Capturing the Color: How Roone Arledge Transformed TV Sports and News

by Britton Manasco | Oct 16, 2008 | Thought Leadership

It was the 1960s and a fledgling network, American Broadcasting Corporation, decided it would make its mark in television sports. Having purchased the rights to televise college football, ABC had to figure out how to make viewers care about games that didn't involve their favorite teams.

What the network did holds lessons for all companies today. We are all, in a sense, now running upstart networks and trying to engage audiences.Thought Leadership_Roone

Faced with the challenge of capturing the attention of sports viewers, a twenty-nine year old ABC employee named Roone Arledge had an idea. As recounted in Chip and Dan Heath's excellent book Made to Stick:

Arledge saw ample room for improvement. Sportscasters typically set up their cameras, focused on the field, and waited for something to happen in front of them. They ignored everything else -- the fans, the color, the pageantry. "It was like looking out on the Grand Canyon through a peephole in the door," he said. 

In a three-page proposal to his boss, Arledge suggested ways to make the game more interesting to the viewer. He championed pre-shot film that would orient the viewer to the campus, the stadium, the crowd and the stakes for the two rival teams.

It discussed camera angles, impact shots, opening graphics. The heart of the memo, though, was a new way of engaging viewers who might not ordinarily care  about a college game in Corvallis, Oregon. The trick, Arledge said, was to give people enough context about the game so they start to care.

Having grabbed the attention of his boss and colleagues, Arledge was invited to produce his first game using the guidelines he had set forth. He proceeded to fill the audience's knowledge gaps. He gave them the back story to make the game relevant and compelling.

He talked up the emotions, the rivalries, the histories. By the time the game started, some viewers had begun to care who won. Others were riveted.

Arledge would later take this winning formula into a successful series called Wide World of Sports (the one with that poor skier perpetually experiencing "the agony of defeat" in the show's opening) and, later, Monday Night Football. Later still, he would launch such award-winning news shows as 2020 and Nightline. Recognized as a master of media, he moved from head of ABC Sports to head of ABC News.

As this story shows, you can get people to care about your story by providing richer context and greater depth. Arledge captured the vivid color and human interest angles in the events he produced. He made it real to his audiences and captivated them.

Are you reaching your audiences in the same way?