Leonard H. Goldenson, founder and former chairman of the board of the American Broadcasting Company, Inc., is one of television’s unsung heroes. In contrast to his more flamboyant network rivals William Paley of CBS and David Sarnoff of NBC, Leonard quietly worked behind the scenes to influence the industry with his vision, innovation and daring. Always considered a gentleman by those who worked for him, Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline recalled, “Leonard was hugely successful on the one hand; painfully modest on the other. He was the kind of guy who drove a car several years out-of-date.”
Born in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, on December 7, 1905, Leonard discovered his love for motion pictures working summers at the local theater. In 1933, Paramount hired Leonard to reorganize its bankrupt movie theaters in New England and soon charged the 28-year-old Harvard Law School graduate with managing the entire chain of 1,700 theaters.
After witnessing an experimental television system at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Leonard saw television as the future of entertainment. In 1953, as head of United Paramount Theaters, he negotiated its merger with American Broadcasting, a failing collection of five television stations.
In 1954, Leonard defied skeptics who believed movie studios could not be lured into television. Walt Disney, seeking capital to finance his dream to build Disneyland, had been turned down by every network, studio, and bank. Fortunately, Leonard shared Walt’s dream, and they struck a deal: in exchange for a share of the financing, the Studio provided ABC with a weekly series, first called Disneyland, and access to its animated film library. Leonard’s alliance with Disney opened doors to subsequent television deals with other studios, including Warner Brothers, and Hollywood soon embraced the upstart medium.
In addition, Leonard transformed sports into primetime fare with Monday Night Football and international, live coverage of the Olympics. In the late 1970s, he led networks into the “made-for-TV” movies era. The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War, and miniseries such as Alex Haley’s Roots, a 12-hour drama, set record ratings.
Leonard was responsible for numerous other “firsts;” ABC was the first network to close caption; to air serials, animation, and soap operas during primetime; and to franchise westerns, doctor, detective, and action series. ABC was the only network to carry the McCarthy hearings gavel-to-gavel.
Always looking toward the future, Leonard guided ABC to invest in the cable business, including Lifetime, A&E, and the acquisition of most of ESPN.
In 1985, Leonard orchestrated the biggest, unprecedented corporate media merger in American history when he sold ABC to Capital Cities. Ten years later, Disney acquired ABC, reuniting the two pioneers-turned-giants.
Leonard Goldenson passed away on December 27, 1999, at his home near Sarasota, Florida.