When talking about Roone Arledge, the overused superlative "legend" seems almost an understatement. It's an endlessly fascinating and unfailingly entertaining document of unscripted television's golden age, and while a bit more introspection would have been valuable, Arledge can be forgiven his lack of modesty since anything else might have rung false given his unquestioned status as a pioneer of the medium.
When talking about Roone Arledge, the overused superlative “legend” seems almost an understatement. The longtime ABC exec wouldn’t have quibbled with such grand praise, though, since he spends a good chunk of his posthumously published memoir detailing just how important a role he played in the creation of modern TV sports and news. It’s an endlessly fascinating and unfailingly entertaining document of unscripted television’s golden age, and while a bit more introspection would have been valuable, Arledge can be forgiven his lack of modesty since anything else might have rung false given his unquestioned status as a pioneer of the medium.Since Arledge invented the up close and personal style of storytelling that, for better or worse, still dominates most TV sports coverage, it’s no surprise that “Roone’s” 400-plus pages feel like an extended monlogue of memories and observations from a grizzled veteran of more than a few battles. Whether he’s relating how he locked up the rights to ABC’s first Olympics in 1962 (for just $500,000!) or how he spent nearly two years wooing Diane Sawyer away from CBS (it’s true: Barbara Walters was not happy about the hire), Arledge fills his tales with the sort of minutae that many authors would dismiss as extraneous but in fact leave the reader wide-eyed and racing to the next page. All the expected highlights are here– Howard Cosell and the creation of “Monday Night Football”; the Munich Olympics nightmare; taking ABC News from also-ran to powerhouse– but almost as interesting are the less-publicized moments of Arledge’s storied career. Before Walters and Sawyers, Arledge worked with a young Shari Lewis, helping make her (and Lamb Chop) stars through a daytime gabber called “Hi, Mom!” As a junior sports exec at Sports Progams Inc. (a sort of predecessor to ABC Sports), he had to personally tell Sonny Liston that he wouldn’t get the chance to make a promotional TV appearance, a move that enraged the pugilist/convicted felon and gave the young Arledge the first of what would be many lessons in how to deal with difficult talent.Arledge’s schmoozing skills are a central theme of “Roone,” with many of the exec’s stories turning on how the right words or personal gestures make all the difference when dealing with the supersized egos of corporate suits and on-air talent. It’s hard to believe but, according to Arledge, Sam Donaldson nearly left ABC because Sawyer was going to get to say “hello” first at the start of every “PrimeTime Live.” Or that a potential Arledge successor, Steve Weiswasser, would secretly insist on having his picture taken with the stars of ABC News, simply because Arledge had already done so. Arledge doesn’t peddle in gossip, and with a few exceptions– such as ripping into Weiswasser and much-respected exec Dennis Swanson– he doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time settling old scores. At the same time, Arledge spends woefully little time dissecting his mistakes. While he readily mocks some of his quirkier traits– his notorious refusal to return most phone calls, for example– he doesn’t get into the more legitimate flaws and stumbles of his reign. There’s no acknowledgement that his reverance for news and sports stars sent salaries skyrocketing out of control. And though he devotes an entire chapter to “Landing Diane,” there’s nary a mention of the fact that her “PrimeTime Live” was an intial flop. Perhaps Arledge didn’t see such criticisms as valid. Or maybe, ever the producer, he didn’t want to bog down his incredible story with ponderous self-reflection or second-guessing. (Even his two divorces merit little more than a paragraph or two.) No matter: “Roone” is an engrossing portrait of a time in American broadcasting when content mattered most, a time when the founders of the Big Three still ran the show and thus cared as much about leaving a legacy as turning a profit. That era is sadly over– and with it, perhaps, the possibility of any single person having the chance to shape a medium as profoundly as Roone Arledge did.