Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, recently talked to TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi about Bob Wright as a talent recruiter, as a boss and as a source of support in times of personal and professional crisis.
Dick Ebersol: I basically got hired because of the Olympics. [Former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch and then-NBC President and CEO Bob Wright] wanted somebody who really bled the Olympic colors. They sought me out in 1989.
I told Wright that at that stage of my life, I was not interested in being purely an executive. I would not give up what I had. I had a very successful independent production company that had three series on the air. I was not looking for that, but he told me I could be an executive and a producer.
That was the sort of legal narcotic that got me over the hump about going back into a big company. [Mr. Wright] did the same thing four years later with Don Ohlmeyer. Both of us had all of our screw-you money and everything like that. It was a big deal. He also hired Andy Lack [as president of news, later promoted to NBC president and COO].
He hired three guys who were used to getting their own way and getting a lot of publicity. He knew exactly what he was doing when he hired us and he let us be.
One of the things that never ceased to amaze me about Bob is he never, in 18 years, has given me a note. Never gave me a note about an announcer. Never gave me a note about how a night at the Olympics should be produced. I would hear from him if he thought it was great, but he never said a word if he didn’t think it was great.
And I’m sure there were times there was something he didn’t like. He never, ever said a word.
In so many ways I’m one of the luckiest people to have worked in big-time television. I have been allowed to exist without any negativity on the creative side. Never. Not once.
The least-known part about Bob to most people is what an unbelievable, humongous figure he is in a time of other people’s personal crises. I’ve watched him do this to varying degrees with several of my friends, as well as myself.
[After then-NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff and his young daughter Calla were in a devastating car accident near Lake Tahoe in 1991, both Mr. Ebersol and Mr. Wright went immediately to Tahoe to help Mr. Tartikoff’s wife, Lilly.]
Wright saw that there were real issues that had to be dealt with. Brandon was sort of comatose. Calla was in a coma for quite some time. He just set up this stream of specialists [that] kept flying in from all around the world to this little hospital in Reno.
It was one of those doctors who otherwise would never have been in on this case who correctly diagnosed what it was with Calla and regulated her coma until she was ready to really come out of it.
Wright just dropped everything he was doing.
In the latter part of the ’90s or 2000, after all those years “Saturday Night Live” had been on the air since Lorne Michaels and I started it, people were taking all kinds of cracks at it inside and outside of the building—the press and executives at NBC.
Wright made it a point, whether it was in meetings inside the company or outside the company, to say, “We are so lucky to have Lorne Michaels, and this thing is an institution. If you don’t like it this year, that’s tough on you. This thing’s going to be around as long as I’m around.”
Bob put himself way out on the line for that. The guy who came from GE knew exactly how to handle the talent relations.
Then Nov. 28, 2004, comes around, and what I thought was the life under the rainbow—mine—came to a crashing realization that everybody in life has to deal with some kind of tragedy.
[Mr. Ebersol and son Charlie were seriously injured in the crash of a small plane in snowy Colorado, a crash that killed Mr. Ebersol’s son Teddy and two crew members.]
When I woke up after being kind of under for almost a day, standing in my room, aside from my own family, were the Wrights and Lorne.
The Wrights stayed for two days and two nights. To this day, my wife, Susan, says the way they organized everything for her around that hospital enabled her to just deal with me and Charlie. They deployed everybody to organize how to deal with all the media. They determined where all the best restaurants were and had them bring food in. All these little things.
This is a CEO of a major company, the biggest executive most of us will ever deal with, and he always had time for the really human elements in other people’s lives.
I think it’s a big heart. And I think a lot of it is Suzanne. They both have this part of them that just sort of tends to — it’s too clinical a word—zone in on when people really, really need something major in their life at a time of crisis.
I think he sees that as part of being a leader of a company.