The World According to Dick Ebersol

As Chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics and with a resume unrivaled in the business, Dick Ebersol could slow down at this point. But that won’t be happening anytime soon. With major balls up in the air like the Comcast–NBC Universal merger and a new round of Olympics rights coming up for grabs, there is work to be done. And from an award-winning Vancouver Olympics to propping up NBC’s primetime with Sunday Night Football, Dick Ebersol’s continuing contributions to the industry earned him the 2010 Broadcaster of the Year award.

A born producer, Ebersol still travels to every NFL game NBC does, but last week he ducked out between meetings with the New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff leading up to the NFL season opener to speak with B&C Business Editor Jon Lafayette. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

How has this year stacked up with others in your career?

I thought it was a good year and most of all a fun year. We had the best season primetime football has had on television in a decade. We made an extraordinarily successful transition from John Madden, certainly the most famous sports analyst in television history, to Cris Collinsworth, and that succeeded largely because of Collinsworth’s incredible skill set. And I’m going to leave out a lot of events and I’ll skip to Vancouver, which was everything we at NBC as a group all dreamed it could be. We promoted it very heavily in every conceivable corner of the United States for about a year before the Games and built our coverage around four or five key athletes. The promotional efforts of the NBC team, largely based on the West Coast, including John Miller, as well as our own Mike McCarley in New York, did a heck of a job pre-selling those Games.

Can you keep NBC in the Olympics business?

I think all of us are waiting to see when the IOC deems the time is right to auction off those rights. I think all of us are operating off their last information, which was at the start of the summer when they said it would not happen before sometime in 2011 or when they felt the American economy was at its optimum point for that bid. Some people think that’s unusual. But before we made our deals in 1995 that essentially tied up the rights from 2000 through 2008, most rights situations prior to that were decided within two or three years of the Games, not way, way far in advance. It’s just sort of returning to the old ways, looking for the optimum marketplace on the IOC’s part.

Whom do you see as your competition for the next batch of Games?

The Olympics are very attractive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see everybody there.

There is some thought that ESPN could probably throw more money at it than anybody else could.

ESPN certainly has resources that are almost unimaginable to all of us. Financial resources. That’s the result of their sub fee arrangements, which are a great tribute to their building up after the last decade and a half.

Are you in a better position to bid as part of Comcast? Or were the Olympics more important to GE than they might be to Comcast because of GE’s other business interests?

Yes [to the second question], but that was not anything that GE really expected to be as directly involved in until the bid in ’03, which got us the Games in ’10 and ’12. And that was really Gary Zenkel, who is president of NBC Olympics; he really devised this plan where he was able to show [GE] very successfully and it’s worked well for them, that being a worldwide Olympic sponsor would offer all kinds of new inroads for them into some 200 countries. Just over 200 countries are where the IOC and national Olympic committees of the world are located. That’s rather a recent event.

Every sign points to Comcast having an extraordinarily high level of interest in the Olympic movement. But you never know until you walk into a room with a ! gure that’s been given to you to put down on the table. And, of course, we’re waiting for government approval of this transaction, which still hasn’t come and no one’s saying what the date will be at this point.

Any thoughts on how your job would change working for Comcast as opposed to working for GE?

Well, I’ve loved these 21 years that I’ve run sports at NBC and worked for GE under [Jack] Welch and [Jeff] Immelt, and nobody could have ever been better supported than I was through all those years—both with the resources to get these events and to do them right, but also with great emotional support from Fair- field. I’ve known [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts for a number of years socially and we’ve talked about the sports business, which they’re certainly widely represented in, with their sports cable networks and their sports franchises in Philadelphia and their regional sports business around the United States. So, I believe with great certainty that they’ll be equally supportive of big sports efforts and I would expect I would have an expanded role, but at this point and until that whole thing gets OK’d I’m not really going to be talking about it in specifics.

Will you stick with the Universal Sports Network if you get outbid for the next round of Olympics?

