EBERSOL, DICK

U.S. Media Executive

In 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 programmers.

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.

Ebersol 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 of.

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.

By 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 Night Live.

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.

Dick 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).

Critics 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.

No 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.

Ebersol 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.

Ebersol 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.

Ebersol 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.

In 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.

-Mark McDermott


Dick Ebersol
Photo courtesy of Dick Ebersol

DICK 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. 10112.

TELEVISION SERIES

1981-85 Saturday Night Live (executive producer)
1983     Friday Night Videos (executive producer)
1985     Saturday Night Main Event (executive producer) 1988     Later With Bob Costas (executive producer)

FURTHER READING

Clark, Kenneth R. "Reincarnated: In Susan Saint James' New Life, She's Betty Aster, Radio Star." Chicago Tribune, 1 June 1993.

Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingard. Saturday Night: a Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree, 1986.

Holtzman, Jerome. "On Baseball." Chicago Tribune, 13 June 1993.

"Live from New York--it's Dick Ebersol." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 4 December 1989.

Mandese, Joe. "'There's A Lot Left For Me In Sports.'" Advertising Age (New York), 6 September 1993.

Niedetz, Steve. "On TV/Radio Sports." Chicago Tribune, 23 January 1995.

Shapiro, Mitchell E. Television Network Prime-time Programming, 1948-1988. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1989.

 

See also Arledge, Roone; Saturday Night Live; Sports and Television