Dick Ebersol: From Saturday Night to Sunday Night, and the evolution of network television (book reviews)

I am combining two book reviews and my own observations on the rise and fall of network television.

Three television stations, with a foot antenna or rabbit-ears. Maybe a PBS station, and later, difficult to clearly receive UHF (mostly independent stations). Those were the options. Not a lot of channel surfing in those days, and it was done by physically turning the channel dial on the TV. Did I mention the black & white picture tube?

Years ago, I was the cable television administrator for a midwestern city, overseeing the cable franchise and dealing with the lone cable provider for the community. In those days, there were fewer than a hundred total channels, cable had not exploded as a content provider, but there were many new start-ups. The three networks still dominated viewing households, though their stranglehold was beginning to change.

Cable in the 1960s was an infant and just served as a community antenna, not as an alternative source of programming. CBS and NBC were the big dogs, with ABC a smaller network (fewer independently owned stations with an agreement to carry network programs). By the end of the 1960s, ABC was catching up, and networked poached young talent from each other.

Leonard H. Goldenson

The man who nurtured and built ABC from the early days, until it was sold to Capital Cities in 1986, was Leonard Goldenson, whose career began with the movie theater part of the business. Goldenson hired young Roone Arledge in the early 1960s, who then brought in a talented group including Ebersol and Don Ohlmeyer.

Let me begin with the Goldenson book, this is quite a network history. I thought it would be dry, perhaps it was the subject matter and Goldenson’s storytelling that kept my interest. This book is the definitive history of the American Broadcasting Company, as much as it is about Goldenson. What I learned about him, Goldenson was a risk-taker in an industry that did not have a previous business model to follow. I was familiar with the sports-side, Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football, college football coverage, boxing, bowling, and the junk programming that pitted non-athletes in sports competition and athletes that competed in other sporting events. No wonder Arledge’s empire grew to include news.

Goldenson traces ABC’s evolution in terms of world events, technology and cultural change. Network programming very much mirrored changing times. One area where Goldenson spends time is the organizational changes and the movement of people into, through and out of the company. I did not perceive Goldenson as a ruthless executive; a smart one, and someone who gave latitude to those who worked for him. Leadership is certainly an underlying theme in both of these books. No single person accomplishes what each of these men did without a team of capable and energetic people.

Dick Ebersol was Roone Arledge’s right-arm guy in the early 1970s at ABC, which was the least successful of the three broadcast networks at the time. That, was about to change as ABC built a leading sports organization and soon had a prime-time entertainment schedule of hit shows.

Ebersol began as a college kid with ABC in the 1960s, as a researcher, helping with sports, an organization that had only 28 employees at the time. He was taken under the wing of ABC sports czar, and later news president, Roone Arledge. Ebersol, and colleague Ohlmeyer, would climb to heights running network sports and entertainment operations for the next few decades. Arledge, Ebersol and Ohlmeyer were kings of the industry, but Goldenson was one of the few gods.

ABC also provided coverage of Olympics games, including the 1972 Munich Games and the hostage taking. Both Goldenson and Ebersol retell this sad and horrific event, each from their own perspective. Ebersol was there, working the games. Fifty years later, that tragic event is fresh in my mind. It played out on television, as ABC had the television coverage of the games and sports presenters became news conveyors.

“Roone had built the template for the rest of us to follow,” Ebersol writes. “In the nineties, I felt like we at NBC Sports had become the heirs to Roone’s approach, covering the biggest events and telling the best stories along the way.”

Dick Ebersol

Dick Ebersole begins his book with the event that killed his teenage son, and left Ebersol in critical condition. He later finishes telling the story, but it clearly frames his life. Despite that event, and his marriage to actress Susan Saint James, the reader learns little of Ebersol, mainly his accomplishments, of which there are many. His book is really about his projects in both sports and entertainment, and the art of the deal, to borrow a phrase.

