restricted access 8. Public Trust
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175 Sports were very important to him, obviously, but I think the social picture was just as important. . . . He was much more interested in the Curt Flood–type stories. The injustices of the games. Sports the arena and a sign of . . . what’s wrong with America. —Justin Cosell on his grandfather In March 1985 a little-known company called Capital Cities— a media conglomerate that owned thirty-six weekly newspapers , ten daily newspapers, ninety radio stations, two hundred network-affiliated television stations, and several magazines—announced that it was purchasing the ABC broadcasting network. The $3.5 billion deal was at the time the largest merger in the history of the United States, apart from the oil industry. John Morton, a media analyst for the Washington, D.C., firm of Lynch, Jones and Ryan, told the New York Times, “We’re a long way from the day when a handful of companies will control all of the media, but not far away from the day when a handful will control most of it.”1 Capital Cities/ABC took a step toward the first of these two scenarios in 1996, when Disney purchased the network. Yet even the 1986 deal consolidated a significant array of media companies, including one of particular significance to sports broadcasting, the cable sports network ESPN. Capital Cities owned 85 percent of ESPN at the time of the merger, effectively grafting ABC onto it.2 One might expect Howard Cosell to have condemned this development. After all, it meant a consolidation of media resources and power, reduced competition, and an even stronger relationship between sports institutions and the media outlets that bring games to the public. One might even argue that the corporate consolidation of media industries made it decreasingly likely that there would ever be another Howard Cosell on mainstream television. Yet at least in 8 Public Trust 176 chap t er 8 terms of Cosell’s opinion of the merger, the contrary was true. In his 1991 book What’s Wrong with Sports, Cosell praises the Capital Cities takeover for bringing ESPN to ABC. In one passage he congratulates “my dear friend Herbie Granath” for turning the cable network into a profitable enterprise. In another he accuses Jim Spence of having tried to censor his SportsBeat programs, writing gleefully, “Then Cap Cities took over ABC and blew Jim Spence to oblivion.”3 The Capital Cities/ABC deal ushered in a new era of media mergers . Soon after, NBC merged with General Electric; in 1995 CBS merged with Westinghouse, and in 1999 the “Tiffany Network” was acquired again by its former syndication arm, Viacom. It is hard to imagine that, his praise for Capital Cities notwithstanding, Cosell would have been able to stomach the corporate culture that arose from these mergers and acquisitions. Yet as one might well imagine, Cosell did not leave his career peacefully. Shortly after leaving ABC, he took a position as a columnist at the New York Daily News, accepting a job that moved him into the realm of the print journalists he had disparaged throughout most of his career. His radio commentaries went on, now from the study of his Upper East Side apartment, as always unscripted, spontaneously spoken, and timed to the second. The most distinctive voice on the airwaves—“to voices what the Grand Canyon is to ditches,” Dave Kindred writes—Cosell kept up his show until January 1992.4 He continued to testify to Congress on corruption in the ranks of professional sports (particularly with regard to the NFL), and he enthusiastically served as a witness for the USFL in its lawsuit against the NFL in 1986. Cosell even taught courses at a third college, Brown University. And until the end, he held onto his friendship with Muhammad Ali, publicly praising his verbal sparring partner as late as the boxer’s fiftieth birthday celebration, broadcast in 1992. For Roone Arledge, the Capital Cities takeover was a disaster. The key personalities who had been central to building ABC Sports were driven away within a year of the merger: Chet Forte, Chuck Howard, and Jim Spence. Arledge himself had the word “sports” removed from his title within the company. The sports division now worked under a Capital Cities executive named Dennis Swanson, a former marine who ran the network like a drill sergeant: urine tests, no swearing in the control booth, dress codes, balanced budgets. Swanson, who had 177 pub li c trust been in charge...


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