his various executive positions Duncan Dickie Ebersol has contributed
several innovations to the NBC television network. He shepherded
Saturday Night Live onto the air, then returned as producer
to "rescue" the show in the early 1980s. As president of NBC Sports,
he pursued several inventive and sometimes risky programming packages
such as the Olympics Triple-Cast and the Baseball Network. Throughout
his career he has been recognized as one of television's more creative
Ebersol became hooked on television sports when he saw the debut
of ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1963. Later, when that show
was shooting in his area, he got errand jobs with the crew. By the
winter of 1968 he was working as a research assistant for ABC's
coverage of the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and while finishing
his studies at Yale, he worked full-time as a segment producer.
In 1971, following graduation, he became an executive assistant
and producer with Roone Arledge, vice president of ABC Sports and
creator of Wide World of Sports.
NBC tried to hire Ebersol in 1974 by offering to name him president
of their sports division, but at the age of 27, he decided he wasn't
ready to compete against Arledge. Instead, he moved to NBC with
a new title: Director of Weekend Late Night Programming. At that
time the programming slots following the Saturday and Sunday late
news were a dead zone for all three networks. Affiliates made more
money with old movies than with network offerings--in NBC's case,
reruns of The Tonight Show. The network charged Dick with
finding something, anything, to replace the Carson reruns.
conceived of a comedy-variety revue aimed at young adults, an audience
generally thought to be away from home--and television--on weekends.
He assumed enough of them would stay home to watch a show featuring
"underground" comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, especially
when supported with a repertory cast picked from new improv-based,
television-savvy comedy groups such as Second City, the National
Lampoon stage shows or the Groundlings. Ebersol also discovered
Lorne Michaels, a former writer for Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In,
who had produced specials for Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson, and had
been lobbying for just the kind of program Ebersol was thinking
As Michaels assembled the cast and writers, Ebersol ran interference
for Saturday Night Live before nervous network management
and affiliates. The pair spurned NBC's suggestions for safe hosts
like Bob Hope and Joe Namath, and secured Pryor, Carlin and Tomlin
for that role. As Saturday Night Live took off, NBC promoted
Ebersol to Vice President of Late-Night Programs, with an office
in Burbank and responsibility over every late show that did not
belong to Johnny Carson. Ebersol had become, at 28, the youngest
vice president in NBC history.
1977, he had become head of NBC's comedy and variety programming.
Unfortunately, this was a fallow time for comedy, especially for
NBC. Ebersol has said that his only success in this period was hiring
Brandon Tartikoff away from ABC to be his associate. After a confrontation
with new programming director Fred Silverman, Ebersol quit his position
at NBC, and Tartikoff replaced him. Dick went into independent production,
taking over The Midnight Special and various sports programming.
Shortly afterward, however, NBC asked him to rescue Saturday
Lorne Michaels had left SNL after the 1979-80 season, and
the original cast and writing staff left as well. Replacement producer
Jean Doumanian's tenure proved a disaster: the show's daring, edgy
satire went over the edge with sketches like "The Leather Weather
Lady." NBC executives had seen enough with Doumanian's twelfth show,
when cast member Charles Rocket absent-mindedly said "fuck" on the
air. Doumanian was fired, and Ebersol agreed to produce the show
if NBC would end Midnight Special.
took Saturday Night Live off the air for a month of "retooling."
Following this hiatus only one show was broadcast before a writers'
strike in early 1981 halted production until fall. Meanwhile, he
fired all of the cast except rising stars Joe Piscopo and Eddie
Murphy, and hired Christine Ebersole (no relation), Mary Gross,
and Tim Kazurinsky. Dick also brought back the head writer from
the first season, the brilliant but intimidating Michael O'Donoghue
(who was fired by next January).
considered Ebersol's SNL an improvement over the previous season,
but the ratings were still lower than in the Doumanian era. The
show's guest hosts devolved from hip comedians to NBC series players
or stars of current movies to plug.