We have a minority interest in that channel anyway. We’re there.

Do you think there’s room for another national sports network that could go head-to-head with ESPN?

Head-to-head with ESPN?

Comcast has Versus, but that’s not really a competitor at this point. Perhaps with NBC’s assets there might be thoughts to building a contender.

ESPN went on the air 31 years ago this very day you and I are doing this interview. And they’ve got a pretty solid head start on anyone who wants to go into an all-out battle. I think the best thing to do is to pick the things you think are going to be very helpful to you and do your best to get them. But anyone who expects to get into an all-out war with ESPN is, in my mind, likely a fool.

Football’s been very good for NBC, creating a big tent pole for the network. There’s talk of extending the schedule to 18 games. Is that something that would be interesting to NBC?

There’s nothing in the world of sports year in and year out that is remotely as strong a brand as the National Football League. We’d be thrilled to show more games if that’s how the labor process sorts itself out, or we’d be happy with the number of games that we originally contracted for.

Would you be willing to pay more for more games?

You’re asking me to negotiate in the press. I love to negotiate, but I never negotiate in the press.

What kinds of preparations are you making in case the labor talks don’t go well and there’s a lockout or a strike next season?

Right now, I’m just working up a steady schedule of prayer.

What do you think is happening to NASCAR these days?

I think you should ask that question of the folks at NASCAR and ESPN and Fox. We had a wonderful run with it. That run ended in 2006 and I think it’s a terrific television property, but as for where it is today, how it’s performing today, I think those questions are better put to the people who watch it develop as a business on a full-time basis. My life is too full to look at it that way anymore. I still watch a fair number of races because I’m a fan. As to the state of that business, I’m not following it closely enough to have a real opinion.

How about golf? Are we in a post-Tiger environment, and what will that mean for the business of televised golf?

[Golf] has been good for us, and particularly CBS as well, in terms of its ability to attract big-name American companies into sponsorship situations with the tournament and buying media time. And I expect that will continue regardless of who’s at the top of the leader board. Again, since it’s more than a year before that will come up again for any kind of renewal talks, it’s too early to make any decisions, but I’d be surprised if Tiger Woods did not win golf tournaments again and Phil Mickelson wouldn’t emerge from his little slump he’s had since the spring of this year. And all these terrific young golfers; hey, if any of them gets hot and wins four or five tournaments in the space of four or five months, you might be able to see someone else join that group. But that’s why it’s opportune for all of us that we’re more than a year away from the next negotiation.

You were down at the Golf Channel recently. What do you think about what you found there?

I was very impressed by the physical facility. Impressed by the leadership there. It was a great opportunity with the possibility of our becoming involved with it. I was invited down to take a look around. I don’t have any role whatsoever now on any level and I can’t, till the deal gets approved or [rejected] by the FCC, but it was a great opportunity to spend a day down there and I really was impressed by the physical plant. They have done an unbelievable job of making that a first-rate facility, and they really have some outstanding people, as I found out during the 12 hours that I was there.

Beyond sports, you have a long history and experience in other dayparts. You must be pretty proud of the waySaturday Night Liveis performing.

I think that the most ridiculous statement [is] referring to it being past its peak. And I think that Lorne Michaels in the majority, and me to a little bit for the fi ve years that I had it all alone in the early part of the ’80s, have always done a pretty good job of keeping that show at the forefront. I think he’d agree with me that there’s been a lot of luck involved, but I would think the largest factor beyond the luck is Lorne and his uncanny ability through the years to not only be in step with the times despite him growing a little bit older, but his phenomenal ability to spot talent, which is maybe unsurpassed in the modern history of television. I enjoy his success enormously, and I’m thrilled that something we started off working on together so long ago is still alive and a key part of American cultural life.

How do you think Conan is going to do on Turner?

