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Arledge: Technical Achievements Almost Beyond Measure

NEW YORK

If you can judge a person's life by who shows up at his funeral, TV broadcast pioneer Roone Arledge had quite a life. An impressive Who's Who of media -- longtime peers and proteges at homeport ABC and hundreds of admiring competitors -- packed a New York church to pay homage to perhaps the most influential and innovative broadcaster of the past half century, who succumbed to cancer in early December at 71.

"He was the best in a control room that I have ever seen," says Dave Elliot, an Arledge colleague for 25 years and director of Operations and Engineering for ABC's last Olympics coverage back in the 1980s. "He would sit in the front row at the producer's console and literally 'wing' every live broadcast -- quietly talking to talent on the IFB, telling the director the segment sequences, asking associate producers what they had upcoming, listening to the engineering supervisor for possible problems -- and never ever lose track of what would be of interest to the viewer."

Elliot, who retired six years ago as VP of Engineering for ABC-TV Network, says despite Arledge's colorful personality, "I don't remember that I ever heard him really raise his voice. He would quietly give commands. In later years all his associates had to do was say, 'Roone says,' and things would happen. Roone was extraordinarily demanding, and required the best from his people. But his goal was the best show, the most compelling production."

DEMANDING BUT FLEXIBLE

Arledge had a strict rule-of-thumb about operations systems -- above all else they had to be flexible. "He would continually examine the show elements and change whatever he thought was lacking," Elliot says. "When I was in charge of operations/engineering for the Los Angeles Olympics, we spent over three years designing and building facilities for the Games broadcast. Most of my team had never worked with ABC Sports before, and to prepare them for what was coming once Roone and his team arrived, I had a poster printed from one of my favorite Roone quotes: 'I am totally intolerant of systems that do not allow for last-minute changes!'"

Several of Arledge's longtime friends and colleagues spoke of a man who was far from perfect, had his lion's share of ego, and was infamously hard to reach by those under him (Ted Koppel fondly cited one instance in which he went so far as to write a letter of resignation to his boss which, typically, was ignored.) Yet virtually the entire electronic media industry was quick to acknowledge the numerous stunning breakthroughs he brought television viewers, including instant replay (first used on 2-inch tape); sports slow-motion; hand-held cameras for the Olympics and "Wide World of Sports;" and POV cameras and recorders (mounted on skiers' boots, inside race cars and on downhill ski gates). He was also responsible for making an unlikely, unique sports commentator, Howard Cosell, a household name.

THE 'ROONE PHONE'

And then there was the infamous "Roone Phone," says David Mazza, who did free-lance work for ABC at the Olympics and is now senior VP of Engineering for NBC's Olympics coverage. "I'll never forget seeing the Roone Phone for the first time. I asked the ABC guys what it was for and they said it was a ring-down that came directly from Roone's position in the IBC. It only rang a few times, and when it did, I never saw so many people get so nervous in such a hurry. It brought both the anticipation that he might be calling with an 'atta boy,' or dread that he might be calling to tattoo you for doing something he did not like," Mazza says.

"There probably won't be anyone in the future with as much impact on television as Roone, simply because there aren't that many new things to do," says Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and a former ABC Sports executive. "He created what so many of us today take for granted."

McManus grew up watching Arledge in the control room interacting with McManus' father, legendary ABC Olympics host Jim McKay. "As a kid, all I knew was that the men and women of ABC were completely dedicated to Roone. He was always totally focused."

If McManus had to choose the two biggest contributions Arledge brought to the small screen, the first would be "simply the art of storytelling," he says. "Roone believed that unless people cared about the athletes they were watching, it wouldn't mean nearly as much." (Arledge invented the "up close and personal" approach to sports coverage.) McManus thinks Arledge's other chief contribution was "to not bring the game to the viewer -- but take the viewer to the game, to make certain that viewers at home had the best seat of the house."