ABC Sports, the self-proclaimed leader in sports television, had always operated as something of a country club. Six-block limo rides to executive lunches, hotel suites on the road, helicopters at event sites and lavish parties were part of the fun. But not since Capital Cities Communications took over last year. "Their idea of a good party is pretzels, potato chips and sodas from the machine in the hallway," says one insider.
Dennis Swanson, Cap Cities' handpicked successor to Roone Arledge as president of ABC Sports, met with about 80 employees in New York City last week. Subject: No more nonsense. Invoking the Golden Rule and bottom line almost interchangeably, he said, "There's a fine line between professional pride and arrogance. We're not going to be arrogant anymore. We will treat people the way we expect to be treated."
Swanson, a former Marine captain, showed he intends to be a hardball disciplinarian. He said that ABC Sports staffers will get to work on time. They will earn their pay. Lunches will be reduced to one hour. In a somewhat lighter tone, Swanson also decried the Leisure Beach image some employees have projected. He singled out veteran director Chet Forte, who had appeared in a USA Today photograph the week before wearing an open-necked shirt and neck chain. (Casual Chet has been seen walking the floors recently in suit and tie.) And he gave the needle to Arledge, who remains his nominal boss as president of the ABC broadcast group for news and sports. "If Roone were Jimmy Carter's adviser," Swanson said, "the U.S. could have gotten all the hostages out, what with all the helicopters Roone always had at his disposal."
A story making the rounds was that when Swanson showed up for his first day on the new job he found that Arledge had not yet removed his effects from the president's office at ABC Sports. Swanson supposedly stormed out and said he wouldn't come back until the office was cleaned out.
Things actually started going badly for ABC Sports in the fall of '84, when NFL ratings reached an alltime low. Last year 30 production people (including Olympic producer Brice Weisman, American Sportsman producer John Wilcox and baseball director Ken Fouts) were sent packing, and Howard Cosell was, in effect, put out to pasture. Then Cap Cities came on the scene. In December, when Forte, the regular Monday Night Football director, was unable to work the final two games in Seattle and Los Angeles, producer Bob Goodrich suggested that a New York-based director be flown out for the telecasts. "Forget it," Arledge said. "Cap Cities won't stand for it." He assigned Andy Sidaris, who lives in Los Angeles, to replace Forte, saving $2,200 in airfare and, in L.A., anyway, a couple of hundred dollars in hotel bills and limos.
Fearing possible job cuts, a number of ABC staffers have applied for jobs at NBC, which is gearing up for the '88 Summer Olympics. Of those who came in with Arledge in the early '60s, only Forte, who worked out a free-lance deal with the network last month, is secure. Chuck Howard and Dennis Lewin, the sports division's two production VPs, are waiting to hear of their fate. They may be reduced to run-of-the-mill producers. Last week Swanson said that in the future only on-air talent would work under contract. This suggests that about 20 top managers, producers and directors will either have their high-paying contracts cut down to Cap Cities size or leave the company. Some of the on-air talent isn't faring so well, either. Announcer Keith Jackson wants $900,000 a year from the network but has been offered $500,000. He is making noises about calling it a career.
The purse strings are so tight that when Jim Spence, who was passed over for Arledge's job in favor of Swanson, resigned, staffers chipped in $28 each for his going-away party.