Although Roone Arledge built his TV foundation on the pioneering of TV sports, he was the surprise choice to take over ABC News in 1976. Within three years of taking the helm of the fledgling department, Arledge created World News Tonight, 20/20 and Nightline, thus revolutionizing network TV news and lifting the perennial ratings cellar dwellers into America’s most watched news network.
Utilizing all technologies available from graphics to satellites, he not only created a refreshing look to the news, he also used graphics to optimize the talent he inherited or recruited.
The biggest mess Arledge inherited was the disastrous Barbara Walters-Harry Reasoner pairing on the ABC Evening News. He scuttled that anchor team and in 1978, he created World News Tonight in 1977, featuring three anchors, with Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson (the first African-American network news anchor) in Chicago and Peter Jennings in London. Ratings rose immediately, thanks to the level of reporting, the use of cutting-edge graphics, and the incorporation of satellite feeds. Although Huntley-Brinkley was the first dual-anchor program some 22 years earlier, placing one anchor overseas in London and another anchor in Chicago proved revolutionary and a hit with the audience. World News Tonight came from nowhere to challenge both NBC and CBS for ratings dominance. World News Tonight leapt to number one upon Walter Cronkite’s forced retirement from the CBS anchor chair in 1981.
The Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-80 provided Arledge with another opportunity to cement ABC’s position as a leading network news organization. The network provided late night updates every night following the takeover of the US Embassy in Teheran and morphed into the most successful late night news program in history: Nightline.
Arledge also revamped the Sunday morning talk show format when he hired David Brinkley from NBC News and created “This Week with David Brinkley.”
His obituary from the New York Times on December 6, 2002 provides the best historical background: