NBC's Dick Ebersol is a vanishing breed in button-down corporate media world
The departure of Dick Ebersol as chairman of NBC Sports ends not only an era at the network but also in the television industry.
The swashbuckling Ebersol, 63, is part of a dying breed in the entertainment industry. Once a business filled with larger-than-life characters who lived for producing and made decisions based on their gut, it is now a button-down culture ruled by executives who often care more about the opinions of Wall Street and the bottom line than the viewers at home.
"I was never afraid, I never feared for a job, I never cared what I was paid," Ebersol said of his approach to the business.
Replacing Ebersol is Mark Lazarus, a former senior executive at Turner Broadcasting, who Comcast hired in December to run its regional sports networks.
An imposing presence, Ebersol rewrote the rules for television sports, paying huge broadcast fees for marquee events and pioneering a drama-heavy narrative version of the Olympics that often set ratings records but also rankled sports purists for its focus on sentimentality rather than the actual competition.
He was the co-creator of NBC's “Saturday Night Live” and at various times at the network was heavily involved in news and entertainment programming. He served as a confidant and mentor to several NBC titans, including Brandon Tartikoff, Bob Wright and Jeff Zucker. He also played a pivotal behind the scenes role in returning Jay Leno to late night after his prime-time show failed, a move that ultimately led to the departure of Conan O’Brien from “The Tonight Show” to the cable channel TBS.
“He had a lot of Hollywood in him,” said Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president. “He never left the producer’s truck, even when he had the office of the president.”
He also had his fair share of misses. He and wrestling impresario Vince McMahon teamed up to launch the XFL, a spring football league that was meant to challenge the National Football League, but which folded after one season. He also was influential in the decision to ease Jane Pauley out as co-host of NBC's morning franchise "Today" in favor of Deborah Norville, a move that backfired badly.
While Ebersol is considered one of the most innovative producers and executives in the television industry, he has his detractors as well. Some sports fans and critics didn't like the storytelling approach he brought to the Olympics and other sports.
Internally, he meddled in areas outside of sports, often to the chagrin of other executives at the company.
In the past that wasn't a problem. Ebersol had the ear and support of top NBC executives including former chief executives Wright and Zucker. When Comcast took over operations of NBCUniversal four months ago, many in the industry were wondering how the larger-than-life Ebersol would blend in with Comcast's low-key management approach.
Ebersol, from Comcast's perspective, wasn't conforming to the new corporate structure, which values teamwork over star personalities.
Asked if he thought there was a clash of cultures between him and Comcast, Ebersol said there wasn't, but added, "It's their company, they are entitled to feel that way."
-- Joe Flint and Meg James