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NBCU Shares Family’s Grief

Dec 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

There has been a death in the NBC Universal family.

The loss of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol’s 14-year-old son Teddy in a Colorado plane crash was felt throughout the organization and the television industry.

NBCU Chairman and CEO Robert Wright and NBCU Television Networks Group President Randy Falco, longtime colleagues and friends of Mr. Ebersol, were among those who immediately flew to his hospital bedside. The visit was kept quiet and off the record until they left Colorado last Tuesday.

“Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels was among those flying to Colorado.

“Dick is my friend and I love the guy. Bob and Suzanne [Wright] were going and I asked if I could go. I wanted to be there,” Mr. Michaels said. “What struck me over and over again through the worst ordeal imaginable is how strong this family is. They are really there for each other. The way Dick and Susan [Mr. Ebersol’s wife, actress Susan Saint James] and the kids support each other will help them get through this. They are a truly remarkable family.”

Some colleagues recalled seeing family pictures on the wall of Mr. Ebersol’s office. “Today Show” anchor Katie Couric nearly broke down while reading a statement from the Ebersol family that said, “We will miss Teddy, our sweet boy, forever.”

Jeffrey Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television, prefaced a sweeps conference call by saying, “Our thoughts and prayers” are with the Ebersols. “Dick is a great friend and a great leader within this company and industry,” he said, “and this is a tragedy that has really hit everyone incredibly hard.”

Mr. Ebersol and two of his sons, Teddy and 21-year-old Charlie, were in a chartered plane that crashed Nov. 28 shortly after taking off in the snow from Montrose Regional Airport.

Charlie Ebersol pulled his father from the burning wreckage. Teddy’s body was found the next day. Also killed were the pilot and flight attendant.

Though NBC would not comment on the nature of Mr. Ebersol’s injury, it was widely reported that he suffered a broken sternum and broken ribs and had fluid in his lungs. Charlie suffered a broken hand and a sore back.

NBC said both are expected to recover fully. A family spokesman told a Connecticut newspaper that the Ebersols were expected to return home sometime this week. Funeral arrangements were pending and the service was expected to be conducted in mid-December, he said.

Ms. Saint James, appearing Friday on NBC’s “Today” show, said that Mr. Ebersol’s cracked sternum made it “hard to cough. So it’s hard for him to sob. So he, he, it’s all very inside.

“But he’s so proud of Charlie because, you know, Charlie just dragged him out of the plane. He lifted up the microwave and the whole kitchen unit and dragged him out of the hole,” she said. “There was no door. There was a hole. So he’s still probably in shock a lot and he takes a lot of, you know blood thinners. And, I mean, he’s on all kinds of medications.”

It is unclear when Mr. Ebersol will return to NBC Sports. NBC Sports declined to discuss how Mr. Ebersol’s responsibilities will be divided during his absence, but the division has a strong team of experienced executives. Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, is expected to assume more of a leadership role while Mr. Ebersol recuperates.

“In our industry, you can’t take time off,” said Neal Pilson, a consultant and former president of CBS Sports. “I think NBC Sports will continue to function very well. Ken Schanzer has been there for 20 years. He will be the man leading the discussion, and my understanding is that Dick will be available for consulting and additional leadership.”

Mr. Pilson called NBC “a vast and strong organization. You have the resources of General Electric. This is a major player. They will remain strong and powerful during the time Dick is recovering.”

In terms of on-air activity, this is a relatively quiet time for NBC Sports, with NASCAR finished for the year and arena football broadcasts not due to start till Jan. 30. But there are issues that need to be dealt with.

Some observers, including Mr. Pilson, think NBCU might make a play for the NFL’s new late-season package of games on Thursday and Saturday nights. NBCU might also want part of the Sunday night cable package for its USA Network. “I’m sure Ken and Jon [Miller, senior VP of NBC Sports] are well equipped to conduct those negotiations,” said Mr. Pilson.

NBC Sports is also preparing for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, just over a year away. “Dick is heavily involved in the Olympics, but I don’t think there’s anything in that area that requires day-to-day supervision by Dick at this point,” Mr. Pilson said.

Two NBCU Sports execs will be handling the preparations: Gary Zenkel and David Neal, both executive VPs for NBC Olympics. Mr. Zenkel is in charge of production while Mr. Neal oversees business affairs.

The Ebersol family released a statement last Tuesday that said, “In the wake of this tragedy, we are touched by the overwhelming outpouring of love from people all over the world.”

They requested that donations in Teddy’s memory be sent to the Litchfield County (Conn.) Association for Retarded Citizens, where he was a frequent volunteer. Donations will be put toward LARC’s capital project funds, at the family’s request. The organization is constructing a new building.