Picks and Pans Main: Tube
updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Sitting at the right hand of TV's god—Roone Arledge to his friends—was a man who juggled up to 147 live TV shots from Olympic sites, 70 videotape machines, 17 cameras aimed at L.A.'s scenery, four cameras pointed at Jim McKay and a couple of helicopters. Arledge is the president of ABC News and Sports and the executive producer of ABC's prime-time Olympics coverage. He decided what to show and when to show it. To his right was Roger Goodman, the director who made it all fit in five hours a night and the man who spent 3½ years designing the $2.5 million prefab set and control booth—his "giant Atari game"—that was shipped, complete with 200 TV sets, to Sarajevo for the Winter Olympics, then to L.A. for the Summer Games. In that booth Arledge, Goodman and a dozen others spent 16 nights putting on the biggest sports show ever.
Yes, there were some problems with ABC's coverage: It was too often jingoistic, concentrating on Americans and all but ignoring others (even though ABC had many multinational pictures to pick from, since it was feeding signals to 2.5 billion viewers around the world). With up to 14½ hours to fill in a day, too much time was devoted to esoteric sports (but then, how often do you get to see a good water polo game?). And there were those odd observations only sportscasters can make; leave it to Howard Cosell to shout, "You can see the per-spira-tion!" But forget the problems. ABC's coverage was, all in all, spectacular.
Watching Arledge produce it one night was like watching Mary Lou Retton spin on the uneven bars: talented, fast, graceful and confident but always in danger of slipping. He sat in the control booth, his back to McKay and the glass wall that separated them, his eyes on TV monitors sloppily labeled "Boxing," "Wrestling," "Basketball," "Cycling," "Equestrian"—the events he had to choose from while waiting for gymnastics to begin. He had hotlines to producers at every Olympic venue and he checked in with them often. "What's the score on the Saudi soccer?" he asked, planning to show a few minutes of the game to lead into a recorded feature on the team. "Zip-zip," came the answer. The Saudis had to wait a few nights to get on the air. He was given a choice of showing the complete medal ceremony for a cycling event or just the playing of the national anthem; with two American winners, Arledge said, "We better go with the awards."
Through a microphone on his desk, Arledge spoke right into the ears of all his commentators, telling them how long they had and where to go next and sometimes what to say. He commanded a wonderful power: A thought would come out of Arledge's mouth, go into his commentators' ears, out of their mouths and into the ears of 80 million Americans. After Jack Whitaker, at women's gymnastics, told the audience that Rumanian Nadia Comaneci was sitting at the judge's table, Arledge properly thought that sounded misleading. "Be sure to mention that Nadia's not a judge," he said into Whitaker's earphone. Whitaker soon said: "Nadia's not here as a judge." When U.S. gymnastic scores came in low (and slow) after an argument among judges, Arledge told his venue producer: "Who's the best reporter we got in there? Get reporters out to find out exactly what that argument was all about." He didn't get it but didn't give up. "It's a really interesting story," he said. "We have to get it." But the competition ended before he could bring in his story. At the finish, when the American women's team lost the gold but won the silver, Arledge reminded his team: "It's a hell of an achievement for the U.S. women." That's just how McKay and company analyzed it.
In that way Arledge was like the editor of an instant newspaper—and a good one. With all the activity going on around him, Arledge still heard, over a booth loudspeaker, what his commentators told his audience; he guided and corrected them. Always politely.
"Keith Jackson, can you hear me? How are you?" Arledge said into his commentator's ear. With seconds to spare, he found time for niceties. He tried, too, to keep things cool in the booth. Listen in as director Goodman talked by microphone to a technician who was supposed to run a report on videotape machine No. 111: "Say hello to Roger, 111. You ready to go on air? Yes or no? Quickly! TELL ME! 111, are you ready or not? 111, talk to Roger! Roll, 111! ROLL, 111!" It rolled at last. Goodman muttered: "What the hell's going on with you guys?" The muttering spread. Then Arledge said, "Relax everybody." And they did.
Goodman denies having ulcers, but he deserves them. The details could confound a computer programmer. He meticulously directed a helicopter cameraman for a scene that appeared, through TV magic, behind McKay. "Gimme the Hollywood sign upper right. Tilt up...a little wider...." McKay suddenly looked as if he were sitting high above L.A., not in a windowless soundstage on a tacky edge of Hollywood. The pace was killing, too. "What you really are," says Goodman, "is a flight controller trying to figure out where you're going." He would count down at the end of a taped report, ready to cut to the next shot but without knowing what shot to cut to: "Ten—where are we going?—9, 8, 7..." Arledge always decided before Goodman got to 1.
The only person who wasn't so harried was McKay, who sat in the studio wearing sunglasses against the glare, munching popcorn and watching the Olympics like the rest of us as he waited for his seconds in the sun. But his job was tough—tedious, at least. Not once in five hours did he even rise from the anchor desk, just in case he had to go on the air. Nobody left the control booth either. You don't see TV people drinking much coffee while they work.
When they were done with this one night—15 minutes later than usual because the gymnastics went on too long—Arledge said: "Nice job. Nice job." And so it was.