It’s a different world, and it will be very interesting to see how he does. I haven’t really come up at this point with a firm idea of how I think it will be. But it does not have to be as mainstream as The Tonight Show has to be, and maybe that will fall much more into his wheelhouse than doing The Tonight Show. Because I do think the expectation a viewer has when he comes to the show—and this has been true all the way back to its beginning—is you’re going to be given really mainstream entertainment with an emphasis on a topical comedy bent, particularly in the first 20 minutes of the show, be it in the monologue or the first produced bit. And I think that proved to be an issue for the O’Brien group to really capture enough of the mainstream audience at the beginning of the show. But that same pressure is not going to be there on cable, and he may be a big success there.

That’s pretty magnanimous considering you had harsh words for him earlier in the year.

The reason I picked up the telephone and called The New York Times—which was not on anybody’s agenda at NBC, I’m sure there were people there who weren’t happy that I did it—was that I was unhappy at all the shots that were being taken at Leno at the time. I’m enough of an insider at NBC to know with certitude that Jay never played any political role in any of the things that happened to Conan, nor in the decisions that were made as to what to do to The Tonight Show after the decision was made to stop the Leno show and to change Conan’s place in Tonight. And I just know Jay never had anything to do with it, and the innuendo and stuff that was coming out was patently unfair. This is not the way that Jay’s built. There’s nothing Machiavellian about Jay Leno. And that was just me standing up for somebody I really don’t know that well but I like a lot.

TheTonight Showis having some of its lowest ratings in history. Can Jay make it work?

I don’t agree with that. First of all, he’s beaten the competition every week since he went back to that time period on March 1. And that’s the first determinant as to whether somebody’s winning or not. David Letterman was beating The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. He has not beaten The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

There’s no daypart in television that’s as active a battlefield for the audience as late night is right now. You have stellar shows from both Stewart and Colbert; you have some pretty fancy efforts from other cable networks that air in that time period. ABC has reinvigorated Nightline. Letterman is still a great comedy original. And NBC hasn’t exactly lit it up at 10 o’clock for about four seasons now. And it’s a phenomenon that Jay is continuing to win, because CBS beats NBC rather soundly every night at 10 o’clock in primetime and yet Leno still wins at 11:35. I don’t buy the way the headlines are written these days. They always wait for one week where there’s one odd event or something like that, but by and large it’s been a pretty resounding success with Leno back at 11:30. And the people to whom it matters the most, particularly our affiliates, are overjoyed with having Jay back in that time period.

You were talking about NBC getting beat at 10 p.m. Do you think this is the year NBC starts getting primetime right?

I have high hopes for this year. I see a lot of interesting progress. I think that the beginnings of a successful rebound are clearly there for this season. Nothing like that happens in a year, but I think there’s a real chance there. I think that our West Coast folks under [Jeff] Gaspin and Angela Bromstad did a fantastic job with our development, giving us real choices for the fi rst time in several years.

What do you think happens to Jeff Zucker?

I love Jeff Zucker. He’s been a contemporary, he’s been a peer. In the beginning of his career, I mentored him. There are very few people that I’ve worked with, if any, in my entire career that I feel more strongly about than I do about him.

You think you’ll be continuing to work with him?

I’m not getting into that. That doesn’t serve him.

Do you still go to all of theSunday Night Football games?

This [was] the first game of year five. I have missed one regular season game in the four years preceding; I was in Copenhagen for the vote last year for the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. I'm completely immersed in it still. And as much out of passion as just plain work.

Is the role of broadcast in being a part of these events changing as the Internet and cable rise in terms of access and reach?

That's largely true of the Olympics. The Olympics are the one event where the rights holder [gets] all of the rights. The IOC sells to the winning bidder, as you might put it, all of the video rights. It would be too complicated in that short period of 16 or 17 days to have multiple rights holders. How would you ever deal with what event's going to be where and so on and so forth? All the other major events, leagues have their own television networks; leagues have their own Websites, which in most cases have a pretty tight control on the video rights beyond the day the event actually takes place. But for the Olympics, you're really afforded the opportunity to go multiplatform in a way that people could never have imagined. Look at what Beijing was two years ago and what London will be like two years from now, where you can have a network plus five or six cable channels plus thousands of hours of live streaming. That's unheard of anywhere else. But that's a unique situation to the Olympics.

