Before Jim Bell was named executive producer of NBC's Today show last year, he hadn't produced a single news segment, let alone a top-rated morning news show. A fixture of NBC's Olympics coverage since joining the network in 1991, he was in the midst of preparing for the 2004 Athens games when NBC Universal TV Group CEO Jeff Zucker approached him about producing a “boisterous, three-hour, live show.”
But Bell saw a jump to news as the next logical step in a career spent covering sports. “I know about being decisive and the daily juggling of live TV and reacting to events,” says the former college football star. “Live TV is as close to being on the field of play as anything else.”
Since taking the field in the high-stakes morning-news wars, Bell has shepherded Today through the departure of longtime co-host Katie Couric and the arrival of her successor, Meredith Vieira, with hardly a hiccup in the ratings. Now he is working to strengthen its lead on rival Good Morning America on ABC and prepare the show for the digital future.
“More choices than ever”
“The consumer has more choices now than ever,” he says. “Sometimes when you're No. 1, it is hard to grow and evolve, but we have to keep changing.”
Bell has drawn on his sports background since his days at Harvard, where he was an all-Ivy League defensive tackle and studied government before heading to Barcelona to coach a football team and teach English. After he sent his résumé to NBC, the network hired him to ferry NBC Sports executive Randy Falco to planning meetings (Falco, now NBC Universal TV Group president/COO, was wheelchair-bound with an injury).
Bell hit it off with NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol and soon joined the Olympic profile unit, traveling to Africa and Cuba to produce the often tear-jerking stories on athletes that pepper the coverage.
“The Olympics are distinct from other sports because you need a basic knowledge of world events,” he says. “You also have to personalize athletes who play sports that Americans don't necessarily care about.”
After helping to produce the Games, Bell returned to New York to produce various sports events for NBC, from the World Series to the NBA Finals. He later became a senior coordinating producer for the 2000 Sydney Games and continued in that role for the 2002 and 2004 Olympics.
When Zucker persuaded Bell to join Today in April 2005, the show's top ranking was in jeopardy. GMA was closer than ever in ratings, and talk of Couric's wanting out was growing louder. But Zucker, himself a former Today executive producer and Olympics veteran, knew Bell was well-suited for the task.
“Today is a huge outfit with hundreds of people on the staff and three hours of live programming every day,” Zucker says. “You need to be an organized and strong leader. There is no better training for telling a story or reacting on your feet more than live sporting events.”
After Couric left in May, Bell set about preparing the show for Vieira's arrival and a new season of competition. Given its ratings and profitability, Today will likely escape the recently announced cuts to NBC News.
Studio made for high-def
Bell has already created a new unit of interview bookers to ensure that Today won't lose out on those all-important “gets.” And while the show telecast from its outdoor set all summer, its studio was rebuilt for high-definition.
Through it all, Bell has relished the Olympic-size thrill of producing a live show. “With the Games, you have two years to reinvent and embrace new technology,” he says. “On Today, we're doing it every day.”