As the Super Bowl seamlessly transitions into the Winter Olympics this year, we wanted to revisit the man who made sports such a spectacle in the first place. No single person had more impact on the way we watch sports today than Roone Arledge. He was the original producer of the Wide World of Sports, the creator of Monday Night Football, the executive who made sports popular on primetime TV, and the originator of the halftime highlights show in football. He brought a brand of storytelling to sports broadcasting that transformed the "Olympics from an event of minimal interest to the most potent programming of any kind on television," wrote Bill Carter of The New York Times in Arledge's 2002 obituary. "When Mr. Arledge acquired his first Olympics for ABC—the 1964 Winter Games from Innsbruck, Austria—he paid $200,000 for the American television rights." For the 2014 Olympics, NBC paid $775 million.
In 1976, before he moved on to ABC News to turn its fledgling operation into a powerhouse with the creation of World News Tonight, Nightline and 20/20, Arledge sat down with Playboy for a candid conversation about the Olympics, Howard Cossell, and the thrill of victory and the agony defeat. Enjoy the interview in its entirety, and to read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com.
In 1960. ABC hired one Roone Pinckney Arledge, a red-haired, freckle-faced, 29-year-old nobody, to produce ten minutes of locker-room drivel per week for the network's N.C.A.A. football broadcasts. But about a month before the start of the 1960—1961 football season, Arledge placed a strange document in the hands of Tom Moore and Ed Sherick, the network's programing and sports directors. It was a theoretical treatise on the TV production of football, recommending such unheard-of techniques as the use of directional and remote microphones, the replacement of half-time shows with highlights and an analysis of the first two quarters, the use of hand-held and "isolated"cameras, the use of a split screen and the filling of "dead spots" during the game with prerecorded biographies and interviews.
Moore and Sherick decided to give the kid his shot: Roone Arledge, who at the time looked more like Spanky from Our Gang than like the major TV executive he had suddenly become, was installed as producer of N.C.A.A. football. Gillette, the sponsor, was skeptical but hung in there and the show went on. The electronic age of sports coverage was under way and Arledge was its revolutionary.
Between 1960 and the present, Arledge has spun out a dizzying succession of top-rated sports shows, including Monday Night Football, six of the past eight Olympic games, Monday Night Baseball, The American Sportsman and The Superstars. He has also "line produced" every minute of every Olympic telecast on ABC. In the process, he advanced to network vice-president in 1964 and to president of ABC Sports, Inc., in 1968. ABC Sports is now the most profitable production company in television and Arledge, whose 1975 earnings approached the $1,000,000 mark, is reputed to be the industry's highest-paid executive. But names of shows and numbers of dollars do not accurately express the impact of the man who has either invented or pioneered the use of virtually every major technical advance in sports coverage. One of Arledge's most famous electronic toys, the instant replay, has profoundly altered the way sports events are viewed and may soon change the way they are officiated as well.
There are supposedly only three living Americans named Roone and they are all named Arledge. Roone Pinckney Arledge, the son of one and the father of the other, was born in Forest Hills. New York, in 1931. Following what he describes as "a typical Long Island childhood, affluence masquerading as the middle class," Roone II attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and, in 1952, after a brief stint at Columbia's graduate School of International Affairs, he was drafted. When he was discharged in 1954, Arledge went to work for NBC, where he progressed from stage manager to unit manager, finally to director and producer.
By the late Fifties, Arledge was producing Shari Lewis kiddie show Hi, Mom, for which he won an Emmy Award and the opportunity to do a network pilot. Although NBC passed on his pilot, a magazine-style collage of sports, adventure and jazz called For Men Only, ABC liked the show enough to offer Arledge what he describes as "a nonspecific job somewhere in network production at a modest salary. I grabbed it."
A few months later, he was producing N.C.A.A. football, A few weeks later, he was producing A.F.L. football. In April 1961, he introduced ABC's Wide World of Sports, now the longest-running sports show in TV' history.
Arledge's contribution to TV sports has been verbal as well as technical. His 1961 description—first written on the back of an airline ticket—of the sports experience as "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat" has passed into the language and when, later that year, he refused to sign any contracts that included the traditional announcer-approval clause, ABC became the first network to allow critical commentary to accompany its play-by-play.
But of all the innovations Arledge has brought to the sporting scene, he will perhaps be best remembered for having hired an obscure New York attorney whose voice reminded Arledge of Eddie Bracken and who had, by 1965, done enough local broadcasting to get himself blackballed by the national network. That Arledge invented Howard Cosell is indisputable—but whether he is to be praised or damned for it is a question still open to debate.
The TV production of sports is a two-sided enterprise: physical production and the acquisition of rights. Arledge's gaudy genius for the former has been lavishly attested to by virtually everyone in the medium (his awards include 17 Emmys and the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival), but his colleagues are somewhat less generous in their assessment of his performance at the conference table. "When it comes to acquiring rights." says a top executive at one of the other networks, "the man is totally unscrupulous. A jackal. He'd rip my heart out for a shot at the world series," A former associate claims that "beneath his Howdy Doody face lurks one of the most ruthless, opportunistic guys in the business." Arledge answers such criticism blandly. "If you don't have the rights, you can't do the show."
Throughout his career, Arledge has been something of a mystery man. He travels incessantly and even those closest to him never know when or where he will turn up next. "The Lord and Roone Arledge travel in mysterious ways," says a Wide World of Sports employee.
Partly because he is a producer rather than a performer and partly because of his legendary elusiveness, nobody seems to know very much about the man who, in 1976 alone, personally determined how the world saw and heard the Winter and the Summer Olympics, the U. S. Open and British Open golf tournaments, the Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby, the All-Star Baseball Game, Monday Night Football, Monday Night Baseball and many other major sporting events. We decided to interview Arledge in this, the year of his greatest triumphs (the Winter and Summer Olympics) and most crushing defeat (Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell). Sam Merrill, whose "Playboy Interviews" have included Joseph Heller (June 1975) and Karl Hess (July 1976), followed the nomadic producer from New York to L.A. and back, discussed sports, technology and Cosell with the former third-string college wrestler who has been called "the creator of the electronic sports revolution." Merrill reports:
"Roone Arledge's turned out to be the most difficult interview I have ever done. Not because he was hard to talk to but because he was impossible to find. Three projected New York meetings fell through when, on the tentatively appointed days, Arledge turned up in Cincinnati, L.A. and Monte Carlo, respectively; after four weeks on the assignment, I had never even seen the man. It eventually occurred to me that I would have to capture Arledge in motion. He finally called me and said he was flying out to L.A. for the Emmys on May 17 and returning the following day. Would I care to join him? I thought he'd never ask.
"My tape recorder droned on for six hours between New York and Los Angeles. Arledge was as easy to talk to as he had been hard to find.
"ABC Sports swept the Emmys: Arledge himself went four for four and his department took a record eight.
"After the ceremonies, at a dinner dance in the Century Plaza. Arledge found himself dancing with both Lola Falana and O. J. Simpson's wife, Marguerite. By midnight, the party had adjourned to the Polo Lounge, which Arledge and Company closed (Jim McKay picked up the check and became my favorite sportscaster). The festivities then repaired to Arledge's suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. By dawn, the basic partying had pretty well mellowed out. Our return flight left L.A. International three hours later.
"By the time we touched down at Kennedy, around six P.M. New York time, I was totally wiped out. But Arledge seemed preposterously chipper, said maybe he'd stop at his office for a few hours before going home. I went home directly, slept until noon the next day. When I awoke, Arledge was in St. Louis, (Some weeks later, I caught up with him in Montreal at the Summer Olympics.)"
Playboy: This year, besides your regular schedule of programs—Monday Night Football and Baseball, Wide World of Sports and others—you're also the producer of both the Winter and Summer Olympics. Hasn't it all been rather frantic?
