ESPN on ABC (known as ABC Sports from 1961 to 2006) is the brand used for sports event and documentary programming televised by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the United States. Officially, the broadcast network retains its own sports division; however, in 2006, ABC’s sports division was merged into ESPN Inc., which is the parent subsidiary of the cable sports network ESPN that is majority owned by ABC’s corporate parent, The Walt Disney Company, in partnership with Hearst Communications.
ABC broadcasts use ESPN’s production and announcing staff, and incorporate elements such as ESPN-branded on-screen graphics, SportsCenter in-game updates, and the BottomLineticker. The ABC logo is still used for identification purposes such as a digital on-screen graphic during sports broadcasts on the network, and in promotions to disambiguate events airing the broadcast network from those shown on the ESPN cable channel.
The broadcast network’s sports event coverage carried the ABC Sports brand prior to September 2, 2006. When ABC acquired a controlling interest in ESPN in 1984, it operated the cable network separately from its network sports division. The integration of ABC Sports with ESPN began after The Walt Disney Company bought ABC in 1996. The branding change to ESPN on ABC was made to better orient ESPN viewers with event telecasts on ABC and provide consistent branding for all sports broadcasts on Disney-owned channels (shortly thereafter, ESPN2‘s in-game graphics were likewise altered to simply use the main “ESPN” brand). Despite its name, ABC’s sports coverage is supplemental to ESPN and (with occasional exceptions) not a simulcast of programs aired by the network, although ESPN and ESPN2 will often carry ABC’s regional broadcasts that otherwise would not air in certain markets.
When Roone Arledge came to ABC Sports as a producer of NCAAfootball games in 1960, the network was in financial shambles. The International Olympic Committee even wanted a bank to guarantee ABC’s contract to broadcast the 1960 Olympics. At the time, Edgar Scherick served as the de facto head of ABC Sports. Scherick had joined the fledgling ABC television network when he persuaded it to purchase Sports Programs, Inc., in exchange for the network acquiring shares in the company. Scherick had formed the company after he left CBS, when the network would not make him the head of its sports programming unit (choosing to instead appoint former baseball public relations agent William C. McPhail). Before ABC Sports even became a formal division of the network, Scherick and ABC programming chief Tom Moore pulled off many programming deals involving the most popular American sporting events.
While Scherick was not interested in “For Men Only,” he recognized the talent that Arledge had. Arledge realized ABC was the organization he was looking to become part of. The lack of a formal organization would offer him the opportunity to claim real power when the network matured. With this, he signed on with Scherick as an assistant producer, with Arledge eventually ascending to a role as executive producer of its sports telecasts.
Several months before ABC began broadcasting NCAA college football games, Arledge sent Scherick a remarkable memo, filled with youthful exuberance, and television production concepts which sports broadcasts have adhered to since. Network broadcasts of sporting events had previously consisted of simple set-ups and focused on the game itself. In his memo, Arledge not only offered another way to broadcast the game to the sports fan, but recognized that television had to take fans to the game. In addition, he had the forethought to realize that the broadcasts needed to attract, and hold the attention of female viewers, as well as males. On September 17, 1960, the then-29-year-old Arledge put his vision into reality with ABC’s first NCAA college football broadcast from Birmingham, Alabama, between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs which Alabama won, 21–6.
Despite the production values he brought to NCAA college football, Scherick wanted low-budget sports programming (as in inexpensive broadcasting rights) that could attract and retain an audience. He hit upon the idea of broadcasting track and field events sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. While Americans were not exactly fans of track and field events, Scherick figured that Americans understood games.
In January 1961, Scherick called Arledge into his office, and asked him to attend the annual AAU board of governors meeting. While he was shaking hands, Scherick said, “if the mood seemed right, might he cut a deal to broadcast AAU events on ABC?” It seemed like a tall assignment, however as Scherick said years later, “Roone was a gentile and I was not.” Arledge came back with a deal for ABC to broadcast all AAU events for $50,000 per year. Next, Scherick and Arledge divided up their NCAA college football sponsor list. They then telephoned their sponsors and said in so many words, “Advertise on our new sports show coming up in April, or forget about buying commercials on NCAA college football this fall.” The two persuaded enough sponsors to advertise on the broadcasts, though it took them to the last day of a deadline imposed by ABC’s programming operations to do it.
