Leonard H. Goldenson

Leonard H. Goldenson
Steve Fenn / ABC


Leonard H. Goldenson
TV: South side of the 6800 block of Hollywood Boulevard
Media Mogul | Studio Head | Television Station Founder
Born Dec. 7, 1905 in Scottdale, PA
Died Dec. 27, 1999 in Sarasota, FL

Leonard H. Goldenson established ABC as a legitimate third television network and revolutionized his industry by convincing movie studios to produce television programs.

Goldenson, CBS' William S. Paley and NBC's David Sarnoff launched the three entities that have served as the focal point of television for the last 50 years.

In a visionary leap borne in part of necessity, Goldenson persuaded movie studios to begin filming programs for television, creating an enterprise worth billions of dollars. He achieved this at a time when Hollywood moguls viewed the new medium of television as the enemy and saw Goldenson — previously one of them as an executive at Paramount — as a turncoat for getting into it.

ABC proved to be a training ground for some of the entertainment industry's leading figures. The roster of ABC alumni Goldenson helped mentor includes Michael Eisner, former chairman of Walt Disney Co., which now owns ABC; Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, producers of "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show"; and Barry Diller, former chairman of USA Networks Inc.

In 1951, Goldenson, then president of United Paramount Theatres, prevailed upon his board of directors to pay $25 million for the American Broadcasting Co., which he acquired from Edward Noble.

American Broadcasting had come into existence in the 1920s as NBC's Blue Radio Network, which Sarnoff used as a testing ground while A-level programming went to NBC's Red Network. In the 1940s, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that no one company could operate two networks, forcing the sale to Noble, who had made a fortune on the Life Savers candy company.

Less than a decade later, Noble was losing money and eager to sell the operation. ABC had only 14 affiliated stations and reached about 33% of the nation's households, compared with about 85% for CBS and NBC. Still, Goldenson met his asking price, even though the enterprise was estimated to be worth less than half that much.

Desperate for programming, Goldenson made a deal with Walt Disney — who had been rejected by Sarnoff and Paley — to help secure financing for his planned amusement park, Disneyland. In exchange, Disney would produce a weekly series, "Disneyland," which began airing in 1954, and open his library of animated films to ABC. The network also shrewdly took a stake in the park and its food concessions for a decade.

Still, Disney was not a major studio at that time. The breakthrough on that front came when Goldenson finally convinced Jack Warner, over a 4 1/2-hour dinner in the Sunset Strip restaurant LaRue, to produce original programming for the network, promising the mogul time within each show to promote Warner Bros. movies.

In 1955, ABC launched three series under the "Warner Bros. Presents" banner, one of which — the western "Cheyenne," starring Clint Walker — became a huge hit, prompting a flurry of TV westerns as other studios jumped on the bandwagon. Before the decade was over, four out of five prime-time programs were being produced in Hollywood.

ABC also struck upon a notion that became a central aspect of today's television business: catering to youthful demographic groups, particularly families with young children, who were perceived as being less loyal to a particular sponsor and more malleable in their buying habits.

ABC, spurred by programming executive Ollie Treyz, introduced such shows as "Maverick," "77 Sunset Strip" and "Ben Casey" — programs that introduced fresh new faces to the public.

ABC made gradual strides through the 1960s, overtaking CBS and NBC with a three-year reign as the top-rated network in the late 1970s, thanks in part to its blockbuster 1977 miniseries "Roots." ABC's success was based on the popularity of such programs as "Charlie's Angels," "Laverne & Shirley," "Happy Days" and "Monday Night Football."

Although he moved to Florida and relinquished his role running the company, Goldenson retained the title of chairman of the executive committee for a decade, continuing to screen each new series prototype ABC produced until its acquisition by Disney.

Born in Scottdale, Pa., in 1905, Goldenson grew up in one of only four Jewish families in the town. His mother was a Russian immigrant, and his father owned a clothing store as well as an interest in two small theaters, which helped spur Goldenson's fascination with the movie business.

Goldenson attended Harvard as an undergraduate and for law school, and briefly worked in a law firm before joining Paramount Pictures in 1933. Eventually, he was put in charge of the studio's 1,700 motion picture theaters, becoming president of United Paramount Theatres when Paramount and other Hollywood studios were forced by the Department of Justice to separate production and distribution activities.

Goldenson's wide circle of friends included President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had owned a television station in Austin, Texas, that carried ABC's college football programming. In his autobiography, the executive recalled skinny-dipping with Johnson in the White House pool after the president suggested a swim before lunch.

Beyond the entertainment industry, Goldenson will be remembered for his philanthropic endeavors, most notably in regard to cerebral palsy. His first daughter, Genise, known to the family as Cookie, was born with the disease, and Goldenson leveraged his media contacts to establish United Cerebral Palsy, which grew to become one of the nation's largest charitable health organizations.

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