If anyone in the wide world of television sports seemed secure, it was Michael Weisman. the popular and innovative executive producer of NBC Sports. But last week Weisman was abruptly and unexpectedly sacked by Dick Ebersol, who was just eight days into his tenure as president of NBC Sports. "Who ever thought Michael Weisman would be fired?" asked one former NBC producer. "He was the boy wonder."
If not boy wonder, then certainly boy thunder. Shock waves within the industry spread quickly after Ebersol, who until assuming his new position had operated his own production company, cast Weisman adrift and replaced him with Terry O'Neil, 39, Ebersol's former colleague at ABC and also an independent producer. Nobody was thought to be more golden than Weisman, whose efforts at the Olympics in Seoul helped garner seven Emmys for NBC. And if the firing took place simply because Ebersol wanted his own man in the job—as the 41-year-old former executive producer of NBC's Saturday Night Live repeatedly said was the case—who else could be really secure?
No one disputes Ebersol's keen eye for talent. In the early '80s, he revived SNL with a cast that included Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. While still at Yale, Ebersol began his TV career with ABC. and in 1967 became the first network Olympic researcher. Four years later he became ABC Sports president Roone Arledge's chief aide. His replacement as researcher was O'Neil. Ebersol returned to NBC in 1981, then in 1985 started his production company.
Upon assuming his new job at NBC, Ebersol found the sports cupboard bare, a result of the network's stunning loss of major league baseball to CBS last December. Industry insiders say his decision to fire Weisman was most likely based on changing times and ill winds at the network. Weisman was daring during his six-year tenure and was at his best when producing live events. But one network source said that executives at General Electric, NBC's parent company, were disappointed by the ratings for the Olympics and irked by the hard-news slant Weisman brought to the Games, a far cry from the patriotic tenor set by ABC in the past.
May 21, 1989
Also, with the baseball void and its coverage of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona still more than three years away, NBC is headed for some very lean weekends. "NBC is about as barren as any network has been in two decades," says one of its announcers. "We're going to have to acquire programming, and we're going to have to create programming of our own."
There will be plenty to choose from if and when the network begins its assault, but few bargains. By the end of next year the networks will vie for the rights to NFL and NBA telecasts, college basketball's Final Four, CFA football and the '94 Winter Olympics. With baseball's breathtaking four-year, $1.08 billion deal with CBS serving as a barometer, the bidding will undoubtedly start high on almost any package. While Ebersol wouldn't reveal which event he covets most, other sources put the NFL (NBC now covers AFC games), the NBA (now with CBS) and the Final Four (CBS, too) at the top of the list. "We're a player," Ebersol said, intimating that G.E. will give the go-ahead to spring for some expensive contracts.
As for creating new programming, that's where O'Neil comes in. His main strengths are in sports anthologies and features—the kind of productions that NBC now so desperately needs. "Terry is the best storyteller that I know of in my generation," says Ebersol.
Ebersol will probably have to contend with the tremors caused by O'Neil's new book, The Game Behind the Game, which comes out this week. It chronicles life at ABC and CBS, for which he was executive producer between 1981 and '86, and takes digs at many big names in TV sports. O'Neil describes Brent Musburger as an "anchor monster" and says Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier have had drinks in the booth during telecasts (Brookshier and Summerall say not so). "I doubt NBC people will be telling Terry their darkest secrets," says an NBC sports announcer. Ebersol is not mentioned in the book.
The ultimate success of the new collaboration between Ebersol and O'Neil will depend upon whether they can revive the humbled sports division by outbidding the competition for the most coveted events and then covering those events with èlan—with no help from the boy wonder.