Wide World of Sports – an anthology series featuring a different sporting event each broadcast, which premiered on the network on April 29, 1961 – suited Scherick’s plans exactly. By exploiting the speed of jet transportation and flexibility of videotape, Scherick was able to undercut NBC and CBS’s advantages in broadcasting live sporting events. In that era, with communications nowhere near as universal as they are in the present day, ABC was able to safely record events on videotape for later broadcast without worrying about an audience finding out the results. Arledge, his colleague Chuck Howard, and Jim McKay (who left CBS for this opportunity) made up the show on a week-by-week basis during the first year of Wide World‘s run. Arledge had a genius for the dramatic storyline that unfolded in the course of a game or event. McKay’s honest curiosity and reporter’s bluntness gave the show an emotional appeal which attracted viewers who might not have otherwise watched a sporting event. More importantly from Arledge’s perspective, Wide World of Sports allowed him to demonstrate his ability as an administrator as well as a producer.
His ability to provide prime sports content was solidified in 1964, when ABC appointed Arledge as the vice president of ABC Sports. That same year, Scherick left the sports division to become ABC’s vice president of programming – leaving Arledge as the top executive at ABC Sports, although he would not gain a formal title as president for four years.
In 1968, Arledge was formally appointed as president of ABC Sports. As the sports division’s president for the succeeding 18 years, his job was his hobby; as he described it, it was good because he watched sports for work rather than leisure, but had a downside as he had no time left for leisure activities. He made sportsmen into stars, a trend he would later bring to the news division where he lured established anchors and correspondents such as David Brinkley and Diane Sawyer and paid unheard-of salaries, including the first million-dollar contract to Barbara Walters.
Arledge personally produced all ten of ABC’s Olympic Games broadcasts, created the primetime Monday Night Football and coined the famous “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” tagline first used on Wide World of Sports – although ABC insiders of that era attribute the authorship to legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay. Over the next few years, the look of the network’s sports telecasts became more intimate and entertaining as under Arledge, ABC introduced techniques such as slow motion replay, freeze frame, instant replay, split-screen, hand-held cameras, endzone cameras, underwater cameras and cameras on cranes.
As part of an agreement with the National Football League (which completed its merger with the American Football League that year), Monday Night Football debuted on ABC in September 1970, which served as the NFL’s premier game of the week until 2006, when Sunday Night Football, which moved to NBC that year as part of a broadcast deal that in turn saw MNF move to ESPN, took over as the league’s marquee game. Although it suffered a decline in ratings toward the end of its ABC run, the program was a hit for the network; according to ABC president Leonard Goldenson, Monday Night Football helped regularly score ABC an audience share of 15%–16%.
With the creation of Monday Night Football, Arledge not only anchored ABC’s primetime programming, but created a national pastime. At first, nobody – including the affiliates and the advertisers – supported the idea of primetime football games at the beginning of the week. Arledge said regarding this skepticism, “But I thought there was something special about football, because there are so few games, and relatively few teams. Also, there is something about the look of a night game, with the lights bouncing off the helmets.”
It was not only the lights that made watching Arledge-style football on ABC an event in itself. The games were transformed into events through the technical innovations envisioned by Arledge and through a new style of sportscaster embodied in Howard Cosell. ABC was the first network not to allow announcer approval by the league from which it was purchasing broadcast rights. Arledge said, “CBS had been the basic football network. They treated it like a religion and would almost never criticize it. But if you screwed up on Monday Night Football, Cosell would let everyone know about it.” Arledge proudly pointed out that the program “changed the habits of the nation.”
In 1977, Arledge’s executive responsibilities at ABC were expanded, and he was made president of ABC News while remaining as head of ABC Sports.