Just in case you don’t get enough office politics on the job, Marc Gunther’s crisply written, gossipy tale of how Roone Arledge took ABC from worst to first in TV network news ratings, The House That Roone Built, will more than satisfy all but the most insatiable appetites. Back in 1977, when Arledge took command of ABC News, critics dismissed him as a lightweight. Previously best known as the executive producer of Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football and as the man who made Howard Cosell a TV star, Arledge seemed temperamentally and intellectually ill-equipped to take on then-reigning CBS and the avuncular Walter Cronkite — whom polls routinely showed to be the most-trusted man in America.
Even inside ABC News, Gunther makes clear, ”Arledge was greeted like a skunk at a picnic. Nothing about him — not the bold-striped shirts, safari jackets, and cowboy boots he wore, not the oversize cigars he puffed, and not his marriage to a former beauty queen — fit the mold of what a network news president should be.” Ambitious, serious-minded young newsmen Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings, among others, did all they could to block his appointment. Never one to pull punches, Arledge reciprocated their lack of respect. ”Compared to CBS and NBC, it was like we almost didn’t exist in news,” he said. ”It was third because there were only three networks. Otherwise it would have been fifth or tenth.” After his first tour of the newsroom, he remarked, ”You could practically smell the formaldehyde.”
Among the earliest of network news executives to grasp that TV news ought to be more than radio with pictures, Arledge pushed to exploit more fully the storytelling power of words, pictures, graphics, and music. Unlike those who argued that a network’s news division had to lose money to prove its integrity, he believed that only profits would guarantee long-term autonomy. But his judgment was not infallible: Despite colleague Richard Threlkeld’s opinion that Koppel was ”the smartest man I’ve ever met — no contest,” Arledge nearly ditched the future Nightline anchor because he thought the newsman looked like Howdy Doody. His eagerness to hire figures like David Brinkley and Diane Sawyer away from rival networks, moreover, did much to create the star system that pays TV journalists almost as much as power-hitting third basemen.
With that system, naturally enough, have come all the well-known derangements of stardom: egotism, insecurity, jealousy, pettiness, and , backbiting. Gunther provides, if anything, too many telling anecdotes. So enormous is Sam Donaldson’s need for attention, a colleague once observed, that ”if there were no TV, Sam would go door-to- door.” But Donaldson is downright dignified and stodgy compared with the flamboyant Geraldo Rivera, an Arledge favorite in the early years of 20/20; readers may be surprised to learn that Geraldo was called ”Jerry” growing up in Long Island and sported a tattoo celebrating Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. And then there’s Barbara Walters, so consumed with jealousy that she has many times gone to extraordinary lengths to steal prominent interviews from Diane Sawyer’s PrimeTime Live for her own 20/20.
For all of Arledge’s own personal foibles — arrogance, name-dropping, a maddening refusal to return anybody’s phone calls — it’s clear that he’s done a bang-up job. ABC News consistently ranks first in the ratings, because day by day, Nightline by Nightline, it’s consistently the most incisive, and yes, the most entertaining news programming on TV. Yet what, in the broader analysis, hath Roone wrought? Are there, or are there not, profound consequences to our habit of comprehending the world in the conflict-and-resolution terms of TV drama? Of course there are; take, for one example, the highly misleading ”sanitized Nintendo” coverage of the Persian Gulf war. Alas, however, Gunther devotes far too much space to blow-by-blow accounts of backstairs intrigue to have enough energy left for the big questions. B