Arledge: Producing the Olympics is a lot like competing in the Olympics, except that your event lasts 20 hours a day for two weeks. But I enjoy it. Performance under pressure is what sports is all about: You create an artificial situation that is fraught with incredible tension, then see how people perform. It's exciting, exhilarating.
And of course, when it's the Olympics, everything is magnified by the largeness of the games themselves. If Howard Cosell berates some poor coach on Wide World of Sports, we'll get a few letters about it. If he does it at the Olympics, it's an international incident.
Playboy: You mean like the international incident you created at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck—something about Polish hockey jokes?
Arledge: Right. I was in the studio when a hockey score came in—Russia, 16: Poland, 1—and I thought, "My God, can you imagine what that Polish goalie went through? It must have been a nightmare." So we set the highlights of the game to music as a joke, pucks flying past this poor guy from every angle. It never occurred to me that because he happened to be a Polish goalie, people would take it as some kind of ethnic slur. But the Polish embassy and every Polish civic group in America was suddenly clamoring for equal time. And all because everything you do in the Olympics is magnified so intensely. The pressure is enormous.
Playboy: During this year's Summer Olympics, you had a hand in the making of a new star—Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast. What did you think of her perfect scores?
Arledge: I think Nadia's—and Nelli Kim's—perfect tens will ruin the sport. They imply not only that they can never improve but also that no one will ever perform better than they did. The sport may become stultified. It certainly has been cheapened.
Playboy: But Nadia herself said she hopes to improve anyway.
Arledge: She's capable of improving, but because of those scores, I don't think she will. Why risk failing at more difficult maneuvers when she's already been judged perfect? She'll never be awarded a 10.1.
Playboy: How did you feel about the walkout of African nations at Montreal?
Arledge: I felt they had a terrible issue. Whether a private New Zealand rugby team should have competed against a private South African team was not an International Olympic Committee issue. We interviewed Lee Evans, the American coach of the Nigerian track team. He's an eloquent and powerful speaker, but as he explained the reasons for the pullout, what came across, at least to me, was the same feeling I had during my divorce—that here was an issue in which reason no longer counted.
Playboy: What about Canada's refusal to allow Taiwan's team to compete?
Arledge: Canada made a grandstand play and the I.O.C. was gutless. It should have taken the games away from Canada immediately, regardless of expense or inconvenience. And I say that in spite of the political issue.
Playboy: Why in spite of it?
Arledge: Because no one in his right mind can pretend that Taiwan is China. But unless the host nation honors the pledges it makes when it is awarded the games, there can be no Olympics. Now a precedent has been set for host nations to exclude anyone they want. Say what you want about Avery Brundage, who was a crotchety old so-and-so, but until D day, he was the only man on earth to make Adolf Hitler back down when the Nazi government tried to get its own way during the 1936 games. Pierre Trudeau is hardly Hitler, but the best deal the I.O.C. could come up with was a pathetic compromise that copped out all the way around.
Playboy: Do you feel the Soviet government was involved in any of those incidents of cheating—such as the Russian fencer whose épée had been electronically rigged?
Arledge: No. Although the Russians I've dealt with have been very competitive, and they do view their athletes as extensions of their political system, they have also been extremely honest people. I can't believe those incidents were anything but individual actions.
Playboy: You once described the Olympic experience as "communal." What did you mean?
Arledge: There's a desperate need for total reliance on other people during an Olympic production. We take over the entire prime time of the network for two solid weeks of live television. And the audiences are unprecedented. In Munich, 49 of the 50 top-rated half-hour segments each week were the Olympics. So I just have to know that if someone goes out to do something, he is going to get it done correctly, get it done the way I want it and add something of his own creativity as well.
Playboy: You must get to know your people pretty well in a situation like that.
Arledge: That's why the Olympics are so great for an organization. You get to watch people in action, see how they react under pressure. And, as a communal experience, the absolute worst thing that can happen to a producer is for him to walk into the video-tape room and be treated like a VIP—the chairman of the board making his tour of the studio. There's got to be an equality of roles.
Playboy: At Innsbruck, some ABC executives criticized you for demonstrating too much equality by barricading yourself in the video room when you should have been out pressing the flesh with the sponsors.
Arledge: The network brought a lot of guests to Innsbruck. They stayed at one of the most beautiful hotels in the world up in Zeifel and spent their days skiing and their nights partying. Meanwhile, the production people were working day and night, many of them never even getting out of the video room to see what Innsbruck looked like. I decided to stay at the Holiday Inn with the basic troops and didn't go to a single cocktail party. The advertising people were a little angry.
Playboy: Wasn't that as much for psychological reasons as for convenience?
Arledge: I suppose so. I didn't want the people who actually make the shows good—which is why the sponsors buy them in the first place—to think I was living it up in the Alps while they were sweating it out in the tape room.
Playboy: Doesn't that point up the biggest problem you've had in recent years, the schizophrenia of being an executive producer? What is an executive producer, anyway—an executive or a producer?
Arledge: Both, usually both at the same time. The image that ultimately appears on the tube is what TV is all about, so for me, the most rewarding and exciting part of my job is making pictures and words that move people. Not selling time or buying rights or making schedules. But the bane of this industry—the problem we face that magazines and newspapers don't, the problem that leads to so much of television's gutlessness—is that we have to buy the rights to an event before we can produce anything. So I end up spending more and more time on rights and scheduling each year. Which is a shame, because during a major sporting event, the action isn't in the commissioner's box, where every other TV executive sits, but in the mobile unit. That's the place to be.
Playboy: Speaking of the technical end of the business, let's discuss some of the electronic wizardry for which you originally became known. The instant replay, for example. How did that happen?
Arledge: In 1960, I was doing a survey for a college football game in the Los Angeles Coliseum with an engineer named Bob Trachinger—
Playboy: Bob Trachinger? Isn't he that bearded guy in the commercials?
Arledge: That's him. "More chief engineers choose blah-blah-blah than any other color TV." Trach is one of the most brilliant guys in the business, our head man on the West Coast now; but at the time, he was just a working engineer. Anyway, after the survey, we went over to a place called Julie's for a few beers. I asked him if it would be possible to replay something in slow motion so you could tell if a guy was safe or out or stepped out of bounds, and Trach immediately began sketching on the napkins. We talked and sketched and drank beer that whole afternoon and when we were finished, we had the plans for the first instant-replay device.
Playboy: The top people at ABC must have been pretty excited when they saw those napkins.
Arledge: On the contrary. Trach's superiors at ABC engineering thought he was crazy. They were opposed to the idea and wouldn't give him any development money. So he literally took funds that were supposed to be used for something else and developed the system. Incidentally, Trach is also the guy who developed the underwater camera for me. He's just an extremely creative guy.
Playboy: Do you remember the first time you used the instant replay?
Arledge: The first use was during a Texas—Texas A & M football game. It was a lousy game and the instant replays were justifiably unmemorable. But the first important use came the following weekend, during a Boston College—Syracuse game. That was a terrific game and, at one point, Jack Concannon, a sophomore quarterback, was trapped in the pocket but ended up running 70 yards for a touchdown. Six or eight people had a shot at him and we replayed the whole thing in slow motion with Paul Christman analyzing the entire play as it unfolded. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before and the impact was unbelievable. That moment changed TV sports forever.
Playboy: Back in the early Sixties, when you were producing the old A.F.L. football broadcasts, you used to pull all sorts of weird technical stunts.
Arledge: I'd prefer to call them experiments, but, yes. I guess we did play around a lot. Since nobody was watching, anyway—particularly when the N.F.L. was on opposite us—we had the freedom to try new things. That's how we invented the isolated camera, just by fooling around during one of those early A.F.L. broadcasts. Much of the space-age coverage we supposedly pioneered on Monday Night Football was actually developed on our A.F.L. telecasts in the early Sixties. Nobody knew about them because nobody was watching.
