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.
"It is so striking," says Roone Arledge, the owner of this louvered window on the world. "You look at Nelson Mandela and you look at Muhammad Ali. I can't help but see one in the other. The indomitability of spirit that both men have. You know, with the exception of the pope, Mandela may be the most famous man in the world today. Ali was that for many years."
Nixon's face pops onto a screen, like fruit in a video slot machine. True story: When Arledge was the president of ABC Sports in 1971, he hired the anvil-headed Frank Gifford away from CBS. Gifford's first assignment at ABC was to announce the Hall of Fame exhibition football game in Canton, Ohio. But when Nixon decided to drop in on the game, suddenly—horrifically—Gifford's first assignment was to interview the President.
Minutes before the broadcast Nixon told Arledge what a fan he was of the New York Giants in those days when Gifford embodied that team. In fact, when Nixon practiced law in New York, he often attended postgame parties at Giff's place. And then the President of the United States said a most curious thing to the President of ABC Sports. RN told RA: "I'm sure Frank would remember me."
Sometime in the second half of this century, sports became an axis on which the world turns. The most famous man on earth was a heavyweight fighter, the Leader of the Free World boasted fretfully of his friendship with Frank breaking Gifford. Earlier this day, in his ABC office, Arledge had mentioned the name of Michael Jordan, an American export as ubiquitous and profitable as Coca-Cola, and was asked how in heaven's name this had all come to be. How and when, exactly, did the globe become an NBA-licensed, Charles Barkley-signature basketball spinning madly on God's index finger?
Resplendent in a navy-blue suit, Arledge considered the question as an aide brought coffee, which was placed on a coffee table, next to a stack of coffee-table books: one on the Dalai Lama, one on Abraham Lincoln, one on Muhammad Ali.
"There have been comparable times in history when sports have been at the center of a culture and seemed to dominate the landscape," Arledge began. "Whether in Greek society or in what used to be called the Golden Age of Sports. But everything..." Pause. Sip.
"...everything is magnified by television."
And Roone Arledge returned to his coffee. And nine muted televisions fairly lit the room.
American scientists solved the conundrum in 1954: How-might mankind minister to its own sustenance—without missing a minute of Mr. Peepers? An Omaha company developed technology by which a meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes could be frozen, boxed, sold, thawed, cooked and safely eaten without an ounce of effort by the consumer. Swanson & Sons called this 98-cent mealsicle the "TV Dinner," to be eaten on a "TV tray," in front of, of course, the "TV." Godless Soviet scientists, meanwhile, frittered away their time developing the earth-orbiting satellite.