NEW YORK — Leonard H. Goldenson, founder and retired chairman of the board of ABC Inc., died Monday at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 94.
A founding father of network television, Goldenson has been credited as one of the leading forces in transforming television from a novelty to the powerful medium it is today. As president of United Paramount Theaters, he oversaw the merger of UPT and the American Broadcasting Co. in 1953.
Under Goldenson’s direction, ABC expanded steadily to become a leading force in broadcasting, with the ABC Television Network growing into a major entertainment and information medium. He also expanded ABC’s operations beyond its core business of broadcasting, becoming a driving force in ABC’s entry into cable.
“Leonard Goldenson was a giant among broadcasters, and his influence on the business today is wide-ranging,” said Robert A. Iger, chairman, ABC Group and president, Walt Disney Intl.
“He was a risk-taker. He had vision, and his programming skills were as strong as his business skills.” Iger added. “Leonard was a role model for anyone who ever worked with him, and his impact on our business and on our company will be long remembered.”
During his years at ABC, Goldenson mentored Michael Eisner, Aaron Spelling, Barry Diller, Brandon Tartikoff, Roone Arledge, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner.
“I met Leonard Goldenson on the first day of my employment at ABC. He was as nice to me then as he was the day the Walt Disney Co. acquired ABC 30 years later,” said Eisner, in a prepared statement. “He showed me it was acceptable to ask an insatiable amount of questions, to support the creative process.”
Goldenson was born Dec. 7, 1905, in Scottdale, Pa., where his father owned a dry goods emporium and a small share in two movie theaters. Despite his small stature, Goldenson was a high school quarterback. After graduating high school first in his class, Goldenson entered Harvard U. at age 16 and graduated from Harvard Law School at 24.
While working summers for legendary Pittsburgh securities broker Charles McKenna Lynch, Goldenson invested his salary in stocks, eventually building up a small fortune. In September 1929, he liquidated his holdings. A few weeks later, the market crashed.
At the height of the Great Depression, Goldenson was hired to help reorganize the bankrupt Paramount Pictures’ New England theaters. Once Paramount emerged from bankruptcy, Goldenson was given charge of its theaters. He became the world’s biggest booker and buyer of motion pictures, best customer for the Hollywood studios and friends with movie moguls Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, Walt Disney, Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer.
Foresaw TV’s future
After becoming entranced by an experimental television system at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Goldenson was determined to get involved with the new medium. He pushed Barney Balaban, Paramount’s president, to launch Chicago’s WBKB, one of the world’s first television stations.
After the Supreme Court ruled that Hollywood studios were violating antitrust laws by owning theaters, Paramount was forced to spin off its cinemas from its studio operations. Goldenson negotiated the Paramount consent agreement, which became the blueprint for restructuring the film industry.
In 1951, Goldenson was named president of United Paramount Theaters, a new company independent of Paramount Pictures.
Anxious to get into the television business, Goldenson convinced the directors of UPT to back the purchase of American Broadcasting in 1953. Goldenson set out to bring fresh talent to ABC and hired a host of unknowns, including Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Thomas, Joel Grey and Ray Bolger.
That same year, Walt Disney asked Goldenson to support him in his quest to build an amusement park for children. After NBC’s David Sarnoff and CBS’ William Paley had already declined to support Disney, ABC agreed to underwrite $17 million for construction and operation of the park. In exchange, Disney agreed to produce a weekly show, “Disneyland,” which was the network’s first hit.
ABC also obtained access to Disney’s library of animated films, a 35% stake in Disneyland and a decade of concession revenues.
“Leonard Goldenson was the man who held the shotgun while the motion picture and broadcasting images got married. The offspring of this union is the modern television industry, which airs content developed and produced by the same studios that make theatrical films,” said Marvin J. Wolf, co-author with Goldenson of “Beating the Odds, the Untold Story Behind the Rise of ABC: The Stars, Struggles and Egos That Transformed Network Television.”
Goldenson convinced Jack Warner, as he had Disney, that television was an opportunity for film companies rather than a threat. At Goldenson’s prompting, Warners opened a new division to make programs for ABC. By the 1970s, no major studio could compete without a television division.
Goldenson was responsible for other similarly forward-thinking — and sometimes controversial — moves. For instance, his decision in 1954 to air Senate hearings gavel-to-gavel for 36 days gave the American public its first opportunity to judge Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
After the “U.S. Steel Hour” defected to CBS in 1956, Goldenson took control of ABC’s programming away from sponsors. The other networks followed suit.
Goldenson also showed foresight by pursuing younger audiences with trend-setting shows such as Westerns, medical dramas and detective shows. Under his leadership, ABC ventured into primetime sports, movies for television, miniseries and telefilms.
As cable began to penetrate the country, Goldenson was among the first to see the synergistic possibilities. ABC bought a controlling interest in ESPN in 1984 and started, in partnership with Hearst, the A&E and Lifetime networks.
Over a career spanning 32 years, Goldenson defended ABC against many takeover attempts. In 1986, Goldenson gave up most of his active role as chairman of the company when he agreed to sell ABC to Capital Cities Communications for $3.5 billion. In 1996, the Walt Disney Co. merged with Capital Cities/ABC. In his later years, Goldenson continued to watch all the network’s new pilots and make recommendations.
In addition to his professional achievements, Goldenson was widely recognized for his humanitarian and civic endeavors. He was co-founder of the United Cerebral Palsy Assn., the second largest health charity in the country.
Goldenson is survived by his wife, Isabelle Weinstein Goldenson; two daughters, Loreen Arbus and Maxine Goldenson; and a grandson. He will be buried in a private family ceremony in New York, to be followed by a memorial service in New York in January.