Playboy: You were also the first guy to put sound into TV sports.
Arledge: It's hard to believe now, but back in the "golden age" of the N.F.I... you couldn't even hear the ball being kicked. Yet sounds are very much a part of the experience of a game: the clatter of the lines converging, the sound of the quarterback barking signals. So when I began producing football for TV. I knew I had to get those sounds on the air.
Playboy: But not all the sounds of the game are acceptable to the FCC.
Arledge: That's true; and, at first, we used a two-second tape delay; but I never liked that, because you'd see the huddle break and they were halfway up to the line by the time you heard them clap and say, "Let's go." So finally I just said the hell with it and went live.
Playboy: Have you ever gotten into trouble for any of those live sounds?
Arledge: A couple of times. You know how a stadium will sometimes quiet down all of a sudden until, for a brief moment, there isn't a sound? That happened to us once in the Cotton Bowl. Absolute dead silence. Then some guy in the stands started screaming. "Get going, you motherfuckers!" It came over the air with better quality than we were getting from our announcers. Another time, a Florida A & M running back named Bob Paremore was taken out of the North-South Shrine game and said. "Awwww, sheeee-it!" But when that sort of thing does happen, the complaints usually come from league and network officials, not from the fans. Fans know what a game is supposed to sound like.
Playboy: No one would deny that by wiring sports for sound you brought the TV viewer a lot closer to the stadium experience. But haven't you also gone overboard occasionally? We've heard rumors that, in 1972, you put a miniature microphone in the Olympic torch to catch the sound of the flame being lit at the opening ceremony. Is that true?
Arledge: It is true, and perhaps we did go a little overboard with that one.
Playboy: Did you do it again at Montreal this year?
Arledge: We tried, but this time it wasn't possible.
Playboy: As TV's major sports producer, you've created a lot of media heroes—and one very notable media villain. Exactly how did Howard Cosell happen?
Arledge: Howard was a lawyer who had represented a number of athletes, including Willie Mays. He'd done some local radio and TV sports and had tried many times to get on national television. But, to tell you the truth, he was blackballed.
Arledge: Well... a lot of it was anti-Semitism. But many other people just hated his guts on general principles—personal reasons.
Playboy: But you hired him despite the blackball.
Arledge: I was tremendously impressed by the fact that he had developed a great rapport with the athletes and that he'd done it on his own. When a guy is with a major network or magazine, the athletes have to, you know—
Playboy: Kiss his ass?
Arledge: Sure, because he's important. He has the power of his medium behind him. But Howard had achieved that power on his own. So, for that reason, and because I thought he had a funny voice, I hired him to do the pregame show on our ill-starred baseball telecasts of the mid-Sixties.
Playboy: Why do you say ill-starred?
Arledge: Because the broadcasts were poor and the ratings were worse. But I shouldn't blame the stars. They were OK. We were lousy.
Playboy: But Cosell was good?
Arledge: I thought he did a hell of a job. He got players to do things they'd never do for anyone else. Once he even got a pitcher to demonstrate his spitball. So, despite the hate mail and the little remarks from network executives, when I began to produce boxing, I decided to give Howard a try. And Howard had never been a fight announcer, but he knew Floyd Patterson and a lot of other people. And he did very well.
Playboy: What do you mean by "the little remarks from network executives"?
Arledge: When a guy is blackballed, you hear all kinds of things. Some people just say, "I don't think you ought to use him anymore, you know what I mean?" Others are more specific, like. "The sponsor's wife hates him and everybody at my country club thinks he's a loudmouth Jew."
Playboy: You mentioned anti-Semitism before. About how much of the antagonism toward Cosell would you attribute to that?
Arledge: It's hard to say, because Howard embodies the entire anti—New York feeling people have around America, and a large part of that feeling is based on anti-Semitism. Howard did an innocuous little piece about New York on his show last fall that Bob Lipsyte of the Times wrote with him. It said to the rest of the country that we're no different from you, that we've made our mistakes but they're only a little ahead of your mistakes, so don't treat us like an enemy. The piece lasted less than a minute, but by the time Howard had finished reading it, the switchboard was lit up with over 500 long-distance calls. Can you imagine how upset people have to be to spend the money to call in from Kansas and then wait on the line maybe ten minutes just to tell some poor operator how much they hate Howard Cosell?
Playboy: But if people hate Cosell, why do you keep him on the air?
Arledge: I keep him on the air because I think he's a good honest journalist. And to illustrate just how honest he is, even when I was the only guy in the business willing to hire him, he still persisted in bad-mouthing me. He once said publicly that "Wide World of Sports is important if your idea of journalism is Jim McKay yodeling on a mountain-top." Howard characterized us as a bunch of kids playing with cameras who tried so hard to get more blimp shots than anyone else that we missed the journalism.
Playboy: We agree that Cosell is honest, but what about his effect on the ratings?
Arledge: Apparently—assuming the ratings are accurate—Howard is the man middle America loves to hate. Some people watch because they love him, while others watch hoping to see him fall on his ass. But everybody watches. Many of Don Meredith's fans on Monday Night Football were people who enjoyed seeing the down-home Texas cowboy insult the brash New Yorker.
Playboy: So, for various reasons, you hired Cosell as your boxing announcer. And from there he developed his famous relationship with Muhammad Ali. How did that happen?
Arledge: It happened because Howard was really the first guy in the media to publicly defend Ali during his years as a draft resister and he was the only one to call him Ali immediately after he changed his name. So, naturally, Ali would talk to Howard and not, for example, to Dick Young of the New York Daily News, who continued to call him Cassius Clay until quite recently.
Playboy: What's it like to work with Muhammad Ali?
Arledge: He's a strange man; very childlike but also very honorable. And he has the world's shortest attention span. In the middle of talking to him, he will suddenly begin playing with something or looking out the window and you'll be absolutely certain he didn't hear a word you said. But six months later, when even you've forgotten what you said, you'll discover that not only did he hear and remember it but he intends to hold you to it down to the last detail. Ali keeps his commitments and expects others to keep theirs. In that sense, he's an ideal athlete to work with—completely reliable. But before you tell him anything, make sure you can say it in less than six seconds. Otherwise, he'll start fiddling with your stapler in the middle of a sentence and make you feel like a total idiot.
Playboy: Ali certainly helped Cosell achieve national prominence. But Cosell also received a great deal of notoriety during your coverage of the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City.
Arledge: Right after the Tommie Smith-John Carlos "black-fist affair." Howard alone got both of them into our studio for an in-depth interview. Then he attacked the U. S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee for overreacting. That was the event that brought Howard into focus as a national personality. But Monday Night Football made him a star.
Playboy: A star?
Arledge: We deliberately set out to create a special role for Howard on Monday Night Football. The analogy I always use is Dorothy Kilgallen on the old What's My Line? show.
Playboy: In other words, you wanted him to antagonize people.
Arledge: But only in the course of speaking his mind and making things happen.
Playboy: Did you ever feel he antagonized people a little too much?
Arledge: Sure, but that's only natural. There are people in this country for whom football isn't a game but a religion. They want Ray Scott tell them the down and yardage and maybe Pat Summerall to say, "That was a zig-out." But beyond that, they don't want their religion disturbed. They certainly don't want Howard criticizing everybody, or Don Meredith saying about football, as he did one night. "There must be more to life than this." To some people, football is life and Howard has had quite a few death threats because of things he's said about somebody's favorite player. On several occasions, we've broadcast the game from a control booth full of FBI agents.
Playboy: That's pretty bad.
Arledge: There's worse. I probably shouldn't tell you this. I've never even told Howard—
Playboy: Oh, go ahead.
