Ebersol knows what glitters is Olympic gold

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Dick Ebersol leans back on the couch and lights up a 10:30 a.m. cigar. Since Mr. Ebersol has been up for many hours, starting with his pre-dawn attack of the treadmill, as befits a network executive, this is like a midday break. He puffs and reflects on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“The major message to come from this is that this is a wake-up call to those who think people who throw or catch a ball are heroes,” said Mr. Ebersol, who has seen his share of thrown and caught balls in his 12 years as head of NBC Sports. “Sure, they have great physical abilities. But they are paid humongous sums of money to entertain. And except for maybe boxers or NASCAR drivers, they don’t remotely face life-or-death situations. I am certain that there is much more in people’s minds right now.”
Mr. Ebersol twists a little bit, looking out his 15th-floor window, pointing with the cigar toward Sixth Avenue, which is back to its normal bustle.
“But one thing is really nice,” he said. “Listen. No noise. People aren’t honking and in such a hurry anymore. I’m sure it will change. But if there is some benefit, it is that people, whether in sports or not, seem to be a little more sane.”
In the candy store
The scene seems to suit Mr. Ebersol, who by all accounts is that almost-oxymoron, a leisurely workaholic. He does things methodically and with calm, but his work is ubiquitous in his life. Photos of his children and stepchildren-he has three children with his wife, actress Susan Saint James, who has two children from a former marriage-line his office walls and shelves. And though his kids have been his companions on many business-related excursions, he feels the need to apologize for that.
“My family’s life is bizarre,” he said. “My kids have spent most of their vacations at some sporting event. They have performed magnificently and indulged their father, who has had a wonderful time living in the candy store.”
That candy store opened up its doors to Mr. Ebersol in 1967, when he was plucked out of Yale University to be Roone Arledge’s first Olympics research intern at ABC Sports. He jetted around the globe visiting Bulgarian weightlifters, Finnish biathletes, Japanese marathoners and Argentine goalies. The questions the young and inexperienced Mr. Ebersol asked-some as mundane as how to pronounce the name of the athletes’ hometowns-were an integral part of a revolution in how sports on TV was presented.
“I had a charmed first job,” he said, drawing slightly on his cigar and pausing to reflect back on the 19-year-long giddiness. “I dropped out of Yale at 19 and was told to roam the world to find stories. Roone wanted nothing more from me than that. Originally, they only had the name and towns of these people when they appeared on the screen. Now announcers could tell the story of the athlete against such and such an event. The vast amount of athletes were really human and provided these great stories.”
Mr. Ebersol eventually went back to Yale to finish up after the 1968 Olympics were over, but his career Trip-Tik had been printed out. Though he is tall and lanky and looks as though he could do some good time banging under the boards in pickup basketball even at age 54, Mr. Ebersol said he has long been on sideline duty.
Life’s a blur
“One of the head starts I had was that at 11 or 12, I really knew I was not very good at sports,” he said. “I have horrible eyesight … corrected by contacts. So on the field of play, I knew early on that time was running out for me. So I took to the shoulder areas of sports. I started writing sports, and at Yale I was a stringer for The New York Times and The Boston Globe. And then came the Olympics job.”
After Yale, Mr. Ebersol went back to ABC as a producer for “Wide World of Sports,” and then, at 26, a whole new opportunity came up. NBC offered him a chance to pep up its weekend late-night programming. He found a kindred spirit-a Canadian comedy producer named Lorne Michaels-and together they came up with “Saturday Night Live.”
Live from New York …
The institution, now in its 27th season, was hardly a hit, either in-house or on the street, when it first aired Oct. 11, 1975, according to Mr. Ebersol.
“The New York Times didn’t write a review until two days later, and even then [writer] John O’Connor admitted he missed the first half-hour because of a late subway. It wasn’t a particularly good review, either,” Mr. Ebersol said. The show, he said, was not like what viewers would see in the formula nowadays. Host George Carlin did four monologues throughout the show. Musicians Janis Ian and Billy Preston did two sets each. There were five commercial parodies. Andy Kaufman did his famous Mighty Mouse sketch. But there were only four comedy sketches from the soon-to-be-famous original cast.
“Then everyone went to a wrap party, and I stayed back to field phone calls. Lots of people were offended. Someone identifying himself as the cardinal from New York called complaining about Carlin, which I think we later confirmed was a hoax. But who knew?” Mr. Ebersol said. “I was like the Dag Hammerskjold of the show. It was a tightrope you walked every day. Was it fun? I don’t know. Most of the advertisers and executives and critics were 20 or 30 years older than the audience for the show. I was a nuisance to them. But I always had to be relatively charming, so that became my job.”
The experience at “Saturday Night Live,” which he oversaw off and on for the better part of a decade, prepared Mr. Ebersol for his eventual return to sports.
