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So What Do You Do, Roger Goodman?

The directing guru of ABC News—and the man behind all the pomp and pageantry of ABC's live specials—talks about his career and the ways in which he's remade television news.

By Jesse Oxfeld - August 31, 2004

When television news is truly indispensable—when it's not just providing a prurient fix of Laci, Kobe, or Michael but rather serving as a national glue when important events happen—it is also transparent. Tom or Peter or Dan is just there, ready in our living rooms when we need to be told about hijacked jets or world leaders' deaths or hanging chads. But of course TV news doesn't just happen on its own; there are countless people—and not just the team-coverage correspondents—whose hard work makes sure the right information, and the right pictures, get into our homes.

Chief among those less-blow-dried TV-news powerhouses—at least at ABC—is Roger Goodman. He is the go-to guy for the technical end of all the major live productions at the network; not only did he invent the visual vernacular of modern TV news and sports and also design the sets from which ABC anchors broadcast, he also directs all major ABC News coverage, commanding a control room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that oversees all those cameras and technicians and correspondents around the country and the world. This week, he's directing ABC's coverage of the Republican National Convention, just as he has directed all convention coverage—and election coverage, and inauguration coverage—for the network over the last quarter-century. Goodman spoke to mediabistro.com recently about his career, his inventions, and the changed fact of television news.

Birthdate: April 28, 1945
Hometown: Chicago
First section of the Sunday Times: Business

You're vice president of special projects for the ABC Television Network. In practical terms, what does that mean?
I produce and direct television programs for ABC News. I do programs for the ABC entertainment division, such as this year's preshow for the Emmy awards. I might be asked by ABC Sports to direct at the Super Bowl—the halftime or pre-game or post-game. I was the executive producer of several shows over the last couple years; the biggest was the millennium. That took about two or three years of planning, and we were on the air for 24 hours. I performed as executive producers and director of the broadcast. There were 175 million people viewing—unprecedented—and we sat there for 24 hours and directed 200 cameras from around the world. What else do I do? I was asked to find a new home for Good Morning America about five years ago, and found the current building, and I turned it around, designed and created the current GMA studios. I design sets, create music—I've been doing this for a long time.

And you're also the director for all sorts of big events.
I've directed every election and convention, every event for ABC News, since around 1978. I have been involved in 10 Olympics, I've probably directed or co-directed 20 Indianapolis 500s and Kentucky Derbies. I directed coverage of the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; I did Ted Koppel and Nightline's unprecedented show of Palestinians and Israelis, back in 1998 or 1999. I was there for the beginning of Nightline.

Which were the most exciting?
The three I'll remember forever are, first, 9/11—I don't want to consider that directing, I just want to consider being involved in that moment of time. The L.A. Olympics were to me one of the greatest things I ever had an opportunity to work on, up until I did ABC 2000, which rounds out the top three for me.

On the very concrete level, what's the director's work in something like that? When a major news event happens, what do you do?
Let's take the current conventions. I remember, back in 1980 or even 1992, we might have had 20 or 25 cameras. Things have changed. We're now using four or five cameras. Back in the late '80s, you'd go to a convention city and build two control rooms—actually build them from the ground up. Eventually I said, why don't we do them from a mobile unit—because of my experience with doing sports. Don't build two control rooms, I said. I'll do it from the trucks. Then, with the invention of fiber optics, I wondered, why go in the field and do it at all? Just bring all the cameras back via fiber optics to New York. So here we are doing the Democratic Convention from Boston, or the Republican Convention, and all the cameras come back to a normal control room. I come in in the morning, do the shows, and go home at night.

So you actually directed the coverage in Boston while sitting on 66th Street?
Yes, sir. The first time I did that was in 1992, and we've done it ever since. For Princess Diana's funeral—I also did her wedding—everything came back to New York via fiber and satellites, and I directed from here. Ronald Reagan's funeral, everything came back to New York. ABC was responsible for the pool coverage in the National Cathedral, so that was done in Washington, but that feed came to New York and all the other cameras, anywhere in the United States, all came back to New York via fiber or satellite, and everything was directed from here. And for all of these things, sitting here in New York, I actually direct all the individual cameras from around the world. It could be the blackout, it could be the Gulf War, it could be Reagan's funeral. I do the inaugurations, all the cameras for the inaugurations, 30 or 40 cameras, and I do it all from New York.

