Longtime ESPN ExecProgrammed for Success

Norby Williamson, ESPN executive VP of programming and acquisitions, has been with the Worldwide Leader since 1985. He is quick to point out, however, that the ESPN he joined 27 years ago -- with its lesspolished sets and lots of Australian Rules Football games -- is hardly the same one viewers know today.

“I might as well have worked at 15 different companies over those 27 years,” says Williamson.

Williamson, who has held more than 10 different posts at ESPN -- mostly on the production side -- received his newest in January, when network president John Skipper swapped the roles of Williamson (then executive VP of production) with fellow ESPN lifer John Wildhack.

“My whole career had been in production, but I was very involved in some of the programming discussions,” Williamson says. “It wasn’t like we were changing companies or going to an area totally foreign to us.” In fact, Williamson says that all those years in production allowed him to see “how the donuts were made,” giving him a background that other programming execs may not have.

Skipper has championed Williamson’s multi-faceted role. “[Norby] started as an intern and has contributed across multiple levels for over 25 years,” Skipper says. “He’s an accomplished creative producer, a consistently sound strategist and one of my key internal partners at running the overall company.”

It’s a good thing Williamson feels comfortable in his new role, as he is tasked with ensuring that the company’s nickname, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” remains more than just good marketing.

Even though ESPN holds TV rights to numerous sports leagues—the network recently tacked on an additional four years to its deal with the NCAA’s Atlantic Coast Conference— Williamson knows that competition is keen. “The rights landscape [has] more players than ever before,” says Williamson, who is quick to add, “I think ESPN is well-positioned by our history, our reach and our multiplatform media assets.” Williamson notes the network is building a second digital center at its Bristol, Conn., headquarters.

Beyond that, he is looking to expand ESPN’s original programming slate, and “not just partner with leagues.”

“Are there other things out there?” Williamson asks rhetorically, with an eye toward focusing on both the company’s TV networks and its digital assets as well. “If we bolster our linear networks, we bolster our digital networks,” he says. ESPN recently struck a deal to allow Comcast Xfinity subscribers access to its popular WatchESPN app.

Other developments are in the works. One of the network’s original series—the morning show ESPN First Take, which airs on ESPN 2—is set for a facelift next week. Frequent guest commentator Stephen A. Smith will move into a permanent role as the show looks to further emphasize the banter between Smith and First Take’s other full-time commentator, Skip Bayless.

Williamson is that increasingly rare commodity, an executive who has spent his entire career at one network. His ESPN career got started when he interned during his senior year at Southern Connecticut State University.

Shortly after his graduation, ESPN hired Williamson in the mailroom. So began a steady rise up the ESPN depth chart, with stops as an associate producer, highlight supervisor and senior coordinating producer for SportsCenter, before he assumed management responsibilities in 1999.

After stints as an assistant managing editor and news director, and VP and assistant managing editor, Williamson was elevated to senior VP and managing editor in 2002. His rise didn’t stop there; in 2005, he was named executive VP of studio and remote production, overseeing all domestic productions for ESPN. In 2007, he earned his executive VP of production title.

The fact that ESPN put a lot of faith in him is one of the main reasons Williamson says he has stayed so long. “I feel loyal to the place,” he says.

Does Williamson envision a world in which he is no longer an ESPN employee? “Well, I hope not,” he says.

E-mail comments to tim.baysinger@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @tim_bays