Arledge was born the son of a North Carolina lawyer, mother Gertrude, from Polk County NC, who moved to New York City in search of opportunity. Arledge attended Wellington C. Mepham High School on Long Island where he wrestled and played baseball.
Upon graduation, he decided that sportswriting was what he wanted to do in life, and applied to Columbia University. There, he discovered that Columbia’s journalism program was a graduate program, not an undergraduate one. Even so, Arledge liked what he saw and enrolled in a liberal-arts program. He also served as President of the Omega Chapter of the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta. His classmates included Max Frankel, who would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his work as editorial page editor of the New York Times; Larry Grossman, who became president of the Public Broadcasting Service in 1976 and later went on to head NBC News; and Richard Wald, another president of NBC News that Arledge would later persuade to come over to ABC News as a senior vice-president. He was the only one of the four who did not work at the Columbia Daily Spectator, the daily student newspaper of Columbia University.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1952, Arledge enrolled in graduate studies at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs. Restless with graduate studies, he went looking for a job where he could use his college degree and obtained an entry-level job at the DuMont Television Network. Military service intervened, and after Arledge’s discharge, he learned the network had folded and he had no job to return to. Contacts he made at DuMont paid off with a stage manager’s job at NBC’s New York City station, WRCA (later WNBC). One of his assignments there was to help produce a children’s puppet show hosted by Shari Lewis. In 1958, the program won a New York City Emmy award.
Even with that success, Arledge wanted to tinker with programming ideas. Using the avante-garde magazine Playboy as his model, Arledge convinced his superiors at WRCA to let him film a pilot of a show he called “For Men Only.” While his superiors liked the pilot, they told him WRCA couldn’t find a place in the programming schedule for it. But the WRCA weatherman, Pat Hernon, who hosted the pilot episode of “For Men Only”, began showing the kinescope to people around New York City who might want the program. One of them was a former account executive at the ad agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, Edgar J. Scherick, who as far as Hernon knew, was doing something at ABC.
Scherick had joined the fledgling ABC television network when he persuaded it to purchase Sports Programs, Inc. Scherick had formed this company after leaving CBS when the network would not make him the head of sports programming, choosing instead William C. McPhail, a former baseball public-relations agent. Before ABC Sports even became a formal division of the network, Scherick and ABC programming chief Tom Moore pulled off many programming deals involving the most popular American sporting events. While Scherick wasn’t interested in “For Men Only,” he recognized the talent Arledge had. Arledge realized ABC was the organization he was looking to join. The lack of a formal organization would offer him the opportunity to claim real power when the network matured. So, he signed on with Scherick as an assistant producer.
Several months before ABC began broadcasting NCAA college football games, Arledge sent Scherick a remarkable memo, filled with youthful exuberance, and television production concepts which sports broadcasts have adhered to since. Previously, network sporting broadcasts had consisted of simple set-ups and focused on the game itself. The genius of Arledge in this memo was not that he offered another way to broadcast the game to the sports fan. The genius was to recognize television had to take the sports fan to the game. In addition, Arledge was intelligent enough to realize that the broadcasts needed to attract, and hold the attention of women viewers. At age 29 on September 17, 1960 he put his vision into reality with ABC’s first NCAA college football broadcast from Birmingham, Alabama, between Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs won by Alabama, 21–6. Sports broadcasting has not been the same since.
Despite the production values he brought to NCAA college football, Scherick wanted low-budget (as in inexpensive broadcasting rights) sports programming that could attract and retain an audience. He hit upon the idea of broadcasting track and field events sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. While Americans were not exactly fans of track and field events, Scherick figured Americans understood games. So in January 1961, Scherick called Arledge into his office, and asked him to attend the annual AAU board of governors meeting. While he was shaking hands, Scherick said, if the mood seemed right, might he cut a deal to broadcast AAU events on ABC? It seemed a tall assignment, but as Scherick said years later, “Roone was a gentile and I was not.” Arledge came back with a deal for ABC to broadcast all AAU events for $50,000 a year. Next, Scherick and Arledge divided up their NCAA college football sponsor list. They then telephoned their sponsors and said in so many words, “Advertise on our new sports show coming up in April, or forget about buying commercials on NCAA college football this fall.” The two persuaded enough sponsors to advertise, though it took them to the last day of a deadline imposed by ABC programming to do it.