Arledge: There's a bar down South where, during the football season, all the regulars put in a few bucks a week and on Monday night they buy an old TV set and a load of buckshot. Then they draw lots and, the first time Howard's picture comes on the screen, the winner gets to blast the TV set to smithereens. Then they all get drunk and watch the game on another set.
Playboy: Last fall, you gave Cosell his own prime-time variety show. That was your first crack at nonsports programing at ABC and it was also your first unmitigated disaster. What went wrong?
Arledge: Everything. The time period was wrong for two reasons: One, at eight o'clock Saturday night, none of the people Howard appeals to are home—the audience consists mostly of children and old people; and, two, there is ample evidence that even if Elizabeth Taylor did a striptease at eight P.M. Saturday on ABC, it wouldn't get more than a 15 percent share.
Playboy: How about you? Were you one of the things that went wrong?
Arledge: Definitely. I had a clear vision of what I wanted that show to be, but when the second week's ratings went down and everybody began panicking, I suddenly found myself listening to research people instead of sticking to my own instincts. I found myself wanting the show to succeed so much that I did things despite my own best judgment. When the research people with little scraps of paper in their hands told me children and old people want Kate Smith and tigers jumping through hoops. I went along with them. And it was all downhill from there.
Playboy: What was your own best judgment, your original vision of Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell?
Arledge: First of all, we were live, so I wanted things to happen on the show. And Howard is the kind of person things happen to. I wanted it to be like the old Jack Paar Show, where the one night you didn't watch, that's the show everybody's talking about the next day. But nothing ever happened on our show to justify its being live.
Playboy: Why not?
Arledge: The network was one reason. Apparently, it didn't want anything to happen on the show. For example, when F. Lee Bailey was named Patty Hearst's attorney, we got him to come on. But our own lawyers said he couldn't talk about the Hearst case. Lee himself told them that the judge had lifted the gag rule, but for corporate reasons, ABC still wouldn't let him discuss it. So we did some innocuous little interview about what kind of girl Patty Hearst was, for which we were bitterly—and justifiably—criticized.
Playboy: Any other great almosts?
Arledge: One rather big one. Ted Kennedy was almost assassinated on the air. Ted had agreed, as a personal favor, to fly up from Washington and do an interview. But around the middle of the afternoon, a detective arrived and said a woman had overheard two men planning to shoot Kennedy on our program that night. He said they checked the woman out and she was definitely no crackpot. Then, around five P.M., a taxi driver called the police to report he'd picked up two men with guns in their attaché cases at the La Guardia shuttle. So Ted's plane was stopped at the end of the runway and he was whisked away. Then he called me and I told him not to come on the show.
Playboy: But Kennedy did appear on the show.
Arledge: He told me that sort of thing happens to him all the time. So he came on and half the audience was composed of plainclothesmen. And with all that happening, you'll never believe what I found time to worry about: that the policemen wouldn't laugh or applaud. I remember thinking, Not only is Ted Kennedy going to be assassinated on my show but it's going to happen in front of a dead audience.
Playboy: You said the show failed because "everything" went wrong. So far, you've blamed yourself, the network and the time period. What about Cosell?
Arledge: I suspect that Howard was unwilling to take the personal abuse he would have had to take to make the show work. He simply wasn't the Howard Cosell everyone was expecting.
Playboy: You mean he didn't tell it like it was?
Arledge: Howard will say that all the vicious personal attacks don't bother him, but he'll walk around for weeks with a favorable letter or news clipping. Perhaps all that criticism finally got to him and he simply didn't want to take any more. The real problem—and Howard has never admitted this either to me or to himself—was that deep in his heart he never really thought the show would succeed and he wasn't willing to take all that personal abuse on a show that was going to fail anyway.
Playboy: Do you, personally, like television?
Arledge: Let's say I don't think its potential is being properly utilized. I mean, do Mac Davis, Tony Orlando and Laverne and Shirley really represent the ultimate use of this medium?
Playboy: But commercial TV as we know it is a mass medium. Look at your own career. You do the Olympics every four years. You do demolition derbies somewhat more often.
Arledge: I believe we've proven in our best sports coverage, and I know it's been proven in certain areas of the news, that you can appeal to a mass audience without appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Playboy: In general, what do you think of TV news?
Arledge: I think news, like entertainment, is done better elsewhere. It is my understandably biased opinion that TV does sports better than sports is done anywhere else but that everything else is done better in other media.
Playboy: What would a Roone Arledge news program be like?
Arledge: The first thing I'd do as a news producer would be to hire a staff of investigative reporters. Television did nothing with Watergate, perhaps the biggest news story in the history of our nation. That's because Watergate was essentially an investigative story. John Mitchell didn't hold a press conference to reveal he was one of the co-controllers of Nixon's secret fund, so naturally, television newsmen had to read that in the papers. Also, I'd try for a more interesting format. Newspapers are always wrestling with their formats in an attempt to enhance reader interest. But TV thinks news has to be dull to be credible. Another thing I'd do as a news producer is personalize world leaders the same way I personalize sports figures.
Playboy: Presumably, the networks do that on their panel shows.
Arledge: Right. Three discussion programs that are carbon copies of one another. I simply cannot believe the only format in which a world leader can be presented to the American people is around a desk with three people asking him questions at one o'clock on Sunday afternoon.
Playboy: What would you suggest?
Arledge: I'd do one-minute press conference-type interviews on the six-o'clock news and hour long documentaries on prime time. That way, on a daily basis, we could get to know who these people are. During our Olympic coverage, we routinely run documentary profiles of the athletes. The next morning, Americans know not only what people like Olga Korbut and Dorothy Hamill look like but where they come from and, to at least some extent, what kind of people they are. But until the Senate hearings, 90 percent of the American public didn't even know what Bob Haldeman looked like, let alone what he did and thought. He was the second most powerful man in the country and we had the most powerful medium in the country, yet somehow, a man like that was able to remain anonymous.
Playboy: The most powerful man in the country was also America's number-one football fan. Did you ever meet Richard Nixon?
Arledge: On several occasions. The first was at a Texas-Arkansas game for the national championship. I was supposed to meet my wife in Hawaii that weekend, but when Nixon decided to attend the game, I felt I had to produce it personally. I would never have forgiven myself if something happened to the President and I wasn't there.
Playboy: Because you felt you could have helped prevent an assassination?
Arledge: No, because I wouldn't have wanted anyone else making the decisions on how to cover one.
Playboy: You are nothing if not professional.
Arledge: Incidentally, stranding my wife in Hawaii like that proved to be the last straw in our marriage. Soon afterward, she divorced me. But getting back to Nixon, Texas won the game and after congratulating the team, the President went into the Arkansas dressing room to give the players a little talk. It started out with the usual locker-room clichés, just another politician giving another speech. But then something happened and Nixon began discussing defeat in the most intensely personal terms. It was extremely moving, since, as we all realized, he was actually talking about himself. But the next time I met Nixon, just four days later, it was plain weird.
Playboy: What happened?
Arledge: The afternoon before a football dinner Nixon was attending, I got a call saying the President would like to see me. I went up to his suite in the Waldorf Towers and everyone said, "Oh, yes, the President is expecting you." So walked into this huge room, figuring there would be about 100 other people in a reception line. But the room was empty: just an American flag, the Presidential flag and one man: the President of the United States. It was a rather awesome experience. We spent more than half an hour together, talking about sports. At first, I thought. This is awfully nice of him. He wants to put me at my ease by talking about something I'm familiar with. But after a while, I began trying to change the subject to other things that interest me a lot more than sports: music, theater, the problems of our cities. But Nixon kept coming back to sports. Finally, I realized that he wasn't trying to put me at ease, he was trying to impress me with his knowledge of sports trivia. While he was rattling off the times of quarter-milers in the 1936 Olympics, I remember saying to myself, I can't believe it. The President of the United States is trying to impress me. But the third time I met Nixon was the strangest experience of all.
