Longtime ESPN Exec Programmed for SuccessWilliamson embraces new role at network he helped evolve 5/28/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
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—
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
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
in the mailroom. So
began a steady rise
up the ESPN depth
chart, with stops
as an associate producer,
before he assumed
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.