Wide World of Sports suited Scherick’s plans exactly. By exploiting the speed of jet transportation and flexibility of videotape, Scherick was able to undercut NBC and CBS’s advantages in broadcasting live sporting events. In that era, with communications nowhere near as universal as they are today, ABC was able to safely record events on videotape for later broadcast without worrying about an audience finding out the results. Arledge, his colleague Chuck Howard, and Jim McKay (who left CBS for this opportunity) made up the show on a week-by-week basis the first year it was broadcast. Arledge had a genius for the dramatic story line that unfolded in the course of a game or event. McKay’s honest curiosity and reporter’s bluntness gave the show an emotional appeal which attracted viewers who might not otherwise watch a sporting event.
But more importantly from Arledge’s perspective, Wide World of Sports allowed him to demonstrate his ability as an administrator as well as producer. Arledge did not gain a formal title as president of ABC Sports until 1968, even though Scherick left his position to assume a position of vice president for programming at ABC in 1964. Arledge personally produced all ten ABC Olympic broadcasts, created the primetime Monday Night Football and coined ABC’s famous “Thrill of victory, agony of defeat” tagline — although ABC insiders of that era attribute the authorship to legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay.
In 1977, ABC made Arledge president of the then low-rated network news division, all while Arledge retained control of the Sports Division. ABC News had at the time been in the middle of blunders such as the disastrous pairing of Barbara Walters with Harry Reasoner at the desk of the network’s evening news. The previous year, ABC had lured Walters away from NBC’s Today Show for $1,000,000.
Previous to that time, the only news experience Arledge had was providing ABC’s coverage of the tragedies during the ’72 Olympics in Munich. Other than that, he had no other major experience in news. Arledge’s first major creation for ABC was 20/20, which premiered in June 1978. The first iteration of this program fared badly, and resulted in the firing of the original hosts, with Hugh Downs chosen as the new anchor beginning the second week of the program.
Shortly thereafter, Arledge reformatted the network’s evening newscast with many of the splashy graphics he had developed at Wide World of Sports, and created World News Tonight. The program was unique not only because it was anchored by three newsmen, but because each of them were located in separate cities. The lead anchor became Frank Reynolds, who was based in Washington, with Max Robinson based out of Chicago, and Peter Jennings reporting from London. The program expanded to weekends in 1979. In 1983, Reynolds died of bone cancer, and Robinson departed the network, and ABC made Jennings the sole anchor of World News Tonight on September 5, 1983. Jennings anchored the broadcast until April 5, 2005, when he announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, to which Jennings would succumb on August 7, 2005.
In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran was taken over by Iranian students, creating the Iranian Hostage Crisis. And on November 4, 1979, Frank Reynolds began anchoring a series of special reports entitled America Held Hostage. Several nights later, Ted Koppel, then the network’s Diplomatic correspondent to the U.S. State Department, took over as anchor. The special reports led to the creation of Nightline, which premiered on March 24, 1980. Koppel anchored the broadcast with Chris Bury, and served as its managing editor. Koppel retained the position until his retirement in November 2005.
In 1981, Arledge brought David Brinkley to ABC from NBC, and created the Sunday-morning affairs program This Week for Brinkley. Brinkley would retire from the program in 1996. The last major news program created during Arledge’s reign at ABC News was Primetime Live, in 1989. The program was originally anchored by Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer. In 1986, Arledge stepped down as president of ABC Sports. That same year, ABC’s World News Tonight began a ten-year domination of the network news ratings. In 1998, Arledge retired from ABC News. Arledge died on December 5, 2002 in New York City, New York, at the age of 71, following a battle with prostate cancer. He was buried in Southampton Cemetery. His autobiography, Roone: A Memoir, was published posthumously in 2003.
Arledge was selected by Life magazine as one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century”. Sports Illustrated ranked him number three in a list of “the 40 individuals who have most significantly altered or elevated the world of sports in the last four decades”. He was the winner of 37 Emmy Awards and in 1990 was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 2001, he was given the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2007, The Walt Disney Company posthumously named Arledge a Disney Legend for his contributions to ABC News and ABC Sports (now ESPN on ABC), both (along with the ABC Network) now owned by Disney. The Roone Arledge auditorium located in student center Alfred Lerner Hall of Columbia University, Arledge’s Alma Mater, is named in his honor.
- July, 08, 1931
- Queens, New York City, New York
- December, 05, 2002
- New York City, New York
- Southampton Cemetery
- Southampton, New York