Arledge: The President had agreed to come on Wide World and interviewed by Frank Gifford. We did the show and, during a break, Nixon took me aside and said something I'll never forget. He said, "When Frank Gifford was a big star with the Giants and I was living in New York, he used to have parties after the games and I was up to his apartment many times. I know Frank Gifford. He remembers me." I thought, I do not believe what I am hearing. It has now become fashionable to discuss Nixon's so-called inferiority complex. But I think it went far beyond that. Here was the President of the United States trying to impress people, first, because he remembered some Olympic records and second, because he knew Frank Gifford. And because Frank Gifford knew him!
Playboy: Let's go back a moment to your development of innovations in televising games: Did you run into much opposition from the sports establishment?
Arledge: Sure. Techniques that are now considered standard, such as the instant replay, slow motion, showing the faces of the players, even superimposing the names of the players on the screen after a good play, were called gimmicks when we introduced them.
Playboy: Do any particular incidents come to mind?
Arledge: The first time we put a camera in the dugout was at Yankee Stadium. Before that, no one was doing field-level shots. But I wanted the kind of dramatic close-up from a human perspective—not foreshortened because the camera is in the upper deck—that has become standard now. Well, Red Barber was doing the local telecast for the Yankees and he turned his cameras on us and did a whole editorial on the air. He announced to his viewers, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing something that has never happened before in the history of baseball. The sanctity of tire dugout has been violated."
Playboy: You've had a lot of problems with the U.S. Golf Association over the years. That organization seems especially resistant to sports coverage Roone Arledge style.
Arledge: When they were trying to get the P.G.A. Tour on television, we said they'd have to go to sudden death in the event of a tie. We simply couldn't promise to do four hours of programing that the kids and housewives who are home on Monday afternoon wouldn't watch any-way, just so two guys could have an 18—hole play-off in the Dallas Open. We argued about it for days and days. Finally, they gave in and now they really like the sudden-death system. In fact, a couple of years ago, we were doing a tournament from the Coast and we preferred a play-off the next day. But the golf people refused. They wanted to get the hell out of town on Sunday night. But I don't want to rap the U.S.G.A. Even though I've had many disagreements with them, they are absolutely honest and straightforward. And the U.S.G.A. is the only organization that is willing to trade dollars for something it thinks will be good for the game—like fewer commercials and TV coverage of the U.S. Amateur. In an era of commercialism, the U.S.G.A. feels its responsibility is to the 50,000,000 people who play golf for fun, not to the handful who play it for money.
Playboy: While revolutionizing the visual aspects of sports broadcasting, you were also making some important changes in the way events were announced. You have even been quoted as saying that sometimes sportscasters talk too much.
Arledge: That's why Dick Button is so good. He's an expert who knows when not to talk. When something is truly beautiful to look at, a play-by-play becomes an irritating intrusion between you and the event. It would drive me crazy to watch Baryshnikov dance and have to listen to somebody babbling in my ear: "Now watch his left foot. He's going to jump and, as he turns, listen to the music change key."
Playboy: But because of the size and variety of the TV audience, sometimes an announcer has to explain something that for millions of sophisticated viewers might seem academic.
Arledge: Would you believe that when we first covered Wimbledon, very few Americans knew even the basic rules of tennis? It was embarrassing, but Jim McKay had to go on the air and explain that love means zero and the object of the game is to keep the ball inside the white lines. Can you imagine how that must have offended veteran tennis fans?
Playboy: Wide World of Sports, which premiered in 1961, was really the show that made you and, as you've said, it's been your proving ground for the techniques you use in covering the Olympics. How did that show get started?
Arledge: In 1960, the major-league baseball owners still clung to their old blackout rule. They restricted the telecasts of major-league games to minor-league markets. As a result of that great humanitarian gesture, which contributed to the destruction of the minor leagues, the three networks were fighting over only 40 percent of the country, since 60 percent was in the big-league markets. ABC decided that was silly and assigned me to come up with a year-round sports show that could fill the void and not have to worry about the blackouts. That show was Wide World of Sports. The idea was to travel to the world's greatest events and try to capture whatever it is that makes those events fascinating. We combined the techniques of documentary filmmaking—so viewers could get to know the performers personally—with coverage designed to make you feel as though you are there.
Playboy:Wide World of Sports has covered some pretty weird events over the years. How do you find them all?
Arledge: It's easy now, because people come to us with them. But when we were starting out, that was one of our biggest problems. I knew NBC had a large microfilm library with a lot of the information I needed and I gambled on two things: first, that nobody there knew I was gone and, second, that nobody there knew what I looked like. So I sent Chuck Howard, who was then a production assistant and is now vice-president of ABC Sports, over to NBC to go through their files and list all the sports events we might be interested in. I told him whenever anyone asked who he was, to say he was me. It worked, and so I began traveling all around the world, signing up events for Wide World of Sports.
Playboy: And that's how Wide World got started?
Arledge: Not exactly. Because when I returned to New York with the rights to everything from the Japanese All-Star Baseball Game to the British Open, to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, no sponsor wanted to buy the show. At ten minutes to five on the afternoon of the day the show was going to be canceled. Ed Sherick, who was then the head of sales for ABC, had the guts to use N.C.A.A. football as a sledge hammer to sell time on Wide World of Sports. He made R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company buy the new show before he'd let it have a quarter of college football. So Wide World of Sports, now the longest running sports show in television history, came within ten minutes of never getting on the air.
Playboy: You were the first American producer to do a show from the Soviet Union: the 1961 U.S.-Russia track meet. Acquiring the rights to shoot in Moscow must have been the bureaucratic experience of a lifetime.
Arledge: Rights? What rights? We were just naïve and crazy enough to fly 100 tons of equipment into Moscow without official clearance or permits or anything. We got all set up overnight and taped the meet the next day. I had never been to Russia before, couldn't speak the language—we weren't even sure what kind of electricity they had. But everything went well and we ended up with Russian soldiers in the control room—not arresting us but watching to see if Valery Brumel could break the world's high-jump record. That first trip was easy, but each successive time we've been back there the—if you'll excuse the expression—red tape has gotten a little thicker.
Playboy: Weren't you also the first American to do a show from Prague after the revolution?
Arledge: That was also without permits, and we were even shooting stuff at the palace. We thought we'd be arrested at any moment.
Playboy: But you weren't?
Arledge: Fortunately not. It would have been difficult to explain the girl we were smuggling across the border in our mobile unit. Especially when she turned out to be a double agent!
Playboy: Last year, when the U.S. Russia track meet at Kiev was canceled because of a contract you had signed with a Soviet agency, the A.A.U. accused you of everything from selling out the American athletic team to ruining détente. What's your side of that story?
Arledge: I paid the Soviet radio-television committee $50,000 for the broadcast rights, but the A.A.U. people claimed that since we were giving the money to the Russians instead of to them, they could no longer afford to send our athletes to Kiev. So they postponed the meet.
Playboy: There must have been more to it than that. According to news reports, you later offered to charter a plane and fly every American athlete to Russia at your own expense, yet the A.A.U. still insisted on canceling the meet. Why?
Arledge: It turned out that what the A.A.U. was really concerned about was getting free junkets for its own officials. They wanted to send one official for every two athletes. And when I refused to underwrite all those junkets, they refused to let the athletes go.
Playboy: Do you find it generally more difficult to deal with amateurs than with professionals?
Arledge: Yes, with one notable exception. The former commissioner of the National Basketball Association was the most difficult man I have ever dealt with.
Playboy: We assume you're referring to Walter Kennedy.
