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Springtime for Ebersol

"Every time Dick lies, his nose gets shorter."
-- Anonymous "Saturday Night Live" staffer, on Dick Ebersol

The above sentiment comes from the wonderfully gripping but sadly outdated book Saturday Night, a backstage history of the late-night sketch show written by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. The unnamed staffer worked on "SNL" at some point when Ebersol reigned as executive producer, the time between 1981 and 1985 when the cast included at different points Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Billy Crystal, among others. You would think with names like that attached to the show, those would be pretty memorable years for "Saturday Night Live." But really, you watch episodes from those seasons these days and they hold up about as well as a Christmas ham you leave in the trunk of your car... until July.

Yes, things have changed mightily since those days -- and some of them for the better. Dick Ebersol hasn't produced Saturday Night Live in more than a decade, moving instead to the world of sports. Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer have carved out quite successful comedy careers that don't depend on whether the studio audience can grasp the nuances of a three-minute skit. Joe Piscopo's presence on my TV has been limited to reruns and the occasional broadcast of "Johnny Dangerously" on HBO.

Even that opening bit of anonymous slander that takes Dick Ebersol and his pug-like proboscis to task isn't all that fair or accurate these days. After all... there are limits to how much a man's nose can shrink.

But we kid Dick Ebersol.

Ebersol, of course, could use a laugh -- even if it's a cruel, mean-spirited one at his expense. Ebersol has just spent the last few months presiding over the rise and fall of one the biggest broadcasting disasters in recent memory, a spectacular flame-out that makes the Hindenburg crash look like a fender-bender in the parking lot at your local supermarket. Ebersol was in charge of NBC's sports operations at a time the network was trying to make a go of it with the XFL, the football league for people who think, "You know what this sport really needs to make it more palatable to the home audience? NFL castoffs, cheerleaders that dress like porn starlets and a sitting governor as your color analyst."

They'll be digging the bodies out the rubble for a while on this one, but for now, the preliminary damage reports look like this for the XFL: NBC's ratings toppled 60 percent from the first weekend to the second weekend and fell another 44 percent the week after that. Fewer than 2.2 million people tuned in for the March 17 game between the New York Whosits and the Memphis Whatevers -- setting an all-time ratings low that the XFL managed to match the very next week.

The inaugural championship game of the made-for-TV league drew a 2.1 rating -- good enough to finish tied for 93rd among prime time shows airing that week. And the XFL wound up selling about two-thirds of its allotted advertising time; the rest was given away to sponsors for free to make up for lower-than-promised ratings. The total loss for year one of the XFL: more than $50 million, says the Wall Street Journal. So far.

So why hang this on Dick Ebersol, then? After all, he's not the only mastermind who decided a prefabricated football league targeting young adult males would be a perfect fit for Saturday nights -- the one time of the week when young adult males aren't within a football field of the nearest TV set. The XFL was a joint venture of NBC and the World Wrestling Federation. So that means there are plenty of executives whose hare-brained decisions and strategic blunders led to the eighty-car pile-up we'll be telling our children's children about. Dick Ebersol had plenty of help in making America long for the subtle charms and compelling drama of American Gladiators. What has he done to deserve to get singled out for the dunce cap?

Plenty, as it turns out. Because if you believe the Wall Street Journal -- and there's no reason you shouldn't, apart from the paper's inexplicable decision to banish both the funnies and Ann Landers -- then every mistake the XFL made was either instigated, OK'd or otherwise endorsed by Dick Ebersol. When a fledgling sports league needed an executive with more than two decades of sports broadcasting experience to guide it through the tough times, there was Ebersol, mixing bleach with ammonia, throwing tinfoil into the microwave, diving into the swimming pool right after eating and doing various and sundry other miscues that he should know better not to do.

The overblown commentary from the XFL's hyperventilating announcers in the premiere broadcast? Ebersol was in the production truck with other executives shouting orders to the on-air talent. The appearances by pro wrestlers at a sporting event for a league trying to reassure people that it was on the level? "Fun stuff," Ebersol declared, as curious football fans that might otherwise have given the XFL a fair shot changed the channel. All that NFL bashing? Like everything else, it also carried the Dick Ebersol seal of approval.

That last mistake was particularly costly, as the folks who advertised in the XFL are the same people who will be buying ads when the NFL kicks off this fall. And if it comes down to choosing sides, which league do you think advertisers are going to pick -- the multi-billion dollar operation whose championship has become a de facto national holiday or the first-year league which broadcasts a third of its games on UPN? "To be the enemy of the NFL was not good marketing," Tony Ponturo, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch and an apparent master of under-statement, told the Journal.

