LONDON — Dick Ebersol says the divide is simple to explain, really. He has been shaping the way America watches the Olympic Games for two decades now, and for all those years there have been critics griping about his vision, complaining that too little of the Games are shown live, grousing that the coverage is too stylized and touchy-feely, grumbling that NBC focuses too much on a handful of sports and all but ignores the others.
Ebersol says you can explain that clash of philosophy in two concise sentences:
1. The critics believe that the Olympics are a great sporting event.
2. Dick Ebersol and NBC believe that the Olympics are a great television event.
That’s it, he says. That’s the whole argument. There are many people who believe that the Olympics should be broadcast the way all other big sporting events are broadcast in the U.S. — live and unrehearsed, with the final result important enough to delay “60 Minutes” or your late local news. These days, while NBC shows mostly taped Olympic sports in prime time, the critics scream in newspapers, on radio shows, on television, in blogs and on Twitter — with #nbcfails hashtags — to punctuate their fury.
But Ebersol, in what he says will be his only interview at these Games, tells me that those critics have it all wrong. The Olympics, he believes, are not to be treated like other sports. “That’s just nonsense,” he says. “The Olympics are the biggest family television there is. The Olympics are one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together.
“People talk about how we should treat this like sports? You know, we’re getting an 18 rating some nights. Do you know what rating we would get if this was not under the banner of the Olympics? We’d be lucky to get a 1 rating for some of these sports. … This is our business model. The newspaper people have their own business model. We’re in the television business. We’re here to make great television.”
These are Dick Ebersol’s last Olympics. He was chairman of NBC Sports and the network’s executive producer for every Summer Olympics between Barcelona in 1992 and Beijing in 2008. Last year, he resigned from NBC. He said that it was time to stop working so much. He did stay on to serve as a senior adviser for “Sunday Night Football,” which last year became the first sporting event to top the season television ratings.
He also stayed on to be a senior adviser for the Olympics (that deal ends in September) — making these his first Games in more than 20 years where he is not running the whole show — and he is helping format the programming and offer some of his experience. He is also trying to relax a bit. He’s 65 years old now. His 20-hour days are down to 15. He manages, on occasion, to break away for a meal with his wife, Susan Saint James, and he has even made it out of his office to various venues to see some events. This almost never happened before. Before London, the only live Olympic event he had ever attended was a Team USA basketball game. That was with his son, Teddy, who died in a plane crash three months after the Athens Games.
“I’m glad I did that because of Teddy, obviously,” Ebersol says, and any mention of his son brings tears to his eyes. But his larger point is that he has always looked at the Olympics not as a series of sporting events but as great television theater. After all these years, he’s pretty sure that he knows television. It is Ebersol who approached Lorne Michaels, and together they conceived “Saturday Night Live.” It is Ebersol who ran “NBC News” for a while, who came up with shows such as “Friday Night Videos” and “Later With Bob Costas.” He was executive producer for the highest-rated Super Bowl ever. He loves sports — his New York Yankees, especially — but he thinks television.
“The key is storytelling,” he says. “That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.
“The other day when [Dominican 400-meter hurdler] Felix Sanchez won the gold medal,” he says, “we had told his story [about his grandmother dying on the day he was trying to qualify in Beijing]. We had been with him throughout. People knew him. So when he broke down on the stand, people cried with him. It would not have meant as much as a simple sports story.”
This goes back to Ebersol’s roots. The father of American Olympic television was legendary producer Roone Arledge. He found himself frustrated by the Olympics in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria. He was trying to bring the Olympics home to people, but they knew so little about the athletes, they could not tell a story. “Back then, the only thing they’d tell you was the athletes’ names, age, country and maybe, if you were lucky, a limited list of the their results,” Ebersol says.
This drove Arledge mad. But what made it even worse was that after the event was over, the gold medalist would talk to the newspaper reporters and, often, tell an extraordinary story about his or her life, the sort of amazing story that Ebersol soon summed up with the generic line: “His father was in the resistance and his mother took in laundry to keep the family going.”
