Dick Ebersol, the longtime NBC sports chief who led the network's Olympic coverage, resigned Friday after he couldn't come to terms on a new contract. The New York Times first reported the news of Ebersol's dispute with Comcast, the new owners of NBC Universal.
The surprise resignation comes one month before bidding for broadcast rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics is set to begin in Switzerland. A source told the AP that Ebersol's departure did not involve the upcoming negotiations.
Ebersol was an assistant for legendary sports broadcasting pioneer Roone Arledge at ABC before taking a job at NBC in 1974. He was a producer on "Saturday Night Live," left the network briefly in the 1980s before returning to take over NBC Sports in 1989. Since then he has been a part of every Summer Olympics and brought the Winter Games to the network in 2002, outbidding rivals by hundreds of millions for the rights.
He was considered to be the heir to Arledge, particularly after bringing "Sunday Night Football" to the network in 2006. It was the top-rated show on television last season.
The legendary sports executive isn't without his detractors. Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke said "good riddance" upon hearing the news, went out of her way to mention that Ebersol was no Arledge and advised the executive not to let the door hit him on the way out. Fans of live sports aren't likely to miss him either.
Under Ebersol's watch, NBC has stubbornly utilized tape delay to show sports, the anachronistic equivalent of using a rotary phone or VHS machine. The Olympics, as well as some French Open and Wimbledon matches, are recorded live and delayed for air, a cause for annual outrage from sports fans accustomed to getting real-time updates on the Internet and seeing all sporting events live. Next year's Olympics in London are poised to bring the same consternation, as the five-hour time difference between the British capital and America's East Coast ensures that live primetime coverage will be almost nonexistent.
ESPN is considered to be the new favorite to win rights to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio after Ebersol's departure. ESPN head John Skipper has already said that the network would show events live, a subtle shot at Ebersol and NBC. Whether or nor Ebersol's departure will affect NBC's bid isn't known, but logic suggests that losing a longtime champion of a money-losing endeavor isn't good for the peacock network's Olympic future.
While Ebersol and the network will insist his departure isn't related to the Olympics, it's difficult to believe Comcast will put in a big bid for the Games if it wasn't willing to pay the man who championed the cause. Will NBC get into a billion-dollar bidding war over the Olympics after letting Ebersol walk?
Though ratings were strong for the Vancouver Olympics, NBC lost $223 million on the Games due to high production costs and the astronomical $820 million fee it paid for broadcasting rights. Even the Beijing Olympics, propelled in the ratings by the exploits of Michael Phelps, only turned a reported $31 million profit.There are ancillary benefits to broadcasting an Olympics that have nothing to do with the red or black numbers at the bottom of the financial statement. Promotion of new shows, relationship with advertisers, network prestige are a few of those. Those things may be harder to see for the new owners of a beleaguered network.
The thing is, the IOC doesn't care whether NBC tape delays the events or ESPN shows them live. It doesn't matter whether Dick Ebersol is in the room or not. Whoever bids the most money will get the Olympics. With the departure of its longtime executive, NBC may have just lost its biggest reason to do so.