Roone Arledge, the ABC executive who did as much to shape the look of American network television as anyone except its founders, died yesterday of complications from cancer. He was 71.
Mr. Arledge was pronounced dead at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.
A 36-time Emmy winner, Mr. Arledge, who retired in 1998, defined thinking outside the box from the moment he arrived at ABC in 1960. Among the groundbreaking programs he introduced in his career - which included a decade as president of the network's news and sports divisions - were Monday Night Football, Wide World of Sports, Nightline and 20/20.
The technical innovations he brought to those programs included the use of instant replay, slow motion, freeze frame and hand-held cameras.
Mr. Arledge supervised coverage of 10 Olympic Games, expanding the broadcasts with the use of "up close and personal" profiles of the athletes. He was in charge of the network's distinguished coverage of the 1972 Games in Munich, when Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian terrorists.
"Roone Arledge revolutionized television and with it the way people see and understand the world," David Westin, his successor as ABC News president, said in a statement yesterday.
Veteran broadcaster Jim McKay of Baltimore, who was at the anchor desk for many of Arledge's best sports productions, including the 1972 Olympics, said yesterday: "Roone changed the face of television sports coverage with Wide World of Sports in the early 1960s and the production of the Olympic Games."
Beyond all the technical innovations, he said that Mr. Arledge succeeded by "putting the focus on the human beings involved in the sports."
Mr. Arledge coined what has become a popular-culture catchphrase to focus viewer attention on the athlete rather than the game with "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Born in 1931, Mr. Arledge was 29 when he joined ABC Sports as a producer after graduating from Columbia College and working for five years in sports at NBC. He introduced Wide World of Sports in 1961 after one year on the job. By 1968, he was president of the network's sports division.
Mr. Arledge helped put ABC Sports on the map by aggressively outbidding the more established CBS and NBC for Olympic rights in 1968. But he was seen primarily as a showman, even after introducing Monday Night Football in 1970. Critics faulted him for overspending on rights and then using show business values to cheapen the games.
Much of that criticism subsided after his celebrated coverage of the 1972 Olympics, when the Games turned into a nightmare and his sports division covered it as well as any news division could hope to. But the criticism returned tenfold in 1977 when he was named president of ABC News. It was one thing to bring show business razzle-dazzle to sports, it was another to do it with news.
Never lacking in nerve, Mr. Arledge did not let such criticism stop him from trying to change the way news was presented on network television. Some of his early efforts were disastrous, such as a tri-anchor system for the evening news with Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago and Peter Jennings in New York. He used what he called "the whiparound technique" to bounce from one anchorman to another. Mostly, it just confused viewers.
But, even in such failure, you can see the thinking of a TV executive who was far ahead of the curve. While the broadcast networks have never gone to that style of presentation, cable channels and local newscasts continue to use it to give a sense of urgency and blanket coverage to major stories.
Mr. Arledge did enjoy plenty of victories as president of ABC News. When he settled on a single anchor in 1983, he chose wisely in picking Mr. Jennings, a Canadian who cut dead against the American heartland mode of anchormen personified by Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw.
He also found the right spot for Barbara Walters as co-host with the venerable Hugh Downs of the newsmagazine 20/20. Mr. Arledge didn't invent the newsmagazine format; that honor goes to Don Hewitt with 60 Minutes at CBS. But Mr. Arledge saw its potential to make prime-time dollars with a news division product before anyone except Mr. Hewitt and William Paley, the founder of CBS.
Perhaps most indicative of Mr. Arledge's uncanny ability to respond with innovative news programming to changes in American society and the world is Nightline with Ted Koppel, the late-night broadcast he introduced in 1979 after Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. What began as an ABC News special became a nightly staple of American life, with ABC News responding each weeknight in a thoughtful way to the day's events in a rapidly changing world.