Arledge knew he needed those stories BEFORE the event ended. And to get that story, he hired the first-ever Olympic researcher, a temporary Yale dropout named Dick Ebersol.
So, this is his essence: Olympic storytelling. As you have seen, Ebersol believes that it’s the stories of the athletes, their struggles, their triumphs, their heartbreaks, that make the Olympics amazing television, not the sports themselves. Almost nobody watches swimming or track and field in an off-Olympic year. He admits that there have been some ups and downs in his efforts to tell those stories. He believes that in his first Olympics in charge, 1992 in Barcelona, he ran too many three-minute features about athletes, which made NBC too intrusive. And there have been other rough patches as he has tried to find the right balance. But he says that, over time, NBC’s Olympic coverage has grown. This year, Olympic executive producer Jim Bell — whom Ebersol hired in Barcelona — has been taking a lot of criticism for the network’s tape delay and editing. But Ebersol thinks the television under Bell has been nothing less than extraordinary.
“This year, really for the first time, I have had some time to watch the host country’s television,” Ebersol says. “I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.
“I believe our coverage is different from anyone else’s in the world. We do as many features on foreign athletes as American athletes. We tell the best stories, wherever we can find them. There’s a great tradition in American television of professionalism in coverage, and I believe we live up to that tradition.”
As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol offers another example: In Beijing, in one of the more remarkable negotiations in sports television, he convinced the IOC to schedule the swimming finals for the morning. This was a Herculean achievement, and with the time difference it put live swimming on smack in the middle of prime time in the U.S. And, of course, this wasn’t just any swimming competition, this was Michael Phelps going for eight gold medals, and it included one of the closest finishes in Olympic history and one of the greatest relay comebacks.
These London Olympics — with the swimming all on tape delay — beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.
“It amazes me that we are still talking about this,” Ebersol says. “If someone wants to watch the Olympics live, they can do that online. That’s a very small percentage of people. We’ve done study after study where we ask people when they want to watch the Olympics. They say ‘after dinner.’ Every study, I’ve never seen it less than 80 percent, and it’s usually a lot higher than that.
“People want the Olympic experience, to gather around their television, to be told the story of the Olympics. I think we’ve taken my mentor Roone’s model, and we’ve improved it. ”
Ebersol says that the London Games have been bittersweet. Part of him misses the tension and crackling energy of being in charge, of making instant and critical decisions. And part of him is happy that it is winding down. He doesn’t know what comes next. But, for the first time in his life, he says he’s not too worried about it. There are opportunities, a lot of them. There are also books he wants to read, friends he wants to see, trips he wants to take and family time that was all but impossible in all his years at the top.
As for the Olympics, well, he says that as a television story, he probably took over the Games at exactly the wrong time in 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before that, the Olympic narrative was pretty obvious. “My mentor had it easier than I did in some ways,” Ebersol says. “Back then, you knew exactly who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. [Olympic host] Jim McKay never said a word about it. He didn’t have to say anything. Everybody knew. You would see those guys with the CCCP across their uniforms, and you knew. There were black hats and white hats, and it was all built in, nobody had to say anything.
“That changed in 1992. The Cold War was over, and the stories became more complicated. It wasn’t about good guys and bad guys anymore. But in many ways that was a great opportunity.”
He smiles. This is Ebersol going for the big finish. He was executive producer of the Beijing Olympics, the most watched television event in American history. He’s a senior adviser at the London Olympics, which will surpass Beijing. These Games are projected to make money for NBC, something no one had thought possible. For every person who mocks or challenges his Olympic television vision, there are many more who gather around the TV every night and enjoy the show.
“You know what I think is the greatest moment of the Olympics?” he asks. “It’s my favorite 20 minutes in all of sports. It’s at the end of the Opening Ceremonies, when all the athletes are standing in one place. There are, what, 204 countries there? There could be countries at war, and their athletes are standing 100 or 200 yards form each other.
“And you realize that could be our world, under ideal circumstances. Think about that. I have tried to never lose that image. We don’t need white hats and black hats. We just need to tell the stories.”