Arledge: Yes; I feel he acted deceitfully in his negotiations with us. Actually. Pete Rozelle is the only sports commissioner who can sit down and tell you something and you know it's going to stick. Bowie Kuhn, though he is not deceitful, doesn't have Rozelle's authority.
Playboy: Because Rozelle is a stronger man than Kuhn?
Arledge: Perhaps, or perhaps the football owners are enlightened enough to realize that they all gain strength when their league has a strong commissioner. The baseball owners tend to be self-motivated most of the time—crotchety and either unaware of anyone else's problems or, if they are aware of them, they don't give a damn. With the exception of football, most pro sports groups cannot agree on anything among themselves, so we can hardly expect them to agree on how to treat the outside world. The baseball-team owners are just a loose confederation of carny operators and robber barons, with a small sprinkling of enlightened statesmen thrown in.
Playboy: Do you think the baseball owners actually want a weak commissioner?
Arledge: I'm sure of it. Several years ago, when they made their much-publicized nationwide search for a new commissioner, the baseball owners talked about hiring such people of real or presumed stature as Hubert Humphrey and—before Watergate—Richard Nixon. But who did they end up with? General William Eckert, the unknown soldier. Don't get me wrong. Bowie Kuhn is a good man. But the owners never intended to give him any power when they hired him—and they didn't. So even if I were to sign a binding contract with Kuhn, I'd still have to wait and see if the owners would let him live up to it.
Playboy: In 1973, when you announced that you had acquired the TV rights to this year's Summer Olympics for $25,000,000, NBC protested that you had made the deal "through secret and non-competitive procedures... contrary to the best interests of the people of Canada, the American TV audience and the games themselves." Rumors were also circulated that your price tag included some heavy bribes.
Arledge: There were all sorts of accusations of under-the-table payments, illegal contributions to Canadian political parties and everything else. Of course, nothing was ever proved. We'd have been pretty dumb to get involved in anything like that.
Playboy: But bribery does happen occasionally, doesn't it?
Arledge: Not to me. Who do you think I am, one of Nixon's friends? The point is, even if I'd wanted to bribe somebody. I didn't have to. The Olympic people wanted to go with us all along. That's what infuriates the other networks. It happened when we signed Montreal and it happened again this year after we signed Lake Placid: CBS president Bob Wood fired off telegrams to the Olympic committee, every Congressman and Senator in New York, the governor, even the President, raising the phony issue that we did not acquire the TV rights through sealed competitive bidding.
Playboy: Well, you didn't.
Arledge: Because sealed bidding is almost never done in television. I don't see NBC putting Bob Hope up for sealed bids every year or CBS doing it with All in the Family. There are continuing relationships in this business.
Playboy: But the Olympics are different. Since public funds were needed to build most of the facilities in Montreal and will be needed to build at least some of them at Lake Placid, don't you think there is a public responsibility to have competitive bidding so the municipality can raise as much money as possible?
Arledge: No, because, in a sense, money itself is a phony issue. Let me give you an example. N.C.A.A. basketball was just renewed by NBC. We'd talked to the N.C.A.A. and had told them we were interested, but we never even got a chance. They just sat down in a room with NBC, said they were happy with the job that network had done last year, told NBC how much money they wanted, negotiated a bit and the deal was made. There was nothing unethical about that and, although I was sorry we didn't get our shot at it. I certainly didn't scream to Congress that, since many of the colleges are supported by public funds, the N.C.A.A. has a responsibility to raise as much money as it can through competitive bidding. The point is that the N.C.A.A. was happy with the way NBC had treated them. That was worth more to them than the possibility of a few extra dollars. Besides, with sealed bidding, there is also the possibility of fewer dollars, since the seller has abdicated his right to negotiate. And, of course, with sealed bidding, there's an opportunity for collusion among the networks to keep prices down. Collusion, like bribery, has been known to happen.
Playboy: So, in the case of the Summer Olympics, the people of Montreal believed that you could provide certain benefits that the two other networks could not.
Arledge: Well, we were able to offer them our track record at producing Olympic Games in the past.
Playboy: NBC produced the 1961 and 1972 Olympics from Japan.
Arledge: Very unsuccessfully. I might add. The Japanese government spent over one billion dollars on each of those Olympics—1961 was particularly important to them, because it was supposed to be their welcome back into the human race after World War Two—and it was pathetic how little impact the NBC broadcasts had. They were done in 15-minute increments late at night and practically nobody knew what was happening. We've done every other Olympics: Innsbruck in 1964. Mexico City and Grenoble in 1968, Munich in 1972, Innsbruck and Montreal this year. And, in each case, the impact has been tremendous.
Playboy: Nice of you to say so.
Arledge: The fact remains that we did 43 and a half hours in prime time from Innsbruck—which even I believe was more time than necessary—and the reviews and ratings were tremendous. Our success with winter sports in prime time surprised most people in the TV industry and even some at ABC. So, putting yourself in the place of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who had to spend 1.3 billion dollars and whose goal was to publicize Montreal, which network would you have picked?
Playboy: You're a persuasive salesman.
Arledge: Unfortunately, selling one's network takes up a good deal of a producer's time.
Playboy: Getting back to the alleged scandals in acquiring TV rights to the Olympic Games—
Arledge: If you must.
Playboy: If the Lake Placid deal was really on the level, why didn't CBS and NBC move to get the 1980 Winter games even after you proved at Innsbruck that winter sports could capture a big viewing audience in this country?
Arledge: I don't know, but after Innsbruck, we kept waiting for the two other guys to contact the Lake Placid people. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. But they never did. Finally, the Lake Placid committee sent telegrams to NBC and CBS saying that, since they hadn't heard from them in over six months, they were proceeding with us. That's when those two networks began screaming to Congress, the President and God, not necessarily in that order.
Playboy: What you've been describing is essentially behind-the-scenes work. Even though you've brought about some profound changes in television, practically no one knows what you look like and your name is hardly a household word. Does the relative anonymity of a producer's role ever bother you?
Arledge: Sometimes. After I've worked 20 hours a day to produce the Olympic Games, even my own father has said, "Gee, that was a great show Jim McKay put on."
Playboy: You mentioned the kind of news show you might present. What other kinds of programing would interest you?
Arledge: Well, considering my addiction to ballet, I can think of ways to produce that that would make it exciting.
Arledge: Well, apparently Baryshnikov and Nureyev had never met before a year ago January, when they were in New York at the same time. I think that, if we'd been given the opportunity to explain the rudiments of dance—as we explained gymnastics and figure skating at the Olympics—people would have really gotten into a kind of big-money shoot-out between two top stars. And the result would have been a piece of video tape that people would be watching 100 years from now.
Playboy: When you say shoot-out, surely you're not implying that you'd open with a blimp shot of Lincoln Center, then cut to an isolated camera on Nureyev's big toe.
Arledge: Of course not. And neither am I implying that after every leap, three judges would hold up signs saying 5.6, 6.3 and 5.8. As in sports or news or anything else, producing ballet would simply mean getting the shot the viewer really wants to see, not the shot that proves you are an electronic wizard.
Playboy: But some of the shots you've gotten over the years have required a lot of electronic wizardry. How do you determine when you are getting the shot the viewer wants and when you have gone beyond it to become, in Cosell's words, "a bunch of kids playing with cameras"?
Arledge: The answer is simple: You must use the camera—and the microphone—to broadcast an image that approximates what the brain perceives, not merely what the eye sees. Only then can you create the illusion of reality.
Playboy: In other words, you distort reality in order to make it seem real.
Arledge: Exactly: but you must exercise the restraint to stop before it becomes surreal.
Playboy: This is beginning to sound a little circular. Let's cut to a concrete example.
