Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Univeral Sports &
Olympics, has won innumerable awards during a 44-year career in which he helped
bring the Olympics to new heights, created a dominant primetime franchise in Sunday Night Football and launched Saturday Night Live.
But he says winning the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award is particularly special
to him because Tartikoff , NBC's legendary programmer, was his best friend and
taught him important lessons about business and life.
"He was younger than me and at one point less wise than me, but I learned [from
him] about making your choices in life and about doing the thing you really
love to do," Ebersol says.
Tartikoff also taught him about loyalty. Ebersol left ABC in 1974, where he had
started as an Olympics researcher working under Roone Arledge, to go to NBC as
director of weekend late-night programming. NBC needed a new show because
Johnny Carson didn't want his reruns running on Saturday nights. The result was
Saturday Night Live, which is still
on the air 36 seasons later.
NBC later put Ebersol in charge of comedy, specials and variety programs and
moved him to the West Coast, where he made Tartikoff , a fellow Yalie, his No.
2 in charge of comedy. About two years later, in 1978, NBC decided to make
Tartikoff head of West Coast operations-and Ebersol's boss.
Before accepting the job, Ebersol says, Tartikoff came to his office and
suggested they take a drive. At what "should be the golden moment of his
career," Tartikoff said that if Ebersol wasn't comfortable with the plan,
they'd both leave NBC.
"We were gone for about six hours, which gave everyone in Burbank and New York
heart attacks because they didn't know if they were losing both of us," says
Ebersol, who agreed to work for Tartikoff .
While Ebersol saw the passion that drove Tartikoff 's success in the
frustration and failure-filled development process, Tartikoff knew Ebersol
loved nothing more than sports. In 1989, Tartikoff convinced network brass to
bring Ebersol, who had become an independent producer, back to NBC to run the
sports division, where he made an indelible mark.
Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and News, says it was obvious early on
that Ebersol was "ambitious, very sharp and was going to have a major impact on
whatever industry he chose to enter."
Ebersol did Olympics research for McManus' father, legendary sportscaster Jim
McKay, and spent a fair amount of time in the McKays' swimming pool. "I would
certainly count him among my oldest and dearest friends," McManus says. "He's a
fierce competitor and a loyal friend, and I've learned a lot from him."
Ebersol hired Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL, 36 years ago. Michaels recalls
that when it was being put together, "he completely protected me and the show."
Recently, they had conversations about how to get Jim Carrey involved in NBC's
wild-card NFL playoff games that led into SNL a few
Saturdays ago. "We're old friends. He's a good collaborator, and very good in
supporting his team and articulating a clear vision of where he wants to go,"
Ebersol's background created a bond with outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff
Zucker, who entered the industry as an Olympics researcher as well. "Anytime I
had a big issue or a big decision to make, I always sought his advice," Zucker
says. That advice has always been "honest and objective . . . even when I
didn't want to hear it."
Zucker adds that besides being a great producer and executive, Ebersol is a
great friend. "He's just an incredibly loyal person whose best quality is his
big heart," Zucker says. "He doesn't like you to see that soft side too often,
but it's as soft as anybody's."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is unlikely to see much of that soft side as
the league and NBC try to negotiate a broadcast-rights renewal, applauds
Ebersol's storytelling ability. "He's very good at knowing the nuances and how
best to tell the story," Bettman says. "That's the unique touch that he has."
That touch helped NBC build the NHL's New Year's Day Winter Classic into an
attraction that holds its own with college football bowl games.
"When you work with him, you become a friend," Bettman says. "He is just one of
those truly special people who you love to spend time with."
The result is Ebersol is surrounded by good people. "You know if somebody's
working with Dick, they're very good at what they do and very talented,"
Though Ebersol's career has been most closely identified with the Olympics, he
says he's equally satisfied with the development of Sunday
Night Football into the top-rated primetime series.
"All the various lessons I've learned along the way-storytelling, programming,
scheduling, talent acquisition and management-all of them have come to fore
here," says Ebersol, who has traveled to supervise the production of nearly
every SNF game. He recalls that there were many doubters in the industry and on
Wall Street who questioned whether another football broadcast would work. NFL
Commissioner Roger Goodell is a believer.
"Sunday Night Football has been a
great success, setting viewership records, [with NBC] becoming the first
network to promote our games on other networks and helping to build our
Thursday-night season kickoff game into a tremendous season-opening event,"
Goodell says. He calls Ebersol one of the best partners the NFL has ever had,
adding, "it is equally important and an honor that I can count on him as a
Ebersol has made many friends over the course of what is now a long career.
"Recently, I looked at a piece of tape and thought: You're starting to look
your age, kid," Ebersol says. "I've been hiding that from myself. I don't think
I've been looking that hard."
Nevertheless, with new NBC Universal owner Comcast making Ebersol chairman of
the NBC Sports Group, there is still plenty to look forward to from what he
calls "the best seat in the house, both literally and figuratively" in the
world of unscripted drama.
"The next horizon is always the next big event, whether it's an NFL game or the
Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, or U.S. Open golf or Wimbledon," Ebersol says. "I
have the great advantage of having something pretty major coming down the road
every week during football season. The toughest it gets all year is maybe once
a month. I'm pretty damn lucky."