Sports Media

Ebersol walks away from NBC

Olympic coverage should be affected

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By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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During his long tenure as one of the most influential figures in sports television, Dick Ebersol was often accused of favoring a compelling story to a compelling game.

His resignation yesterday as chairman of the NBC Sports Group qualifies as the former. And his departure may have a great effect on the way the games — specifically, the Olympic Games — are covered.

Ebersol, 63, told The New York Times that he resigned because he could not come to a contract agreement with Comcast, the cable television behemoth that completed its merger with NBC in January.

NBC Sports Cable Group president Mark Lazarus was elevated to replace Ebersol, according to the network.

“I had a long run and loved every bit of it,’’ Ebersol told the Associated Press.

Some of Ebersol’s achievements at NBC are the stuff of television legend. Along with producer Lorne Michaels, he developed “Saturday Night Live’’ in 1975, and served as the program’s executive producer from 1981-85.

His run as the chief of NBC Sports began in 1989, and his post-merger duties as the chairman of NBC Sports Group included NBC Sports, Versus, the Golf Channel, and Comcast’s regional networks, including Comcast SportsNet New England.

Ebersol’s more recent deals included bringing the NFL back to NBC with the Sunday night package in 2006 and retaining NHL rights for NBC and Versus in a deal last month for 10 years and $1.9 billion.

But his legacy at NBC Sports is intertwined with the Olympics more than anything else. NBC has aired every Summer Olympics since 1988 and every Winter Games since 2002. The network holds the broadcast rights to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, having paid a total of $2.2 billion for that and last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

While Comcast and Olympic officials told the Associated Press that Ebersol’s departure will have no bearing on future broadcast rights, the timing is at least curious; bidding will open next month on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Whether NBC/Comcast wins the rights or not, the way the Olympics are covered is all but certain to change without Ebersol’s involvement. NBC often emphasized storytelling over event coverage, even if the time zone was conducive to live broadcasts in the United States. While it is understandable to try to draw as wide an audience as possible in prime time, sometimes it seemed as though the events were secondary to feature stories, and in many instances the results were already common knowledge for hours.

It did not go unnoticed that during ESPN’s presentations to advertisers in New York this week, executive vice president of content John Skipper implied that the network, should it acquire Olympic rights — along with Fox, it is expected to be a serious challenger to NBC/Comcast — would put a greater emphasis on showing events live.

When asked if that meant ESPN would broadcast an important hockey game live at 3 a.m. rather than, say, 10 p.m. on tape, he replied, “We’re putting it on at 3 a.m.’’

Now there’s something Ebersol never would have said.

ESPN is an open book They’ve risen to the top of their profession in part because of their ability to stay cool on the air and behind the scenes. But when the cameras go off and the last catchphrases have been shouted, there are plenty of nervous people at ESPN these days.

“Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,’’ hits the bookshelves Tuesday, all 770 pages of it. Exhaustively researched over three years (560 people were interviewed) and written by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, its contents remained an extraordinarily well-kept secret right up until Wednesday, when an embargo was lifted by publisher Little, Brown and Company. It might as well have said, “Let the revelations of all the salacious details begin!’’

While the book is a nuanced telling of ESPN’s 32-year journey from irrelevant cable station airing Australian Rules Football to powerhouse business that can get away with charging unprecedented cable rights fees, the juicy details of debauchery and ego are not lacking.

Tony Kornheiser thinks Mike Tirico set him up to fail on “Monday Night Football.’’ Chris Berman thinks Kornheiser set him up to be a punch line on the Internet. Michelle Beadle doesn’t much like Erin Andrews, and given that Beadle admits in the book that she watched a certain infamous peephole video, the feeling is going to be mutual if it isn’t already.

Then there is Keith Olbermann, who comes across as a gifted psychological bully.

“Oh, Keith is sui generis,’’ said Miller during an interview. “I think the people who love Keith and the people who hate Keith can agree that there’s only one Keith. I don’t think the place has ever seen anyone like him before. And you can probably say that for every other place he has been. That’s just who he is.’’

Miller said he has been contacted by ESPN employees worried about what the book reveals, particularly after the network suspended Kornheiser in February 2010 for comments he made about anchor Hannah Storm’s wardrobe.

“People after that, people we’d interviewed before it happened, were calling up and saying, ‘Can you read me what I said?’ ’’ said Miller.

“They’d say, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to get fired.’ That was a real structural signifier, for lack of a better term. I’m sure many of them are still worrying about it now.’’

None better No New Englander should have a beef with MLB Network’s choice for the No. 1 spot in its “20 Greatest Games’’ countdown: Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The network will conclude its series and pay homage to the game with a three-hour finale Sunday at 8 p.m. Fred Lynn and Johnny Bench join hosts Bob Costas and Tom Verducci in-studio.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.