“I’d say that `Saturday Night Live’ and the `Today’ show are the two most difficult shows to produce. Both eat up so much material,” he said. “But what is great about them and about sports is that they are live. While `Saturday Night Live’ is scripted, sports is unscripted drama. But in both cases it’s the live part that makes them the best part of TV for a producer.”
When Mr. Ebersol came to NBC Sports, it was pretty much a mess. It had the lesser National Football League contract, the one for AFC games, which had the smaller markets like Kansas City and Baltimore and Buffalo, while CBS was beefing up ratings in NFC cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. The network had just lost Major League Baseball and the NCAA basketball Final Four. The production of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, had been reviled as boring and pretentious, with host Bryant Gumbel taking most of the flak for a too-low-key manner.
Mr. Ebersol had been running a production company that was bound to late-night programming. He had met Ms. Saint James when she hosted a “Saturday Night Live” show, and when they married, he promised that if she had a hit, he would stay close to home with the kids in Connecticut. “Kate & Allie,” in which Ms. Saint James starred with Mr. Ebersol’s old “Saturday Night Live” cohort Jane Curtin, ran from 1985-89. During that time, Mr. Ebersol produced “Later With Bob Costas,” “Friday Night Videos” and, as he called it, “The much-reviled `Saturday Night Main Event.”’
Back in the game
When “Kate & Allie” finished its run, NBC asked Mr. Ebersol to take over its sports miasma. Before long, he won the rights to National Basketball Association games from CBS and then piled up events like the Professional Golf Association Tour, the Triple Crown horse races, Wimbledon tennis, Notre Dame football, NASCAR auto racing and some postseason baseball.
But the Big Deal for Mr. Ebersol has been the Olympics. The network has spent nearly $4 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2008. Were it not for the Games, Mr. Ebersol might retire with his cigars to the front porch and the kiddie soccer matches.
As writer Frank Deford characterized it, Mr. Ebersol has made the Olympics into “an athletic Scheherazade, a succession of folk tales about characters mostly unknown.” The Olympics is the only thing at NBC Sports for which Mr. Ebersol still acts as a producer. His office is on the 15th floor with most of the rest of NBC Sports, though all the other top NBC executi
ves are up on the 52nd floor. But the Olympics production offices are down on 14, and Mr. Ebersol wants to be close by.
“The thing about Dick is not only is he a leader in the business side of sports television, he is at heart a producer,” said David Neal, the executive VP of NBC Olympics. “He is constantly reminding us not to just do the game but be prepared for what the audience wants. And we all believe that is storytelling. Dick constantly has us doing the storytelling mantra.”
Focus on the story
Mr. Ebersol himself is convinced that if the Sept. 11 attacks tell sports television anything, it is that the story-not the game-is the important thing.
“I think this will translate into great audiences for the Olympics in February in Salt Lake City,” said Mr. Ebersol. “No. 1, it is in the United States. And No. 2, there is now a strong wave of patriotism, which is a great opportunity for storytelling. For advertisers, they realize this. It is the only major sporting event they are flocking to. It is close to a sellout. In our early research, 55 [percent] or 56 percent of the people are inclined to watch.”
“We did studies after the 1988 Olympics and found that when we showed events, we didn’t do so well. When we went out of storytelling, people turned away,” said Nicholas Schiavone, who was then head of research at NBC. “Dick looked at that and decided the next time around, in Atlanta, things would change. And they have.
“If there is any glue holding brand NBC together, it is the glue provided by NBC Sports and Dick Ebersol and the Olympics,” he said.
The Olympics as family TV
Critics have blasted Mr. Ebersol for doing almost nothing live during the 2000 Olympics, for concentrating on soft stories and for doing as much as he can to bring tears to veil the lack of live events.
“I will repeat this and be vilified for it forever, but it’s a fact that women turn to the Olympics in superior numbers to men,” he said. “They identify with the sacrifice, the many hours it takes to train and only come away with, if you are lucky, a medal.
“People just don’t come to the Olympics for results,” he said. “They are the last vestige of family television. The whole family will watch. Most TV-and there is a lot of good TV-is watched by one person in a room. Dad may be watching the NBA playoffs in one room. Mom is watching `ER.’ One kid is in his room watching MTV, and the other is downstairs with Nickelodeon. The Olympics draws everyone, and that’s what drives me to excel.”
He hasn’t tired of the candy store just yet. His office is a controlled clutter, with piles of sports paraphernalia and books on every table and shelf.
“All of the years I was out of sports, from 1974 through 1989, I still went to the sports pages first,” he said. “A happy night for me is when there is a live sporting event I can watch.
“And I love interacting with the athletes still. There are surely certain strains of modern athletes who are pains in the butt. But then you have your Shaqs and your Brett Favres and certainly your Tiger Woods. They get it. They are not pains in the butt. And they are what makes it much more than just a candy store.”