Interestingly enough, the World Wrestling Federation realized all this. Say what will you about Vince McMahon and the WWF, but they know their market research the way chemists know the periodic table of the elements. You give them the name of a 14-year-old kid in Boca Raton, and they'll tell you how many hours a week he watches wrestling, how many pay-per-view shows he orders, and how much he's likely to spend on a Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt.

Well, the WWF did some market research on the XFL -- and it found that what New York/New Jersey coach Rusty Tillman lovingly called "that WWF crap" wasn't flying. The people who like the XFL were by and large football fans who liked the idea of faster-paced games and no-name, no-ego athletes playing for factory worker salaries.

And so after the first few broadcasts set new standards for broadcasting ineptitude and audience indifference, McMahon began pushing for changes to reflect the XFL's strengths. Ebersol's reaction? "Mr. Ebersol told a friend he wanted more pizzazz and wrestling," the Wall Street Journal reported, "still sure that that was the path to young viewers."

No word on whether Ebersol also insisted to friends that New Coke tasted much better than Classic Coke and that consumers would realize this "any day now." And that Chevy Chase Show? Sure, people gag at the sight of it now, but they'll come around.

Won't they?

Not too many people could misjudge something so badly -- and not just misjudge it once, but again and again while friends and associates and business partners are waving frantically to get your attention to let you know that, yes, you're now chin-deep in dogsick -- and keep their jobs. Disagree? Try making $50 million worth of mistakes at work this week and see how well the boss laughs it off.

Lest we forget, Dick Ebersol's XFL folly is hardly the lone feeble pop-up to shortstop interrupting a string of doubles down the line and opposite-field home runs. Before introducing an uncaring world to the likes of He Hate Me and the Cheerleader Cam, Ebersol was spearheading NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics from Sydney. Don't be embarrassed if you don't remember a lick of NBC's Olympics telecast -- if the ratings are any indication, a lot of people are in the same boat as you.

To recap then: Ebersol opted to air the Olympics on tape-delay with some events not reaching American television more than a day after they took place on Australian soil. That turned out to be a rather curious decision, given that (a)the Olympics are, in essence, a news event, (b) news generally requires timeliness to be of interest to people and (c) there was nothing stopping, say, ESPN from spilling the beans that Dara Torres or the U.S. baseball team had won medals, thus spoiling the surprise NBC had planned for us later that night. Not a surprise then that NBC's ratings tumbled far below what it had promised advertisers and -- in an eerie foreshadowing of the XFL's salad days -- the network was forced to give away ad time for free.

Airing Olympic footage past its freshness date was Ebersol's biggest Olympic transgression, but far from his only mistake. He packed the telecast with gymnastics coverage, ignoring other events that only have their day in the sun every four years. After promising to cut back on the maudlin athlete profiles that marred the 1996 Olympics, Ebersol delivered just as many sappy, syrupy up-close-and-personal segments as ever, chronicling competitors who battled back from rickets and ringworm and RSI to contend for Olympic gold. And if you weren't an American athlete, your chances of appearing on NBC were about as good as... well, the chances of your event appearing live.

Ebersol's defenders will point out that NBC just took home 10 Emmys for its coverage of the Sydney games. Great -- maybe the network can pawn the awards to make up for all the lost advertising revenue.

The fact of the matter is, Ebersol blew it with the Olympics -- even more so than he did with the XFL, because in Sydney, the stakes were bigger. But that's par for the course at NBC, where sports coverage has increasingly grown more tedious and unremarkable. Ebersol let the NFL and Major League Baseball slip away to other networks, the only college football broadcasts to speak of involves repeated airings of Notre Dame football games, and NBA playoff series have become so drawn out and unexciting on NBC that if a Knicks-Raptors game broke out in my kitchen, I wouldn't even bother to turn my head to watch.

Ebersol's punishment for running the sports department into the ground? He's currently doing prep work for NBC's 2002 Winter Olympics coverage, no doubt ensuring that the Salt Lake City broadcast will be every bit as mawkish, over-produced and unwatchable as its predecessors. Ebersol, it seems, has more lives than a shelter full of kittens -- either that or incriminating 8mm film of other NBC executives.

Or maybe it's something else. "I really learned to respect Dick's business ways. His handling of budgets, lawyers, schmoozing, the half-truths, the way he strokes, his corporate mind, his keeping you constantly insecure." That's Jim Belushi talking in the Saturday Night book, but it could very well be an NBC executive talking about Ebersol circa 2001. After all -- to paraphrase a Billy Crystal character from the Ebersol-produced SNL -- at NBC, it's better to feel good then to look good.


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