Review: Dick Ebersol remembers his outsized TV role in memoir

“From Saturday Night to Sunday Night: My Forty Years of Laughter, Tears and Touchdowns on TV”, by Dick Ebersol (Simon & Schuster)

Anyone who has followed the TV industry since the broadcasts went in color knows the name Dick Ebersol. And while those insiders and diehards are the most likely audiences for this memoir, it’s a fun read for anyone curious about the stories behind some of the biggest TV shows of the past half-century. Turns out Duncan Dickie Ebersol, born 1947 in Torrington, Connecticut, had a hand in many of them.

Ebersol’s career began as the very first Olympic researcher for ABC Sports, traveling the world collecting stories about the athletes who would compete in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France. He was not even 20 when legendary producer Roone Arledge hired him. It seems kind of strange now, but there was a time when fans watching the Olympics couldn’t google an athlete’s name and read his/her biography in seconds. Ebersol’s job was to find those stories and then get the talent and production teams on ABC’s broadcasts to bring them out to attract and retain viewers. It’s a template that Ebersol transferred from ABC to NBC Sports when he took over the main runway at the Olympics there in 1989, turning NBC into the “Olympic Network” — a lucrative contract it still holds today.

Before becoming The Man at NBC Sports, Ebersol played a key role in launching another iconic TV institution, “Saturday Night Live.” Producer Lorne Michaels is now more synonymous with the groundbreaking sketch comedy show, but it was Ebersol who hired him and made sure NBC executives and sponsors gave him the space he needed to make TV history. Fans of “SNL” will enjoy a few behind-the-scenes stories, including Ebersol’s solution to keep NBC executives away from meteoric (and often drunk) talents like Jim Belushi – he made sure “SNL” offices (including the now famous Studio 8H) were located on the eighth and ninth floors, served by a different set of elevators at 30 Rockefeller Plaza than the executive offices on the sixth.

There isn’t much on these pages that hasn’t been reported yet, but Ebersol does treat readers fairly. His dislike for Fred Silverman, who ran NBC from 1978-1981, and who, in Ebersol’s opinion, often aired programs that weren’t prime-time ready, is obvious. He even proudly recalls the XFL’s failed experiment, recalling how GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt cited it as an example of the importance of taking risks, even when they don’t pay off.

Ebersol books the memoir by recounting his personal tragedy, the death of his son Teddy at the age of 14 in 2004. Teddy and his brother, Charlie, were on a plane with their father shortly after takeoff on a snowy day in Colorado. crashed. It was a private plane, made possible by Ebersol’s mighty orbit, and he lived every day, since then most of us will happily never know with a sadness. “I learned to be even more grateful for all the wonderful things our family had in our lives, and how to be thankful for the 14 years we had with Teddy, even if we wanted to, and he deserved, so much more,” he writes.

There’s much more in these pages worth reliving – from the Michael Jordan years that spanned the term of NBC’s contract with the NBA, to the personal role Ebersol played in ensuring Michael Phelps’ golden medal bonanza at the Beijing Olympics was broadcast live in the US in 2008, until the historic deal with the NFL that resulted in the best game of the week being televised more often than not on Sunday Night Football. Ebersol was the invisible hand behind them all, giving readers additional insight into how the moments came to be that made them laugh, cry and cheer on their televisions.

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