on, whenever a catastrophe struck, viewers no longer were content to wait for film at eleven; they expected television to afford them a chance to be eyewitnesses to history." In short, these "viewers" were about to become voyeurs, a phenomenon that would seem to reach its apocalyptic apotheosis on a Friday night in the summer of 1994 when 95 million Americans stayed tuned to several networks to see if O.J. Simpson would commit suicide on the San Diego Freeway.
ABC won 29 Emmys for its Munich production. Even the president of archenemy CBS, ABC's own Evil Empire, approached Arledge at a post-Olympics luncheon in New York and congratulated him, something that just doesn't happen on the graceless weasel farm of network television. "It was," Bob Wood told Arledge, "like the nation was reading the same book together."