Never one for self-promotion, Leonard H. Goldenson '30 is both proud and matter-of-fact about his position as the founding father of the American Broadcasting Companies. At 92, he is a lot happier discussing business strategies than recounting stories about famous personalities, including his own. Presented with the observation that he has known a great many celebrities, he simply says, "I've known them all."
In 1951, as head of Paramount's theaters, Goldenson had a visionary's faith in the future of television. He orchestrated the acquisition of a number of floundering stations and organized them into what skeptics referred to as the Almost Broadcasting Companies. Backed by business savvy and connections that straddled both the movie and television worlds, he built ABC into a formidable competitor to Bill Paley's CBS and David Sarnol's NBC. (Much later, the skeptics dubbed the acquisition of ESPN "Goldenson's Folly," even though it followed the success of ABC's "Monday Night Football," which introduced sports to prime time.)
"In the beginning," says Goldenson, "Hollywood didn't want to have anything to do with television or the people in it. . . . My strategy was to try everything, as soon as possible." By clinching a groundbreaking deal with Walt Disney (as well as one with Jack Warner), Goldenson brought movie-style entertainment to the small screen and shaped the course of television history.
In the early 50s, Walt Disney was seeking to realize his dream of constructing a theme park in Anaheim, California, and Goldenson took a chance: he financed the project. ABC's return on the investment was Disney's undying interest in the future of broadcasting and a lineup of programs, eventually called "The Wonderful World of Disney," that would break the stranglehold the "Ed Sullivan Show" held on the ratings. For Goldenson, personally, the deal meant a lifelong friendship that would, among other things, entitle him to a guided tour of Walt Disney's estate on the movie-meister's own scaled-down, personal-sized railroad.
In 1986, 30 years after the construction of Disneyland, ABC/Capital Cities was led to the altar by the Disney Conglomerate in a merger pulled of with the help of Warren Buffett.
These days, the news is about the only TV Goldenson watches, a reflection, perhaps, of the that fact that he regards "ABC News" as his proudest achievement. With help from the likes of Roone Arledge and Peter Jennings, he built the division out of a 15-minute news spot that wasn't even a contender in the ratings war. "I think the news comes closest to serving the public good and giving people what they want," says Goldenson. "That's broadcasting at its best." - Janet Hawkins