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TELEVISION : The Goldenson Years : The man who built ABC is still going strong at 85 and still has plenty of opinions on how the network should woo viewers

February 03, 1991|RICK DU BROW | Rick Du Brow writes about television for The Times

At 85, Leonard Goldenson, the man who built ABC into a major television force, has a smile and a twinkle in his eye as he sits down at a restaurant table at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina Del Rey.

"In this business, you've gotta shoot craps," he says with youthful enthusiasm as he decries programming for "old fogies." ABC's programming must continue to focus on the 18-to-49-year-old audience, he says. "I'm an old man. I'm no longer our audience."

But what about the fact that America is graying and the older generation controls most of the nation's financial assets?

"That may very well be, but they don't spend it," he says with a laugh.

Goldenson, a Harvard graduate and former Paramount movie theater executive, who took over ABC in 1953 when it had only 14 primary television affiliate stations, is having the last laugh in a lot of ways.

As the last living patriarch of network TV--both NBC founder David Sarnoff and CBS titan William Paley are dead--Goldenson is a zestful, courtly survivor. On this day he has just completed a lengthy Q&A session with the nation's TV columnists during their winter press tour in Los Angeles, displaying energy, clarity and wit. His new book, "Beating the Odds," has a publication date of Feb. 19. In it, he tells the story of ABC's rise--and his own--tracing the remarkable growth of the once-ridiculed little network into a prime player in news, sports, entertainment and even cable (where it has interests in the ESPN, Lifetime and Arts & Entertainment channels).

Goldenson and United Paramount Theaters, which he headed, paid $25 million to buy ABC in 1953, a vast sum at the time. ABC had originated as one of two radio networks operated by NBC and then was bought by Life Savers magnate Ed Noble, from whom United Paramount purchased it. In the 1970s, ABC completed divestiture of its movie theaters.

Goldenson's persistence and unflagging amiability in the face of NBC's and CBS' humiliating treatment of ABC in its early days is part of television lore. Sarnoff once suggested to Goldenson that ABC consider "taking the best shows off CBS and NBC and running them after we do."

When Goldenson told Sarnoff that he intended to make an alliance with the movie industry because CBS and NBC had the great stars of radio under contract, Sarnoff said: "What, film? This is a medium of spontaneity. The public is not going to watch film." Replied Goldenson: "I don't think the public would care whether it's on film or live. All they want to be is entertained and informed."

Goldenson also had the toughness to deal with one corporate titan who had eyes for ABC--Howard Hughes. Goldenson went to the Federal Communications Commission, "and I said here's a man that's involved in gambling and nobody can reach him and it would be a disservice to the public to have a man like this take over a network." ABC finally got an injunction halting the Hughes maneuver.

Now living in Longboat Key, Fla., but still chairman of the executive committee of Capital Cities/ABC, Goldenson continues to commute to the network's New York headquarters to spend about a week each month. And his views on TV in the 1990s continue to reflect his attitude that "you have to choose not what you love but what the public loves." And not even ABC--which is currently pressing No. 1 NBC for ratings leadership--escapes his criticism.

"Cop Rock," for instance--the now-canceled musical police drama. "I thought it was terrible, from the start," Goldenson says. He told the two top executives of Cap Cities, former chairman Thomas Murphy and Daniel Burke, that "it didn't have a chance."

"I said that about 'Twin Peaks' too," Goldenson says. "Still feel that way. I think it's a cult type of audience, not a mass audience. Too complicated. The average person can't follow it. I approach everything from the standpoint of the public."

As for "thirtysomething," another ABC show with a devoted following, Goldenson says: "I told Tom and Dan I would have moved it off Tuesday night after the first year. It's a cult audience (and will) never get more than a 21 or 22 share. We had a lead-in for the evening that was great--Roseanne Barr--and you lost your lead-in." Goldenson thought that "thirtysomething" could be switched elsewhere "and carry its cult audience" with it. But, he says, "I didn't win."

How does Goldenson account for the appeal of Barr's show, "Roseanne"?

"Blue collar. She relates to people in that state of life. You can't get away from it. Doesn't appeal to the articulate minority--I can tell you that."

Sizing up all the networks, Goldenson also would like to see ABC's "World News Tonight" expand to one hour (as it has done at times during the Persian Gulf War): "You do your headline service and then really go into the important thing of the day in depth--a David Brinkley type of thing or a Ted Koppel type of thing."

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