Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, has won innumerable awards during a 44-year career in which he helped bring the Olympics to new heights, created a dominant primetime franchise in Sunday Night Football and launched Saturday Night Live.
But he says winning the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award is particularly special to him because Tartikoff , NBC’s legendary programmer, was his best friend and taught him important lessons about business and life.
“He was younger than me and at one point less wise than me, but I learned [from him] about making your choices in life and about doing the thing you really love to do,” Ebersol says.
Tartikoff also taught him about loyalty. Ebersol left ABC in 1974, where he had started as an Olympics researcher working under Roone Arledge, to go to NBC as director of weekend late-night programming. NBC needed a new show because Johnny Carson didn’t want his reruns running on Saturday nights. The result was Saturday Night Live, which is still on the air 36 seasons later.
NBC later put Ebersol in charge of comedy, specials and variety programs and moved him to the West Coast, where he made Tartikoff , a fellow Yalie, his No. 2 in charge of comedy. About two years later, in 1978, NBC decided to make Tartikoff head of West Coast operations—and Ebersol’s boss.
Before accepting the job, Ebersol says, Tartikoff came to his office and suggested they take a drive. At what “should be the golden moment of his career,” Tartikoff said that if Ebersol wasn’t comfortable with the plan, they’d both leave NBC.
“We were gone for about six hours, which gave everyone in Burbank and New York heart attacks because they didn’t know if they were losing both of us,” says Ebersol, who agreed to work for Tartikoff .
While Ebersol saw the passion that drove Tartikoff ’s success in the frustration and failure–filled development process, Tartikoff knew Ebersol loved nothing more than sports. In 1989, Tartikoff convinced network brass to bring Ebersol, who had become an independent producer, back to NBC to run the sports division, where he made an indelible mark.
Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and News, says it was obvious early on that Ebersol was “ambitious, very sharp and was going to have a major impact on whatever industry he chose to enter.”
Ebersol did Olympics research for McManus’ father, legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, and spent a fair amount of time in the McKays’ swimming pool. “I would certainly count him among my oldest and dearest friends,” McManus says. “He’s a fierce competitor and a loyal friend, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Ebersol hired Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL, 36 years ago. Michaels recalls that when it was being put together, “he completely protected me and the show.” Recently, they had conversations about how to get Jim Carrey involved in NBC’s wild-card NFL playoff games that led into SNL a few Saturdays ago. “We’re old friends. He’s a good collaborator, and very good in supporting his team and articulating a clear vision of where he wants to go,” Michaels says.
Ebersol’s background created a bond with outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, who entered the industry as an Olympics researcher as well. “Anytime I had a big issue or a big decision to make, I always sought his advice,” Zucker says. That advice has always been “honest and objective . . . even when I didn’t want to hear it.”
Zucker adds that besides being a great producer and executive, Ebersol is a great friend. “He’s just an incredibly loyal person whose best quality is his big heart,” Zucker says. “He doesn’t like you to see that soft side too often, but it’s as soft as anybody’s.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is unlikely to see much of that soft side as the league and NBC try to negotiate a broadcast-rights renewal, applauds Ebersol’s storytelling ability. “He’s very good at knowing the nuances and how best to tell the story,” Bettman says. “That’s the unique touch that he has.”
That touch helped NBC build the NHL’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic into an attraction that holds its own with college football bowl games.
“When you work with him, you become a friend,” Bettman says. “He is just one of those truly special people who you love to spend time with.”
The result is Ebersol is surrounded by good people. “You know if somebody’s working with Dick, they’re very good at what they do and very talented,” Bettman adds.
Though Ebersol’s career has been most closely identified with the Olympics, he says he’s equally satisfied with the development of Sunday Night Football into the top-rated primetime series.
“All the various lessons I’ve learned along the way—storytelling, programming, scheduling, talent acquisition and management—all of them have come to fore here,” says Ebersol, who has traveled to supervise the production of nearly every SNF game. He recalls that there were many doubters in the industry and on Wall Street who questioned whether another football broadcast would work. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a believer.
“Sunday Night Football has been a great success, setting viewership records, [with NBC] becoming the first network to promote our games on other networks and helping to build our Thursday-night season kickoff game into a tremendous season-opening event,” Goodell says. He calls Ebersol one of the best partners the NFL has ever had, adding, “it is equally important and an honor that I can count on him as a great friend.”
Ebersol has made many friends over the course of what is now a long career. “Recently, I looked at a piece of tape and thought: You’re starting to look your age, kid,” Ebersol says. “I’ve been hiding that from myself. I don’t think I’ve been looking that hard.”
Nevertheless, with new NBC Universal owner Comcast making Ebersol chairman of the NBC Sports Group, there is still plenty to look forward to from what he calls “the best seat in the house, both literally and fi guratively” in the world of unscripted drama.
“The next horizon is always the next big event, whether it’s an NFL game or the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, or U.S. Open golf or Wimbledon,” Ebersol says. “I have the great advantage of having something pretty major coming down the road every week during football season. The toughest it gets all year is maybe once a month. I’m pretty damn lucky.”
Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
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