Ted Harbert, Chairman, NBC Broadcasting, NBCUniversal
Ted Harbert HOF Speech
Cold, wet and probably wishing he was back in the womb, Ted Harbert had been alive for a matter of minutes when his professional career -- his vocation and, very definitely, his avocation -- was determined. Steve Allen, the storied host of The Tonight Show in the mid-'50s, was in the middle of a live commercial for a nail polish remover at the old Hudson Theatre on Broadway, when he overheard someone on the set say that Ted Harbert Sr., a producer on the show, had just added another member to his family.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Allen ad-libbed to a nation of late-night viewers, "Mrs. Harbert had her fourth son. She uses Cutex-and look what happened to her!"
As befits a man of boundless panache, it was a splashy debut for Ted Harbert. "He got his start in the television business at age 2½-3 minutes," says Ted Sr. "He's got to be one of the only people in the U.S. to have their birth announced on network television."
And so it began, the life and times of Ted Harbert-esteemed broadcaster, ace cabler, Page Six boldface namer, larger-than-life personality, and the man who now holds one of the most important jobs in television. Like the famous Atlas statue in front of 30 Rock, a colossal load rests on Harbert's shoulders as chairman of NBC Broadcasting-a role his entire life has prepared him for.
"He's one of those rare individuals who grew up loving television and watching it for decades-he's a walking encyclopedia of broadcast television," says Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal and the man who tapped Harbert to help bring NBC back to full glory. "To have that kind of expertise, in New York, near me, is very, very valuable."
Harbert grew up in the New York suburbs and, as the fourth of six children, was pretty much free to watch as much Batman and Superman as he cared to. While other kids studied the stats on the backs of baseball cards, he devoured the old Nielsen "pocket pieces" his father brought home. Maybe it was all the Superman reruns, but back then Ted Harbert knew exactly what third place ABC needed to turn it around: Ted Harbert.
"I always wanted to work at ABC, I swear to God, because I thought they needed me," Harbert says. "I could help."
Many years later, he actually did. Harbert's father, then working at a Manhattan ad agency and weary of the long drive from northern Westchester to the Stamford, Conn., train station each day, moved the family to North Stamford. Ted, then 11, would walk to school with a kid whose father, Ed Vane, was a big shot at ABC.
Ted would pepper his pal's dad with frightfully precocious industry questions. A decade later, with a degree in broadcasting and film from Boston University-where Harbert worked on the school radio station with a brash young jock named Howard Stern ("He was on the shift ahead of me, and was far superior," says Harbert) -- Vane got him an interview at ABC.
The job was some lowly clerk-typist position. What sounded like more fun was NBC's entertainment associates program, which Harbert had interviewed for too. Harbert passed on the ABC job-so sure was this indefatigable optimist that NBC would make him an offer.
The Peacock didn't. "I was crying as I mowed my parents' lawn," he says. Harbert kept pestering the networks. Everyone told him he'd have to take the traditional route to a network job-toil in sales in some dusty backwater and work his way up to network. Harbert was having none of it.
ABC eventually offered him a temp job, which involved a lot of filing and some reading of scripts. When his six-month, no-benefits, "below grunt" engagement was up, Harbert asked his superiors about his future. "They said shut up and go back to my desk," he says.
He went back to work and never looked back. Harbert's passion for, and prodigious knowledge of, television was increasingly appreciated by his superiors. When ABC moved its president of entertainment, Tony Thomopolous, to Los Angeles in 1981, they brought Harbert along. He showed up for meetings with stacks of massive reference books-ratings, schedules, program info-under each arm. The man later labeled a walking encyclopedia by Steve Burke was, literally, that. "There was an old ad campaign, the Shell Answer Man," Harbert says. "That was my role, and I was able to go up the ladder."
Harbert spent 20 years at ABC, eventually as chairman of entertainment, where he helped mine TV diamonds such as NYPD Blue, The Wonder Years and My So-Called Life. He'd eventually leave to run NBC Studios, where he oversaw the likes of Will & Grace and the very show that announced his arrival on Earth back in 1955: The Tonight Show. After producing at 20th Century Fox Television and Dreamworks SKG, Harbert came onboard at Comcast in 2004, running E! Networks.
Cable's niche audiences were a new concept for Harbert, but he learned fast and worked his way up to president/CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group. "Here's a person who greenlighted NYPD Blue and Will & Grace and The Kardashians," says Suzanne Kolb, president of E! Entertainment. "That shows Ted's ability to pick hits for a wide range of people."
When Comcast's merger with NBC Universal was finalized, Harbert took over as NBC's broadcast chairman in January, overseeing ad sales, the owned stations, affiliate relations and research, among other crucial departments. Some 56 years after his father toiled at 30 Rock, Harbert moved into the most famous address in television as well.
Jeff Shell, president of NBCU International, likens Harbert's role to that of Vice President Biden: having his fingerprints on every aspect of the business, all the while staying behind the scenes. "He's the happiest guy in the world, right in the center of network operations," says Shell. "Running the engine room is literally Ted's dream job."
Those who know Harbert well say he's precisely what NBC needs to play to its considerable potential: a pivotal sounding board to help Bob Greenblatt spark primetime, a savvy deal maker to maximize retrans and digital revenue, a promotional wiz and-perhaps most important-a guy whose disarming humor and infectiously upbeat attitude boosts morale. Hearst Television President/CEO David Barrett, who oversees 10 NBC affiliates, calls Harbert "one of our industry's brightest and most experienced executives." Comcast-NBC's leaders say the attitude within the company has been different since Harbert took over. "I think people at NBC truly think they're going to win," says Shell, "and I think Ted deserves a lot of credit for that."
Harbert's father, who did six-week shifts at The Tonight Show and Today in the '50s, is tickled to see his kid succeed him at NBC. After the boy's dramatic showbiz premiere those many years ago, he finds Ted's skyrocketing success in television anything but shocking. "Ted's been doing spooky good things," says Ted Sr., "for 50-plus years." -- Michael Malone