Arledge: Take auto racing. When you're at Le Mans, the entire atmosphere is charged with the vivid sensations of speed and danger. But put a camera in the middle of the Mulsanne Straight, where the cars are traveling well over 200 miles per hour, and all you see is this dot that gets a little bigger as it approaches. The perception of speed is absent. So we put slave cameras much closer to the track than any spectator could ever get. They give the television viewer that zip and roar, the sensation of speed the live viewer would perceive simply by watching that little dot grow larger. That way, we are not creating something phony. It is an illusion but an illusion of reality.
Playboy: Wide World of Sports routinely compresses three-hour events into eight-minute segments. And people seem to love It. But that doesn't seem to be even an illusion of reality—just a snippet.
Arledge: There's certainly some truth to that, but it depends upon the setting. People eagerly watch the long, nonaction segments of the Olympics, heavyweight championship fights and the world series. But in sports they aren't that familiar with, or in events that aren't that important, people do enjoy the knowledge that something different will be coming on every ten minutes.
Playboy: In addition to catering to an ever-shortening attention span, do you feel you are oversaturating the airwaves with sports?
Arledge: Oversaturation is a danger faced by everyone in the media. Playboy now has to compete with all its would-be emulators and TV is glutted with 43 cop shows that have replaced 43 Westerns. In every area of every medium, you can reach a point of surfeit, when numbness sets in.
Playboy: Has sports numbness ever set in on your?
Arledge: I must confess that it has. On the weekend after New Year's, you generally have at least two N.F.L. championship games and four or five—sometimes six or eight—bowl games. And by the end of that weekend. I have this composite image of 47 tumbling catches in the end zone, 26 explanations of why you've got to have both feet in bounds and, really, it's all just a blur.
Playboy: Would you say, then, that sports have peaked on television?
Arledge: No. In fact, I'd say the TV audience for sports will continue to grow for quite some time, but there's going to be a lot of weeding out. Some bowl games have already vanished. A football league and a basketball league both folded this year. Tennis went from being wildly underexposed to being wildly overexposed. There may never even be a TV audience for hockey.
Playboy: But hockey is such a successful sport.
Arledge: Not on television. NBC and CBS made big mistakes with hockey and I'm not knocking them. I could have made the same mistake. I enjoy watching hockey and every time I go to Madison Square Garden, there are 17,000 people there. But it's the same 17.000 people all the time. In the New York TV market, you need 1,000,000 viewers, not 17,000. So, you see, the weeding-out process is already under way.
Playboy: But don't you think television has the power to create tastes, even create an entire sport, if it's left on the air long enough?
Playboy: Many media experts have credited you with creating the sudden American taste for gymnastics.
Arledge: Gymnastics came along when Americans were just beginning to become aware of their bodies, and the personality of Olga Korbut came along when the women's movement was getting into athletics. TV can create a personality, but it can't create a taste the public isn't ready for. Americans were ready for golf when Arnold Palmer appeared on television. He was the swashbuckling hero who would be six strokes down, hitch up his pants and charge. People who didn't know a putt from a sand blast could root for him. But, like Bobby Fischer, Palmer would have soon faded into obscurity if an interest in the game didn't underlie an interest in the personality.
Playboy: Your Monday Night Football announcing team certainly became personalities—in fact, they almost became folk heroes. Did you expect them to work together that well, or was it just a fortunate accident?
Arledge: Of course I knew what each would do individually, but the magic of their group personality developed spontaneously over a period of time. And there were adjustments. Few people remember that our original play-by-play announcer was Keith Jackson, not Frank Gifford, or that Don Meredith wasn't very funny the first year. And the public's response to Howard that first year was unbelievable. I'd come to work on Tuesday morning and the office would be filled with sacks of letters demanding that we throw him off the air. And I'm not talking about letters that began. "In my opinion..." I'm talking about letters that began, "We the undersigned..." and ended with 300 names. But toward the end of the first year, letters praising Howard began to equal the ones that asked. "By what right does that Jewish boxing loudmouth come off criticizing my team?" And, of course, Howard was the guy who eventually drew out Don Meredith.
Playboy: When and how did that happen?
Arledge: Toward the end of the first year, St. Louis beat the Cowboys 38-0 and Meredith was moaning, crying: he was a man in anguish and with Howard to egg him on, his human qualities really came across. Don won an Emmy largely because of that show and it made him a star.
Playboy: Sometimes your announcing "stars" overshadow the game itself.
Arledge: Yes, that's true. When Monday Night Football comes to town, some cities build parades around our announcers and ignore their own teams. Monday Night Football is a traveling circus.
Playboy: How did Meredith react to his old buddy Pete Gent's novel, North Dallas Forty?
Arledge: Don was hurt by it.
Playboy: By the thinly fictionalized portrait of the Dallas quarterback as a self-involved, dope-smoking back stabber?
Arledge: No, by the fact that Pete beat Don to the story. Don was a writer the week Pete's book came out. Since then, Don has been a painter and a back-to-nature farm boy. Now, I believe, he has bought a house in Beverly Hills and is being a "celebrity."
Playboy: Meredith and Cosell were a perfect match: the pompous city slicker and the sly country fox. How would you characterize their very different senses of humor?
Arledge: The difference was illustrated clearly the night we had Agnew on the show. Howard likes the loud, pretended-to-be-overheard remark. While strolling through, the Baltimore Colts' dressing room with the Vice-president, Howard said. "In other words, Mr. Agnew, it is your position that black ballplayers should no longer be allowed in the N.F.L.?" And, to his credit, Agnew came right back with. "I didn't say there should be none. I said we were considering a quota." But Meredith waited until he was on the air—he was a little high that night, which always made him even more irreverent than usual—and said, "Hi there, Mr. Vice-President. Nice to meetcha. You seem like a nice fella, but I'd never vote for ya. I notice you're wearing a Howard Cosell wrist watch.'
Playboy: Was Meredith a little high often during the show?
Arledge: Well, occasionally.
Playboy: Did Meredith's irreverence ever get you in trouble?
Arledge: Only when he called the President of the United States Tricky Dickey.
Playboy: Was Meredith difficult to replace?
Arledge: Very. Now, Don is an entertaining guy, a hell of a guy, and over the course of a season, he'll come up with five or six truly memorable remarks. But because Monday Night Football is larger than life, people remember Don as being hysterically funny all the time. So the guy who replaces him feels compelled to reel off 28 knee-slappers in the first quarter. And if he doesn't, everybody says. "Hey, he's not as good as Don Meredith."
Playboy: Your first replacement for Meredith, Fred Williamson, was a disaster.
Arledge: But Alex Karras has been terrific, and the ratings have never been better.
Playboy: On Monday Night Baseball, aren't you trying to do the same thing with Bob Uecker that you did with Meredith?
Arledge: In a way, except that Uecker is a much funnier person than Meredith or Karras or Garagiola or, in my opinion, anyone who has ever injected humor into sports.
Playboy: Yet Uecker hasn't been that funny on the air.
Arledge: I know. The format may not be quite right for him or, as with Monday Night Football, it might just take time.
Playboy: You mentioned Garagiola a moment ago. What do you think of his work?
Arledge: Garagiola is funny, but he's a very strident humorist. You get the impression Joe comes in with a list of stories he's going to work into the game, whether they fit or not. And his specialty is the long story, like a Senator might tell at a banquet. I prefer sports humor to be reactive.
Playboy: What's your view on the "jock rights" movement—specifically, the labor disputes that have afflicted baseball this season?
Arledge: I can't tell you how repugnant the notion of owning and selling human beings is to me. Sports is the only area of modern life where people are traded or sold for money. The word owner, when applied to a man, conjures up images of slavery.
Playboy: Yet fans boo ballplayers who favor modification of the reserve clause.
Arledge: It has always astonished me that the sympathies of so many working people instinctively go to management. The fan, who is himself a wage earner, behaves as though he owns the franchise.
