Picks and Pans Review: The House That Roone Built: the Inside Story of Abc News

updated 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Marc Gunther

Appearing in the wake of Diane Sawyer's re-signing with ABC News at a reported $7 million a year, Gunther's smoothly written study of the network division and its Olympian president, Roone Arledge, could not be more timely. With an insider's feel, a scholar's perspective and apparent cooperation from almost everyone involved, Gunther, a Detroit News reporter, has produced an illuminating look inside TV news.

Arledge is certainly among, the most fascinating—and gossiped-about—characters in the business. First in the '60s at ABC Sports, and especially since he took the reins of the news division in 1977, Arledge has displayed "an uncanny ability to discern what viewers wanted, sometimes before they knew it themselves."

Pioneering an intimate approach to coverage, Arledge shrewdly used his checkbook to promote and steal the news superstars who could deliver: Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson and Sawyer, to name a few. "Inside ABC News, he played the role of distant father—remote and demanding—with the result that his charges went to extraordinary lengths to excel," writes Gunther. And like scorpions in a bottle—and by Arledge's design—they sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to sting each other as well as the rival networks. (Gunther relates how 20/20 even tried to swipe Donaldson and Sawyer's premiere scoop—an interview with wayward pilot Thomas Root.)

Always a head above the contentious, Everest-sized egos stands the towering and maddening Roone himself: proposing, wheedling, commanding. His clout has been diminished since Capital Cities took over ABC in 1986, and Arledge, now 62, has weathered a bout with prostate cancer. But he still retains at least the aura ascribed by one former 20/20 producer, who likens him to a character from Aristophanes of whom it was said: "They love him, they hate him, they cannot live without him." (Little, Brown, $23.95)

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