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Leonard Goldenson, ABC Network Pioneer, Dies at 94

Media: Basing success on a plan to 'bring Hollywood to television,' he forged programming links with film studios.

December 28, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leonard H. Goldenson, the last surviving patriarch of American broadcasting, who established ABC as a legitimate third television network and revolutionized his industry by convincing movie studios to produce television programs, died Monday. He was 94.

The media pioneer died at his home near Sarasota, Fla., where he lived in retirement, the network said.

Goldenson, CBS' William S. Paley and NBC's David Sarnoff launched the three entities that have served as the focal point of television for the last 50 years.

In a visionary leap born in part of necessity, Goldenson persuaded movie studios to begin filming programs for television, creating an enterprise worth billions of dollars. He achieved this at a time when Hollywood moguls viewed the new medium of television as the enemy and saw Goldenson--previously one of them as an executive at Paramount--as a turncoat for getting into it.

ABC proved to be a training ground for some of the entertainment industry's leading figures. The roster of ABC alumni Goldenson helped mentor includes Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney Co., which now owns ABC; Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, producers of "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show"; and Barry Diller, chairman of USA Networks Inc.

Diller, who is credited with establishing the viability of the made-for-television movie during his tenure at ABC in the 1970s and subsequently oversaw the launch of the Fox network, said Goldenson's generosity with those who worked for him was his greatest strength and what set him apart from the other media giants of his era.

"He gave people authority and responsibility who didn't qualify 1/8for it 3/8, except that his instincts told him that he should," Diller said. "He was such a completely unpretentious man, he was so generously un-egotistical, his legacy--as opposed to Paley or Sarnoff--was really undervalued."

In 1951, Goldenson, then president of United Paramount Theatres, prevailed upon his board of directors to pay $25 million for the American Broadcasting Co., which he acquired from Edward Noble.

American Broadcasting had come into existence in the 1920s as NBC's Blue Radio Network, which Sarnoff used as a testing ground while A-level programming went to NBC's Red Network. In the 1940s, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that no one company could operate two networks, forcing the sale to Noble, who had made a fortune on the Life Savers candy company.

Less than a decade later, Noble was losing money and eager to sell the operation. ABC had only 14 affiliated stations and reached about 33% of the nation's households, compared with about 85% for CBS and NBC. Still, Goldenson met his asking price, even though the enterprise was estimated to be worth less than half that much.

Ambitions Tied to Television

"I was hell-bent to get into television," Goldenson said in his 1991 autobiography, "Beating the Odds," adding that he saw the medium as an "irresistible tide." Citing antitrust concerns, the FCC took 18 months to approve the merger, and ABC officially embarked on its goal of becoming a legitimate third network under Goldenson in February 1953.

Paley and Sarnoff dismissed ABC as little threat to their broadcasting empires; in fact, the latter famously told Goldenson he should turn ABC into a "second-run network," repeating shows that had aired on CBS and NBC, which controlled the top stars who had made the shift from radio to television.

Sarnoff believed that television, like radio, was a live medium, while Goldenson--whose career had been in film--saw a connection between television and motion pictures. Unable to compete with CBS and NBC for big-name radio talent, Goldenson turned to Hollywood.

"They had the 1/8Jack 3/8 Bennys, the 1/8Bob 3/8 Hopes, the 1/8Arthur 3/8 Godfreys, the 1/8Milton 3/8 Berles. All ABC had was Ozzie and Harriet," Goldenson recalled in a 1987 interview. "My position was we had to . . . bring Hollywood to television."

The executive met with a chilly reception. Chiefs at the movie studios considered Goldenson a traitor for getting into the television business, which they feared would cannibalize their box office. Warner Bros. mandated that television was not to be seen or mentioned in its films and that no executive was to have a TV in his office.

Desperate for programming, Goldenson made a deal with Walt Disney--who had been rejected by both Sarnoff and Paley--to help secure financing for his planned amusement park, Disneyland. In exchange, Disney would produce a weekly series, "Disneyland," which began airing in 1954, and open up his library of animated films to ABC, which also shrewdly took a stake in the park and its food concessions for a decade.

Still, Disney was not a major studio at that time. The breakthrough on that front came when Goldenson finally convinced Jack Warner, over a 4 1/2-hour dinner in the Sunset Strip restaurant LaRue, to produce original programming for the network, promising the mogul time within each show to promote Warner Bros. movies.

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