Playboy: What do you think of the Kuhn ruling voiding Charlie Finley's sale of Vida Blue. Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers for $3,500,000?
Arledge: I agreed with Kuhn's ruling.
Playboy: But team owners have been selling ballplayers for 100 years. Didn't Connie Mack sell Jimmy Foxx, Lefty Grove and Al Simmons?
Arledge: America tolerated a lot of things in Connie Mack's era that are not tolerated today. Like the exclusion of blacks from the major leagues, to cite a small example.
Playboy: Are you suggesting that all players should become free agents at the end of every contract?
Arledge: Not in baseball. Unlike other sports, baseball spends a lot of money developing players in the minor leagues. So I think the team owner should have some continuing rights to a player he has developed. But he shouldn't own that human being in perpetuity, nor should he be able to dispose of him as he wishes. After all, I can't wake up tomorrow morning and read in the paper that I have been traded to CBS for All in the Family, plus an executive to be named later. I'm a free agent, yet ABC has been able to sign me to contracts that have kept me at the same network—and it's certainly not the richest network—for 16 years. Why does Finley assume he won't be able to sign his employees to contracts that will keep them in an A's uniform? And what about the Oakland fans?
Although Finley has been good for baseball in many ways, this time he did treat the fans like asses. For years, the people of Oakland have been urged almost as a civic duty—certainly as a matter of civic pride—to support the A's, to go out to the ball park they paid for and root for Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Ken Holtzman and all the other Oakland stars. But now, suddenly, they are deprived of those players for no other reason than that the owner, on a whim, felt like having a human garage sale. In a fit of petulance. Finley wanted to transform a first-place club into a last-place club, and the fans were supposed to accept that and keep paying the bills.
Playboy: Assuming America's pro-team owners don't regulate themselves—which, based on past performance, seems a fairly reliable assumption—what do you foresee? Chaos?
Arledge: Worse. I think the Government will get involved. Nobody wants a Federal Sports Commission, but I think we're headed for one.
Playboy: Why would a Federal Sports Commission be so awful?
Arledge: Chaos would be replaced by political corruption: "We'll get this bill passed if you put a franchise in Birmingham, Alabama." A Federal Sports Commission would run sports. Of course, sports aren't apolitical now. Why do you think Congress lifted the N.F.L.'s blackout rule?
Playboy: OK. we'll bite. Why?
Arledge: Because political leaders were sick and tired of not being able to get tickets to the Redskins games. Complaints from the fans had little to do with it. If the same situation had existed in Cleveland, we'd still have a blackout rule today.
Playboy: Nevertheless, the Government doesn't operate the pro leagues and you seem satisfied with that arrangement. Yet you do not seem satisfied with the way private enterprise has handled the sports industry.
Arledge: I'm troubled by what is really an ethical, not an economic, question: To what extent does the private ownership of a public facility conflict with our traditional American values? We condition our children to identify with their community, particularly with the sports heroes of their community. Politicians run for office while waving the home-team banner. Local sportscasters, who are paid by the team and whose job it is to sell tickets, imply that it's the fans' civic duty to support the home team. If we allow something that important to be created in people's minds, two questions arise: One, is private ownership compatible with a public enterprise? And two, should any standards of excellence—or at least competence—be required?
Playboy: And how would you answer those questions?
Arledge: I don't know: but assuming private ownership is compatible with operating a civic institution, should the owner of the Metropolitan Opera be permitted to move to Milwaukee because he can get a better deal there? I don't think so.
Playboy: Your second question sounds rather idealistic. We've never heard anyone suggest that owners meet standards of excellence in order to retain control of their ball clubs.
Arledge: A TV station is granted a regional monopoly, just like a sports franchise. And, like a sports franchise, that monopoly is usually a very profitable thing. But in order to keep its broadcast license, a station is reviewed every three years and has to prove that it operates in the public interest. It also has to demonstrate a certain degree of competence. And I approve of that practice. When a public facility is privately owned, there has to be a way to make sure the community standards are being met.
Playboy: Would you like to own a ball club yourself?
Arledge: That might be an interesting experience but one I will probably live without—certainly as long as owning a ball club means owning the employees, too.
Playboy: You're almost as well known for business acumen as for technical expertise and your income is reputed to be awesome. Would you mind telling us where you invest your money?
Arledge: Lately, I've been investing rather heavily in divorce.
Playboy: On second thought, perhaps we should go elsewhere for financial advice. But we will ask you who your favorite athletes are—and why.
Arledge: Bill Russell is probably number one. Not only did he exhibit total mastery of his sport but he was also an innovator. Due solely to his presence, the game of basketball Russell left when he retired was different from the game he found when he began playing. And Russell is also an important person in America. I've been after him for years to run for office. I think he'd make a great Senator, or President, for that matter. Another favorite is Jack Nicklaus and for similar reasons: his dominance of the game he plays and his personal qualities.
Playboy: Nicklaus is an unexpected choice. The two of you are hardly friends. He has generally sided with the U.S.G.A. in your frequent disputes with that organization.
Arledge: Nevertheless, I admire Jack's integrity. Golf is, in many respects, the purest sport, because it is the only one in which the player must penalize himself. If your caddy moves the ball in the rough, you must call it on yourself. That happened to Byron Nelson in the U. S. Open and he lost the tournament by one stroke. You just know that Nicklaus would do the same thing, even if no one on earth could possibly have seen his ball move. It's interesting to ask yourself what you'd do in a situation like that.
Playboy: Any other favorite athletes?
Arledge: One more: O. J. Simpson. Although he is the greatest running back in football history, his basic modesty hasn't changed since he was a junior at USC. Incidentally, O. J. could have broken the reserve system wide open when he graduated, but he chose not to.
Arledge: He was the most sought-after college player of all time. He could have marketed his services for millions of dollars, and he wanted to play for Los Angeles, where he lived, where he was already a hero and where he could have made a fortune in endorsements. But, instead, he went to Buffalo and took whatever Ralph Wilson felt like giving him, which wasn't much. He played on a lousy team with a lousy line for a coach who wouldn't let him carry the ball. It was only by luck that, after years of frustration, Buffalo finally changed coaches and drafted some good linemen. Otherwise, O. J.'s entire career would have been ruined—by the reserve clause. Unless both sides get together, there's never going to be any sanity in professional sports.
Playboy: Are you sorry Simpson didn't smash the reserve clause when he had the chance?
Arledge: I'm not sure.
Playboy: Had you been his business manager, what would you have advised him to do?
Arledge: Smash the reserve clause.
Playboy: Of all the shows you've produced, what would you consider the greatest moment, the single most important image you have ever beamed out to the world?
Arledge: The word important may seem to require some justification in this context, since individually, both sports and television are essentially trivial. But when the two are combined, they can become very important. And I think my most important moment came during the 1963 U.S.-Russia track meet in Moscow. In those days, the meet was a titanic international struggle, with the conflict between the two systems as the underlying motif. And in that particular year, the U.S. and Russia were trying to put together the first meaningful arms agreement of the Cold War. Khrushchev and Harriman were negotiating day and night, but at the very end of the meet, the two of them came out to Lenin Stadium to watch Valery Brumel, the great Russian high jumper, try for the world's record. It was getting dark and a light rain had begun falling. Brumel was down to his last attempt. He sprinted toward the bar, leaped and made it. There was a momentary lull as 90,000 people waited to see if the bar would topple. It didn't, and the crowd exploded. I turned our cameras on the chairman's box and Khrushchev and Harriman were jumping up and down, screaming, hugging each other. That was the single most important image I have ever broadcast. Two old men. Enemies who spoke different languages and couldn't even agree on a way to prevent the world from blowing itself up. Yet there they were, embracing like brothers on world television at the simple act of a man jumping over a bar.