In a seismic event whose reverberations will long be felt throughout the sports and TV ecosystem, Dick Ebersol stepped down as Chairman, NBC Sports Group on May 19th.
Roone Arledge’s protégé and spiritual successor, Dick has been an industry giant for decades. As the world has grown smaller, Dick has had a subtle but unmistakable role in the evolution of our national self-perception: he has been personally responsible for shaping how the Olympic Games – the single highest-profile international gathering of any kind –– have been presented in every broadcast since 2000 (and every Summer Games since 1988). He will be followed as head of NBC Sports by Mark Lazarus, a well-known and admired executive; but like his close friend and fellow legend, the late Brandon Tartikoff, Dick is not replaceable.
I first met Dick when he became president of NBC Sports in 1989, and worked with him on and off until I left the company in 1992. I then had the pleasure of sitting across the table from him periodically over the next ten years as part of the NFL’s broadcast rights negotiating team. I have always had the highest regard for Dick, and it’s led me to consider some of the possible aftershocks of his departure.
1. The future of Olympics broadcasting in the US
The timing of Dick’s resignation couldn’t be much worse from NBC’s perspective. In a couple of weeks in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC will auction the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Games (and possibly 2018 and 2020 as well). No one is closer to the Olympic hierarchy than Dick, who would have headed the delegation; NBC is now scrambling to figure out how to re-do its pitch. Further, Dick is famous for his hero-centric, compelling-storyline packaging of the Games, sometimes forgoing live coverage of premier events in favor of post-producing an entertaining show to be aired in primetime. Will Mark Lazarus stick with that plan? ESPN, a rival bidder for the Games, has been vocal about its intention to stay with its traditional live-event coverage, which would make for a very different sort of telecast if they ultimately outbid NBC.
And what about GE? NBC’s former owner (and still 49% investor) has helped sweeten NBC’s bid in past years by stepping in as a worldwide Olympic sponsor. Will their appetite diminish with Dick gone? And just how much does new owner Comcast care about the Olympics anyway?
Dick himself just hosted the sponsor preview of the London 2012 Games in Studio 8H at 30 Rock a couple of weeks ago. His passion and excitement burned as brightly as ever. His departure is a huge loss that will color all aspects of those Games, just over one year away.
2. The future of Versus
Versus, the name-challenged Comcast sports cable channel that began life as the Outdoor Life Network, joined the NBC family when Comcast took control of NBC-Universal earlier this year. It was very publicly combined into Dick’s NBC Sports Group, along with Comcast’s Golf Channel and regional sports networks. The highest-profile programming on Versus (other than the Harvard-Yale game) is arguably the NHL, which recently signed a new broadcast agreement with NBC and Versus.
It is an open secret that NBC is (mercifully) preparing to re-brand Versus, perhaps as NBC Sports Net or some such thing. There is a big opportunity here; a new competitor to the ESPN family would be welcome in the industry, and there is room for real growth in Versus’s distribution and monthly subscription fees. (Right now Versus has something like half the sub fees of ESPN2, and maybe 80% of the distribution.) Dick held the reins, and would have been in a position to dictate all aspects of the switch, from naming to logo to programming. Now that responsibility falls to Mark, who with his background in cable was already overseeing Versus.
3. The future of sports programming at NBC
Beyond the Olympics, some of the most creative deals in sports TV have been done by Dick and his team at NBC. Culling Notre Dame football away from the NCAA herd 20 years ago was a masterstroke. Creating “Football Night in America” was another, particularly for a network known for its spectacular lack of ratings success on Sunday nights. And whether you loved or hated the XFL, you had to give NBC credit for trying.
So what does the future hold? What happens to Ken Schanzer, Dick’s right hand for many years? Or to Jon Miller, head of programming, or Gary Zenkel, who runs the Olympics? One thing seems clear: the new bosses at NBC-Universal aren’t in awe of the “star executives” in NBC’s ranks. No one – not Jeff Zucker, not Dick Ebersol – is considered untouchable. Following how new NBC-U CEO Steve Burke manages in the wake of this earthquake will keep the sports world glued to their sets.