Olympics a labor of love, and personal, for Ebersol


September 29, 2000|By Milton Kent

Picture a composer who has labored over a masterwork for years, only to have it pilloried by the public when it is performed for the first time, and you can begin to understand what must be running through Dick Ebersol's mind as his Olympics telecasts are being picked apart from all corners.

For Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, who dropped out of college 32 years ago to become a researcher for ABC's telecasts of the 1968 Winter and Summer Games, the Olympics have been a magnificent obsession, a Holy Grail of television programming.

Ebersol's biography in the NBC Olympic media guide contains the self-illuminating quote, "After all these years in the business, the only reason I am still doing this, one of the main reasons I wake up in the morning, is a passion for the Olympics."

Since taking over NBC Sports in 1989, Ebersol has immersed himself and his network in the Olympics. He has served as a very hands-on executive producer of NBC's telecasts in 1992, 1996 and this year. He personally brokered the mammoth 1995 deals that landed the network the exclusive American television rights to the Olympics from 2000 to 2008, five Games in all.

It is, then, somewhat understandable that Ebersol has taken the criticism of NBC's work from Sydney like a dagger piercing through his heart, because, in his mind, the Olympics are personal.

The trouble is, though, that in defending his work, Ebersol has given the image of a man who has lost perspective as well as the ability to take a necessary step back to see the proverbial big picture.

More than once since the American media has been reporting the gap in ratings between what NBC got four and eight years ago and now, Ebersol has gone on the warpath against his critics.

He has lashed out at newspaper editors and writers for suggesting that some of NBC's Olympic telecasts could be aired live despite the 15-hour time gap between Sydney and the U.S. East Coast. Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s decision to air competition live drew the wrath of Ebersol, who described it as "a colossal joke" and "folly."

And in a Newsweek interview this week, Ebersol stepped a bit far in trying to defend the network's athlete features from Sydney as less mawkish than ones from Atlanta. Trying to explain that NBC had raised the bar in defining personal challenges, he said "we've taken diseases like asthma and [stopped treating] them as life-threatening"- a concept that asthmatics, including my mother, will no doubt find comforting.

The usually savvy Ebersol should know by now that he can't win a hissing match with writers and editors, a group that is genetically disposed to, at best, distrust television and always has the last word.

This isn't the first time Ebersol has spoken or acted rashly and lived to regret it. In late 1995, Ebersol churlishly declared that NBC would not be involved in baseball "for the rest of the century," after its involvement with the Baseball Network venture. A few months later, chastened by his network superiors, Ebersol did a five-year deal with Major League Baseball for postseason telecasts.

Three years ago, when NBC elected not to match CBS' $4 billion offer to carry NFL games, Ebersol sniffed that CBS would lose $175 million annually, and cracked that he would, during the network's Super Bowl telecast, run a score box on the screen detailing the losses his network competitors would suffer with the new NFL television contract.

After the Newsweek article appeared, Ebersol called Don Imus' radio talk show, and, to his credit, allowed that his use of asthma was a "mis-choice," and continued to offer a defense of what the network is doing in Sydney.

Some of his arguments actually make sense. No matter what otherwise intelligent folk say, the tape-delay issue is not the prime reason viewership is off from what the network promised advertisers, the only valid ratings comparison there is.

Most likely, the salient point is that a September Olympics in this ultra-competitive marketplace has simply too many things jousting for the attention of the audience, a notion Ebersol probably didn't take into account when he bid on these Games five years ago.

And Ebersol's continued reliance on the same Olympic "storytelling" mode of making viewers feel some connection between themselves and the athletes that his mentor, ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge, used in the 1960s and '70s has likely turned off enough sports fans to make them wander to other places. No one does business the way he did 30 years ago; why should television be any different?

In the long run, though, as Imus himself suggested after Ebersol left, why should he care what anyone outside of NBC headquarters thinks? After all, on Monday when this is all over, his network will have overwhelmingly dominated prime-time ratings for 17 straight nights, a notion that is unheard of in today's television.

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