From the NBA to the NFL to the Olympics, big deals, billions of dollars now, seemed blood coursing through Ebersol’s veins. But Ebersol was not a dollars and cents guy, he knew the financial landscape, but he was a production guy, a storyteller. He answered to those with the “Buck stops here” sign on their desks, but he had their trust in negotiations.

The most interesting part of Ebersol’s career at NBC was in the creation of Saturday Night Live!. Picked by the network brass to create a show to replace Johnny Carson reruns, he hired Lorne Michaels to help craft a hip, energetic late night variety show. We know how that turned out, but you might not know that Ebersol was pushed out as the executive in charge after the show got its legs. He moved to the West Coast and supervised other entertainment programming, only to be brought back to SNL after Michaels left, and the show was on the verge of cancellation. The show was saved and eventually prospered.

After General Electric sold NBC/Universal to Comcast, Ebersol suspected his time with the company was growing short. That inkling became reality when he and the new boss failed to come terms on a contract.

“To Burke, the way to take over NBC, and mold it in Comcast’s image, as he saw it, was to eliminate all the soft edges. To paint over the identity that had defined the company for decades. To ignore the relationships that made the place special; a place to care about, not just a place to work.”

Ebersole reflected on the changing culture and new leadership:

“…creating the community I wanted at NBC Sports was about forging emotional connections, making people feel seen and part of something where their role was valued. I’d like to think that approach, as much as anything else I did as an executive, fostered our culture at NBC Sports; a culture where no one was ever afraid to ask a question, where everyone was encouraged to be curious and creative, and, with some work, there were no asholes anywhere to be found anywhere.”

Goldenson also saw the writing on the wall as ABC became part of Capital Cities, and a decade later The Walt Disney Company. Although ABC had grown into a large corporation, Goldenson ran it with a leadership culture that emphasized relationships and accountability. Earnings were important, but that couldn’t drive creativity. Ironically, Goldenson loaned Walt Disney money to help build Disneyland. Years later, Disney bought back the 34.48 percent from ABC. Disney also had programming deals with ABC (The Mickey Mouse Club, The Hardy Boys, The Wonderful World of Disney, etc.).

Ebersol had been away from sports television for nearly 15 years when NBC asked him to lead the network’s sports division in 1989. First came the NBA as the network and then other spots deals. In 1995-96 NBC became the first (and still only) network to host the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Summer Olympics in a single year.

“I’d been in the right place, with the right people around, above, and below me, to make it all happen,” Ebersol told Emily Bobrow of the Wall Street Journal.

The landscape has changed significantly since the old broadcast network days. Some historical perspective:

In the beginning, broadcast television was king, of course that was the only option. More channels and viewing options came with cable. Competition between providers as satellite, fiber and other delivery methods brought more content options. There is more viewership now than in the 1960s, obviously, and even with that, viewership is split with hundreds of options delivered by many different platforms. It’s a vastly different landscape than when Goldenson was building ABC and Ebersol was creating sports programs. Sports and unscripted programming is still the drivers of viewers for network television, but others like Amazon have jumped in.

In 1960, 90 percent or 47.7 million households owned a television. This was the era of one car families with on average of 3.29 persons in household. Most likely, one television in the household. No iPads or cellphones, not even color TV. The dark ages to be sure.

Broadcast’s share of TV viewing was at 21.6% according to Nielsen ratings for July 2022, streaming represented a 34.8% share of total TV viewing in the U.S. and cable viewing at 34.4%. Broadcast television continues to shrink, especially for the key 18-49 age group demographic, according to Variety.

“The share of Americans who say they watch television via cable or satellite has plunged from 76% in 2015 to 56% this year, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults,” writes Lee Rainee, works at Center. “Some 71% of those who do not use cable or satellite services say it’s because they can access the content they want online.”

According to Zippia.com, 78 percent of households subscribe to a streaming service of some kind, and that number continues to grow. The rise of unscripted programming has not threatened the sitcom or hour-long drama, as this content has also grown with more platforms available. The vision of people like Goldenson, Ebersol, Arledge, Ted Turner, and many others built the foundation of today’s and tomorrow’s programming, however it is delivered.

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