Now that there are only three hours of network coverage from each convention, and now that you're running it all from your regular office, has convention coverage become much easier for you?
Actually, it's as difficult, if not more difficult. At the Democratic Convention, we were supplying our new digital channel, ABC News Now, so we would do a show for them from 12 to 2, come back on from 3:30 to 4:30, we'd take a break to do World News Tonight, then we would come on and do a show from 7 o'clock, take a one-minute break, come back on the network from 10 to 11, and then sit around and service Nightline. When you have fewer cameras, it's a lot more work, because you've got to have those cameras in more places to shoot more things.

How much is running a convention broadcast in 2004 like it was doing it in 1978?
It's a totally different animal. When I started in 1978, they actually did the roll call. In those days we had to go ahead and rehearse the roll call, understand it. The convention itself was different, and the press was, too. Now we have a much bigger pool. The pool is 10 or 12 or 15 cameras, when the pool then might have been two or three cameras. So we rely on the pool a lot more.

There's all this discussion of how the conventions now are just PR events for the parties. Do you work on trying to find a way to get around that, to not just provide the hourlong commercial the campaigns try to create?
It's not my area. I direct the script that's put in front of me, that's what I direct. I have no role in that decision-making process—what we cover what we don't cover, the length of hours, et cetera. That's way out of my realm.

Together with Roone Arledge, you to a large measure really invented the look of modern TV news and TV sports. My favorite detail is that you guys actually invented the box over the anchor's shoulder with the graphic. It's sort of amazing to think that didn't exist before you.
The Quantel. That was mine, back in 1978. I happened to see this device at the NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters convention. Some engineer said, "Roger, I want you to take a look of something"—I was the creative director of ABC News at that time. This was a box that was black and white that could be seen in the upper left, upper right—any one of the four corners—that was used for X-rays in airports. And I thought this thing could be spectacular. So I made a phone call to Roone, and I believe I got $150,000 to get it exclusively for a year. Then, on July 10, 1978, we premiered World News Tonight. We had three newsrooms then—Peter Jennings in London, Frank Reynolds in Washington, and Max Robinson in Chicago—and we decided to put a structure in the newsroom, a wall maybe five feet high and three feet wide, and we superimposed the image on it. And at one of the rehearsals, about two days before the launch, the wall accidentally fell over. And we all went, oh my god—and that's the way it's been ever since.

I always think that's amazing—something that's so natural now but was actually once invented.
Everybody in the world uses it. And that's one of my inventions.

So how did you get into this? It's such an interesting combination of tech stuff and creative stuff and news stuff.
I was always a techno freak. And when I started in 1964, I started in Chicago, and then there was an opening as a P.A. at a new program called Wide World of Sports, in New York. I arrived here on a Friday, and my first assignment was a U.S.-Russian track meet the following Wednesday, in Kiev, Russia. I never stopped since then.

In '68, I started directing. I'd never directed before, but in those days you really got a chance to do it. There weren't a lot of books in 1964 on television, and I studied a lot. I'd sit in control rooms and watch other directors. I ran the graphics department at ABC for a long time—when I started at ABC in 1965, when you did graphics you would have a TV camera shoot white letters on black board, like a restaurant menu board. But I had a lot of ideas, and Roone came to me in late 1977 and said, I want you to go ahead and create newsrooms around the world for ABC News. Next thing you know, they gave me another one: World News Tonight's music. Bam bam bam bam. It was about three weeks before the premiere. And I said, "Roone, what do we want for music"—this was the original premiere—and he said, "I don't want anything but some ticker sounds." So I said OK, and then I went over to a company called Score Productions, a guy named Bob Israel, and "I said write some music." And what he wrote was bam bam bam bam. We did what Roone wanted and did some little ticker sounds, but we also gave him what I call the quote—bam bam bam bam—and obviously it's been playing ever since. When I played it for him he said, "Thanks a lot for just doing the tickers." He was kidding, with a smile on his face, and that's become synonymous with ABC News ever since.

The Olympics just ended. You've done ten of them. Did you miss being in Athens?
Desperately. I watched the Opening Ceremonies, and I just go back and remember Sarajevo, Grenoble, Mexico City, Innsbruck, Calgary, all of them.

So how many more years does NBC have it locked up for?
I don't remember. But I will tell you that it's great. The opening ceremonies, I received phone calls from all of my buddies who used to do it with me, and it's great. We just all sit there and say, "Boy, we wish we were there." It's a great experience, and I'm very homesick for it. I was in Munich in '72, L.A., Sarajevo, Lake Placid—the "do you believe in miracles?" in 1980. You say the name, and I've been there.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. He was also a desk assistant at ABC News for about six weeks in 1998, during which time he played the role of "Peter Jennings" in Goodman's camera rehearsals for that year's election-night coverage.



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