NBC won an Emmy for the direction of the Olympics opening ceremonies. How are people reacting to the way Bucky Gunts got called out by presenter Ricky Gervais?

It was a source of great pride that Bucky had won again, beating off the competition of shows like the Oscars and the Tonys. I want to say it's the fourth time he'd won. I know he'd won for Salt Lake, Athens, and Beijing, so this must have been the fourth time. My recollection is that five years ago, the award for the Athens Games was given a year later because the Athens Games weren't over till late August, so they didn't fall into the '04 voting, they fell into '05. And when the awards show happened in early fall of '05, if I recollect correctly, Ricky Gervais was watching television in New York, saw Bucky win and the next night went on with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. And when Stewart really wanted to get into a conversation on a variety of topics with Ricky, Ricky said that before we go anywhere, did you see what happened on the Emmys the other night? This fellow Bucky Gunts won the Emmy, and how is it that you're allowed to say Bucky Gunts on American television? Bucky Gunts; I can't believe that would be allowed to be said on television.

And so I think that Don Mischer, who did such a spectacular job this year of producing the Emmys-as well as having the history of creating two Olympic opening ceremonies of his own in Atlanta and Salt Lake, coupled with his knowledge of all things Emmys and the fact that he's worked closely with Bucky for a decade and a half-may have seen Bucky nominated [and may have arranged] for Gervais to give away that award. I know they have no idea who's going to win till the envelope is opened, but he figured he would have plenty of fun with Bucky's name once again on a national media front, and indeed he proved to be right and he got a pretty terrific moment out of it.

What kind of reaction did that get back in the office?

Bucky Gunts is one of the most popular employees, not just at NBC Sports, but at all of NBC. He has a long history there, most of it sporting, but for years he was the director of the Today show while one Jeff Zucker was the show's executive producer. So, he was Jeff's right arm, I would think, for almost a decade in the '80s and very early '90s. And he left news only when I asked him to become the full-time head of production on the Olympics starting in the early '90s.

So, did everyone get a big kick out of it?

We did. Very much.

What's happening with the Universal Sports Network?

It's continuing to grow. When we became involved as sort of chief programmer and producer of Universal Sports, Gary Zenkel, who was charged with that property, came up with a plan for increasing its presence in American households. I'm happy to say that in a little less than two years, he's taken them from 3 million homes to some 55 million or 57 million homes, much of it on digital channels broadcast by NBC-owned stations and affiliates. To go from 3 million to 57 million homes has certainly increased its exposure, and their unique association with so many key national and world championships has made them more of a choice for sports fans everywhere than they were before we got involved.

Will hockey continue on the network?

I sure hope so. I think Gary Bettman's done a terrific job in the last decade of returning hockey to a very important place in the national and North American sports fronts. And I think Sam Flood and his production team have done an exceptional job of really making hockey much more accessible for people to watch, particularly having the talent down on the bench during the live action where they're really a part of things. It's never been done before. And these last three Stanley Cup Finals have been wonderful strong attractions for NBC, not only on weekend afternoons but also in primetime in June during the finals.

Will you pay a rights fee to keep the NHL, or do you want continue to operate with a revenue-sharing arrangement?

You keep trying to trick me into negotiating through the media. I'm not going to fall for that. I like the privacy of a good negotiation.

Would you be interested in getting NASCAR back on NBC at some point?

There you go again, trying to get me to negotiate.

Last year's Notre Dame football wasn't much to write home about.

No, but it was a hell of a story. Those endings, the bad ones, were as mesmerizing, sadly, as the good ones. And it looks like they're starting off on the right foot this year.

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.