NBC's Ebersol adviser for Olympics telecasts

DAVID BAUDER AP Television Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- The way American television viewers experience the Olympics is largely the vision of producer Dick Ebersol, and this summer's London Games will be the first in two decades on NBC without the veteran executive running the show.

He won't be forgotten, given the loyalties of NBC Sports brass, and isn't really gone -- NBC employs him as an adviser. But London will test the abilities of a new team for the company that owns Olympics TV rights through 2020.

Ebersol, 65, unexpectedly quit as NBC Sports chairman last year when negotiations for a new contract broke down. Best known to many outside the industry as actress Susan St. James' husband and for being injured in a 2004 plane crash that killed his son, Ebersol broke into TV in 1967 as an Olympics researcher for ABC, working for the legendary producer Roone Arledge.

While he's held other jobs, mostly notably as "Saturday Night Live" producer between Lorne Michaels' two tenures, the Olympics were his chief focus since before the Barcelona Games in 1992 and for seven Olympics after.

He produced the prime-time Olympics telecast with an eye on personalities, the peculiarities of the host country and a focus on American athletes competing in a limited number of marquee sports. In the summer, that's track & field, swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball.

"He's a storyteller," said Andrew Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and author of "Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television. "The Olympics had already been about creating a narrative, but he streamlined the narratives and found a way to integrate them into the broadcast."

Ebersol's critics sometimes found him inflexible, more interested in creating a TV show than covering a sports event in timely fashion. But his theory was that NBC's massive Olympics investment would fail if the company didn't work hard to attract women and family viewership.

"You don't move away from something that has been successful," said Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group chairman.

Ebersol left behind a team at NBC that knows him well, with many indebted to him for their jobs. Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, is a lawyer by training and has worked with Ebersol since 1992. Lazarus was brought in by Ebersol in early 2011 when corporate parent Comcast told him he needed someone to run NBC's cable sports properties, then he replaced his boss in the top job a few months later.

Jim Bell, the "Today" show producer who is producing the Olympics telecasts, got his first job at NBC pushing an executive around Barcelona in a wheelchair, and later was hired by Ebersol to work in the Olympics unit.

NBC's new Olympics team has already broken ranks with Ebersol in one key area. The network has decided to stream all Olympics events from London live online, a move Ebersol had resisted for fear it would cut into NBC's prime-time audience. Because of the time difference, everything on NBC in prime-time will be pre-taped.

Otherwise, NBC has signaled no dramatic changes in how the games will be televised, with the exception of adding Ryan Seacrest and John McEnroe to do feature stories.

"It's not like taking a snapshot of the last Olympics and saying, 'let's go do that again," Bell said. "It's 'let's figure out what worked, let's figure out what we can do better, let's figure out what the technology is going to allow us to do. It's definitely his template, but part of his template is evolving and growing and taking chances."

NBC said late last summer that Ebersol would be an Olympics adviser even though he had left the network. Bell said he talks to his former boss frequently, "just to kind of kick around stuff -- what do you think about the swimming here? What about the diving? What about this? What about that? He's an adviser."

He doesn't have an office in London, but is expected around the NBC facilities frequently. The big difference is he plans to take time to attend some events, something that never happened while he was executive producer, Lazarus said.

Ebersol did not want to discuss his new role, an NBC Sports spokesman said.

NBC is wise to take advantage of the veteran executive's expertise, said Patrick Riche, a sports media professor at Webster University in St. Louis and operator of the Sportsimpacts advisory firm.

Whether or not the fit is awkward depends on the personalities involved. "If Mr. Ebersol comes in and tries to take offense at those who don't listen to his suggestions, that could be problematic," Riche said.

Lazarus said that he and Ebersol have been friends for 20 years and he doesn't feel threatened by his presence. At first, there were a few rough spots as the two men got used to their new roles, but Lazarus said they have been smoothed over.

"I'd like to think I'm more self-confident than to be looking in the rear-view mirror and saying 'Dick's still around,'" he said. "Dick doesn't want my job. He's had my job. He's off doing something different."

Lazarus said Ebersol's consultancy has brought great value to the company.

"It's good for our product," he said. "I think it's good for the people that have been around for 25 years that he's still got things to teach them, which he has done throughout this process. For the same reason, I think it's good for Dick because it brings a certain sense of honor and closure to his relationship with NBC."