The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Life after NBC: Is there an Oscar in Dick Ebersol's future?

Dick_eberole This is the time of year when the Motion Picture Academy is being flooded with resumes from all sorts of film producers who for some reason have an insane urge to produce the Academy Awards. It's a thankless job, since the show's ratings have been spiraling downward in recent years and the media, after it's done blaming the hosts, usually takes aim on the producer. And -- oh, yeah -- the Academy is so resistant to change that the vast majority of the show is untouchable, so the producer can only fiddle with about 8% of the broadcast.

All that said, if I were an Academy board member, I'd be bombarding president Tom Sherak with phone calls, saying -- didn't you read the papers last Friday? Dick Ebersol is available! If there were ever a producer born to wrestle the Oscars into the 21st century, it's Ebersol, one of the most magnetic talents in modern-day broadcasting who just resigned as head of NBC Sports after producing the last eight Olympics.

As my colleagues Joe Flint and Meg James noted in their story, Ebersol had a flair for creating excitement and drama while also understanding how to handle entertainment talent, being the co-creator with Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" and a key behind-the-scenes negotiator in NBC's efforts to return Jay Leno to late night after the network's prime-time experiment flopped. 

Ebersol would be a natural to helm the Oscars, especially because of his Olympics coverage, which created an emotional bond between viewers and a host of often obscure athletes by crafting emotional featurettes delving into the triumphs and tragedies in their personal lives. This is exactly what the Oscars should be doing so that its audience might actually have a rooting interest in the unknowns who are up for honors in the best art direction or best sound editing categories.

Ironically, Ebersol is a long shot to earn an Oscar producing nod, because he's -- gasp -- simply a brilliant TV producer. Despite the fact that the Oscars are a TV show, the Academy selects a producer, or producers, for the show based on their film background. From the Academy's point of view, if you don't have an armful of movie credits, you don't have the necessary gravitas to be an Oscars producer.

They've never realized that they have a ridiculously outdated way of looking at the Oscars. It is a TV show and it is judged, in terms of its success, by its entertainment value and its TV ratings. Hence the need for a bona fide TV producer. At the very least, the Academy should hire Ebersol and team him up with a classy film producer who has the kind of Rolodex necessary to woo big-name talent as presenters and hosts. But the Academy should leave the big picture thinking to Ebersol, who is the kind of innovative, strategic thinker who could bring some verve and vitality to what has become a dreary, self-congratulatory event.

When Ebersol left NBC last week, one of his old competitors, ex-CBS Sports Chairman Neil Pilson, said "[Dick] had a lot of Hollywood in him." In other words, Ebersol is a showman, which is just what Hollywood's oldest institution desperately needs right now.

-- Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol, right, with Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner. Credit: Adam Hunger / Reuters

 
Comments () | Archives (4)

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Uh, NBC's Olympic coverage is terrible. And given the fiasco that the Tonight Show turnover ended up being, Ebersol being a "key figure" in that mess isn't anything to brag about. Ebersol is a dinosaur that the industry has passed by, the Oscars doesn't need him.

Is he married to Susan St. James or am I confusing him with another guy ?

Right on! The show needs shaking up (don't all awards shows) if it is to maintain any significant broadcast presence as viewer demos continue to shift upwards both in terms of age and intelligence. Teenie bopper music shows are one thing (although the Billboard Awards show was virtually unwatchable) but more serious presentations like the Oscars, Emmys etc. need a re-think big time. Ebersol is just the kind of pro the Academy needs, not another movie producer or similar.

I keep reading that Ebersol "co-created" Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels. Please, that's a vast over-statement. As the executive in charge of late night TV at NBC in 1975, Ebersol hired Michaels and ran interference for him, blocking the attempts of conservative forces within the network who wanted to kill the show in its cradle. Those are vital contributions, but it's misleading to call them "creative." The actual production of the show was Michaels' job. He hired the cast and writers and determined the look, feel, and content of the show. When Ebersol actually took over SNL as producer some six years later, his production style was widely considered more mechanical than creative. Ebersol has many talents, but creative flair -- for comedy, at least -- is not one of them.


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