Sleep Productions, Dick's production house, had brought Friday
Night Videos to NBC in 1983, where Michael Jackson's groundbreaking
"Thriller" video debuted. The next year, Ebersol took over Friday
Night Videos full-time, and shared the reins on Saturday Night
Live with Bob Tischler. For the 1984-85 season, the two shored up
SNL's ratings with experienced comics like Billy Crystal, Harry
Shearer, Christopher Guest and Martin Short. Afterward, Ebersol
quit to spend more time at home, and Brandon Tartikoff, now his
boss, hired Lorne Michaels as producer.
continued to produce Friday Night Videos for NBC, while his
wife, the actress Susan St. James, starred in CBS's Kate & Allie
with Jane Curtin. In 1985, he produced The Saturday Night Main
Event, a series of World Wrestling Federation matches, to rotate
in Saturday Night Live's off weeks. In 1988, he produced
the very late-night Later with Bob Costas.
returned to NBC in April 1989 as President of NBC Sports. That July
he was also named Senior Vice President of NBC News, a position
that paralleled the situation of his mentor, Roone Arledge, at ABC.
As the executive for the Today Show, Ebersol presided over
Jane Pauley's removal from the anchor desk in favor of Deborah Norville.
He took the heat for the resulting bad publicity, and was relieved
of his Today Show duties.
has enjoyed much greater success in sports programming. He helped
NBC snare several Super Bowl contracts, then brought the National
Basketball Association back to network television at the height
of its popularity. NBC's coverage of the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona
received excellent ratings, but the network lost money, largely
from its "Triple Cast" coverage offered on three pay-per-view cable
channels. Corporate parent General Electric expressed its commitment
to the Olympics, though, when they announced Ebersol would be Executive
Producer of the 1996 Atlanta games.
Ebersol aided in the formation of The Baseball Network, an unusual
joint venture between NBC, ABC and Major League Baseball. The league
produced its own coverage of Friday or Saturday night games; ABC
or NBC alternated scheduling Baseball Night in America, and
affiliates chose games of local interest to carry. The Baseball
Network opened after the 1994 All-Star Game, but was cut short by
that year's players' strike. In 1995, as the delayed baseball season
opened without a labor agreement and no guarantee against another
strike, both networks pulled out of the venture.
the past several years, Ebersol has often been named among the most
influential people in sports by the Sporting News. His name had
been bandied about to possibly become the next Commissioner of baseball,
but he preferred instead to sign a contract to continue as president
of NBC Sports.
Photo courtesy of Dick Ebersol
EBERSOL. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.A., 1947. Graduated
from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1971. Married Susan
St. James, 1982; three children. Began broadcasting career as researcher,
ABC Sports, 1967; segment producer, ABC Sports, 1969; executive
assistant to Roone Arledge, president ABC Sports, 1974; director,
late night weekend programming, NBC-TV, 1974; vice president late
night weekend programming, NBC-TV, 1975; vice president, comedy,
variety, and event programming, NBC-TV, 1977; independent producer,
1979; executive producer, Saturday Night Live, 1981; president,
NBC Sports, since 1989; senior vice president, NBC News, since 1989.
Address: NBC Sports, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York, U.S.
1981-85 Saturday Night Live (executive producer)
1983 Friday Night Videos (executive
1985 Saturday Night Main Event (executive
producer) 1988 Later With Bob Costas
Kenneth R. "Reincarnated: In Susan Saint James' New Life, She's
Betty Aster, Radio Star." Chicago Tribune, 1 June 1993.
Doug, and Jeff Weingard. Saturday Night: a Backstage History
of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree, 1986.
Jerome. "On Baseball." Chicago Tribune, 13 June 1993.
"Live from New York--it's Dick Ebersol." Broadcasting (Washington,
D.C.), 4 December 1989.
Joe. "'There's A Lot Left For Me In Sports.'" Advertising Age
(New York), 6 September 1993.
Steve. "On TV/Radio Sports." Chicago Tribune, 23 January
Mitchell E. Television Network Prime-time Programming, 1948-1988.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1989.
Saturday Night Live; Sports