The man who built ABC-TV
By Larry Bloomfield
It is never a pleasant task to report the passing of anyone, especially when it is a person who has made such an impact on our industry, our nation and our lives. The success and very existence of the American Broadcasting Company and the thousands of jobs that go with that network are the result of the vision and tenacity that this gentleman demonstrated. If you don’t know whom I’m speaking of, it was Leonard H. Goldenson.
Goldenson, who had been ill for several years, passed away quietly, December 27, 1999, in his home on Longboat Key, near Sarasota, Florida. He was 94.
Goldenson came from a tiny farm town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a dry goods emporium and a small share of two movie theatres. From these modest beginnings, he went on to enroll at Harvard at age 16 and eventually go on to its Law School, while working summers for a Pittsburgh securities broker. Buying on margin and carefully managing his portfolio, he built up a small fortune, liquidating his holdings just weeks before the market crash of 1929.
In the midst of the great depression, Goldenson pounded the streets of Manhattan, where he was eventually hired to help reorganize the bankrupt Paramount Pictures New England theaters. As the result of his success at the movie “Theatre Company” and his association with Y. Frank Freeman, when Freeman made the trek to Hollywood to head Paramount studios, Goldenson took over Freeman’s position as boss. Now, as head of the world’s largest film exhibitor, he made many contacts, which would prove invaluable in years to come.
Goldenson was stimulated by what he saw at the New York world’s fair in 1939; an experimental thing called television. Goldenson pushed Paramount to launch Chicago’s WBKB, one of the world’s first TV station. As the result of the Supreme Court ruling about movie companies owning theatres, Paramount spun-off their theatres with Goldenson as president in 1951.
When Leonard Goldenson broke into television, he knew he was facing the fight of his life. Two powerful companies dominated the industry: NBC, which invented network broadcasting, and CBS, which followed the NBC model and improved on it.
Despite the hostilities that existed between the upstart, “television” and the motion picture industry, Goldenson got the directors of United Paramount Theatres to buy the failing American Broadcasting Company from Ed Noble. Noble wanted $25 million for ABC, whose ratings placed them fourth, after CBS, NBC and the now-defunct Dumont television network. At that time, the ABC network consisted of 14 stations total - five of its own, primitive and poorly maintained, and nine affiliates, compared with nearly 100 stations each for CBS and NBC.
From the get go, life wasn’t easy. Goldenson was denounced by Hollywood as a traitor for entering a rival medium. On the flip side, broadcasters also maligned him for his former ties to Paramount Pictures. He was even accused of purchasing the fledgling network to destroy it and eliminate competition for movies. Despite all this, Goldenson convinced the FCC that his only aim was to increase competition in broadcasting and to further its development. On February 9, 1953, the FCC approved the purchase.
Later that year, Walt Disney came to Goldenson with this crazy idea: he wanted to build an amusement park for children. The Disney studios were in dire straits and were turned away by banks. Being turned down also by NBC's David Sarnoff and CBS’s William Paley, Goldenson understood what Disney was offering. ABC agreed to put up $500,000, to use its theater real estate for collateral and to underwrite $17 million for construction and operation of the Park. In exchange, Disney agreed to produce a weekly show. ABC also obtained access to Disney's library of animated films, 35 percent of Disneyland and a decade of concession revenues.
The only show they had worth mentioning was “Ozzie & Harriet.” ABC was loosing their shirt to the tune of a million a year. And besides, everyone on Madison Avenue knew there wasn't enough advertising to support three networks.
Goldenson knew he could succeed, but first he would have to find a way to break the other networks' stranglehold on stars, stations and sponsors. He would change the rules of the game by getting Hollywood, the very people who opposed the new television industry, involved in making their programming!
If he couldn’t get big names, he’d invent them! Goldenson when to the William Morris Agency, and hired a host of unknowns -- Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Thomas, George Jessel, Joel Grey and Ray Bolger. Then he’d get the studios to produce better programs, on film, than the live shows broadcast by his competitors. In a nutshell, he’d have to re-invent the medium.
Goldenson was persistent. He went back to Jack Warner of Warner Brothers studios and after a marathon lunch, he convinced him, that television was an opportunity, not a threat. Warner opened a new division to make programs for ABC. By the 1970's, not one major studio could compete without a television division. Goldenson’s vision that motion pictures and television could serve audiences better as partners than as rivals had prevailed.
Goldenson had the formula. He built the network to the point where it muscled it way into first place in the ratings in 1977, remaining there for three years.
years later, in 1986, after engineering a $3.5 billion merger of ABC
and Capital Cities Broadcasting, the network had eight stations and
210 affiliates. Seeing his dreams come true, Goldenson then stepped
down as day-to-day boss to retire in Florida.