The World According to Dick Ebersol
The 2010 Broadcaster of the Year reflects on his accomplishments, a successful 2010 and what lies ahead
The 2010 Broadcaster of the Year reflects on his accomplishments, a successful 2010 and what lies ahead
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
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.
Do you think there’s room for another national
sports network that could go head-to-head with
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
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
Would you be willing to pay more for more
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
What do you think is happening to NASCAR these
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
You were down at the Golf Channel recently.
What do you think about what you found
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 way Saturday Night Live is 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
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.
The Tonight Show is 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
You were talking about NBC getting beat at 10
p.m. Do you think this is the year NBC starts getting
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
I’m not getting into that. That doesn’t serve him.
Do you still go to all of the Sunday 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
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
We did. Very much.
What's happening with the Universal
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
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.