Leonard H. Goldenson (December 7, 1905 - December 27, 1999), a renowned U.S. media executive, was the founder and first president of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Beginning in 1951, Goldenson transformed the minor radio network into one of the largest and most powerful television networks of its time. Under Goldenson’s guidance, ABC emerged as a top broadcasting network and a leading site for advertising worldwide. Goldenson’s career with ABC spanned more than 30 years; in 1974, he received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York."
His low-key style, and more harmonious personality, made him less publicly acknowledged than the more flamboyant figures of William S. Paley and David Sarnoff, his counterparts at CBS and NBC. Yet, Goldenson should receive equal credit with them for ushering in the era of network television in the United States. Goldenson brought Hollywood movie studios into television production, created prime-time sports television, and introduced the made for television movie and miniseries. Goldenson's unsung legacy remains strong, with many of his television shows remaining popular family entertainment to this day.
Leonard Goldenson was born in Scottsdale, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1905. Educated at Harvard College, Goldenson graduated in 1927, later receiving a business degree from Harvard Business School in 1933. During the early 1930s, Goldenson served as a law clerk.
From 1933 to 1937, Goldenson worked with Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures, hired to help reorganize the general operations of the then-failing theater chain. After finding great success with the task, Paramount chief executive officer Barney Balaban hired Goldenson to manage the entire Paramount chain in 1937. Following this success, in 1939 Goldenson married Isabelle Weinstein; the couple had three daughters. By 1942, Goldenson had been named vice-president of Paramount Pictures.
In 1948, when Paramount strictly pursued Hollywood production and distribution, the company’s independent theater chain was given to Goldenson. In 1953, following the sale of various movie palaces, Goldenson sought a growth business in which to invest; he would settle on the American Broadcasting Company. He remained there until his retirement in 1986. He died in Sarasota, Florida, on December 27, 1999 at the age of 94.
Goldenson assumed ABC operations in 1953, acquiring a minor radio network and five television stations. By 1954, ABC played a minor role in television broadcasting, claiming only 40 of the more than 300 television stations on the air. This amounted to a slight ten percent of network advertising billings; network greats NBC and CBS accounted for the rest.
In order to alter his company’s position, Goldenson sought a programming niche ill-served by both NBC and ABC; targeting a youth market, ABC began to produce the instantly popular American Bandstand, followed by Maverick and The Mickey Mouse Club. Early ABC stars included Edd Byrnes, James Garner, and Ricky Nelson. Ratings continued to soar with ABC’s production of The Untouchables, yet another series which attracted the attention of large advertising companies. Goldenson also worked to mimic his competition; recognizing the popularity of CBS’ I Love Lucy, ABC began producing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy, each of which would air more than 300 episodes.
In the early 1950s, Goldenson was also able to convince Hollywood production companies such as Walt Disney and Warner Brothers to begin producing shows for ABC. Altering American television forever, Walt Disney eventually agreed to supply ABC with various television shows; in exchange, the broadcasting company would help to finance the construction of Disney’s vast amusement park, Disneyland. Disney produced its first television show for ABC in 1954; it would remain a Sunday night fixture for more than twenty years, marking ABC’s first top-twenty ratings hit. One particular Disney episode entitled Davy Crockett which ran in December 1954, sparked a national obsession; the episode fostered a pop music hit, skyrocketed the sales of coonskin caps, and turned actor Fess Parker into a star. Later, the company’s investment in Disneyland proved equally prosperous.
Goldenson then turned his attention to sports telecasting, quickly toppling both NBC and CBS with shows such as Monday Night Football, ABC Wide World of Sports, and the coverage of both the summer and winter Olympic Games. Goldenson would also set ratings records in the airing of mini-series such as Roots, and made for television movies such as Brian’s Song, The Thorn Birds, and The Winds of War. In 1986, well into his eighties, Goldenson sold ABC to Capital Cities, Inc. for a price tag of $3.5 billion. Following the sale, Goldenson retired.
Throughout his career, Goldenson served as an Honorary Chair of the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences, a member of the International Radio and Television Society, a member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and a trustee of the Museum of Broadcasting.
Goldenson is best known for his transformation of the American Broadcasting Company from a minor radio network into one of the preeminent television networks of its time. A shrewd media executive, Goldenson helped to lead American television into the network era, transforming the company from a small, almost irrelevant, television network into a billion dollar corporation.
Among his many accomplishments, Goldenson steered large Hollywood movie studios toward TV production, created prime-time sports television with Monday Night Football, and transformed the world of American television with the introduction of TV-made movies and miniseries. Among his most popular television hits are My Three Sons, Mod Squad, Bewitched, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and The Flintstones which marked television’s first animated prime-time series.
Goldenson was regarded as a gentleman by all 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." Very different from his counterparts Paley and Sarnoff, Goldenson is the unsung hero of the early television age.
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