Dick Ebersol began his climb up the television executive ladder in 1968, as an aide to new ABC Sports president Roone Arledge. Ebersol mostly represented Arledge at meetings in addition to one-shot sports specials. But he did witness the grandest scale of sports, in both good and bad lights, when ABC covered the star-crossed 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
After six years at ABC, Ebersol came to NBC in 1974 as vice-president of late-night weekend programming. Commanding his attention was NBC's need to relieve its late weekends from rerunning The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It was the first snowflake in the avalanche that would be called Saturday Night Live. Ebersol selected Lorne Michaels to produce this live comedy show for young adults. In pre-production, Ebersol and Michaels formatted SNL into the best late-night show to overrun its low budget.
But the two men would experience an irreparable breach as soon as SNL began. Ebersol helped create the divide when he asked Lorne to insert the credit "Executive Producer for NBC/Dick Ebersol" at the end of the crawl on the first SNL. Dick then tried to tell NBC that it was Lorne's idea. NBC was not fooled. Ebersol had violated network policy, and that helped cost him a share of SNL's 1976 Emmy for Best Comedy-Variety Program. Still, his major involvement in the creation of SNL earned Ebersol, in November 1975, the vice-presidency of NBC late-night programming. At 28, he was the youngest VP in network history—a promotion Ebersol called "shockingly abrupt."
When Dick Ebersol was assigned to NBC comedy and variety production in Los Angeles in 1977, he brought to the network an ex-minor programming executive from ABC named Brandon Tartikoff. This would be an instrumental move in ensuring SNL would extend far beyond the 1970s.
Fred Silverman took over as NBC president in June 1978, causing Ebersol to drift apart from the network. Silverman denied Ebersol the opportunity to head the NBC Programming Department, granting Tartikoff that honor. For the next two years, Ebersol's only connections to NBC were as producer of The Midnight Special and several one-shot projects. But Ebersol would be needed again at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters.
Amidst the dark times of 1980, Saturday Night Live had been turned over to an unqualified band of individuals, led by the show's former talent coordinator, Jean Doumanian. The result on and off the air was a Peter-Principle disaster whose exact dimensions are left to the obscurity of legend. After Jean Doumanian produced two shows—both bombs, Brandon Tartikoff pleaded Dick Ebersol to rescue the show. Ebersol held out until NBC met his demands, and on March 9, 1981, Ebersol became the third producer in SNL history. Production of the show was suspended at his insistence.
Ebersol knew he had to reconnect SNL to its 1970s roots. To this end, he brought in original SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue as his second-in-command. The two men successfully meshed to produce one show on April 11, 1981, but a Writer's Guild strike ended the season. When production resumed twenty-five weeks later, Ebersol and O'Donoghue were at odds. The "Reich Marshal," as Michael O'Donoghue wanted to be known, was trying to sabotage SNL because, in his opinion, that was the show's only hope. After a few clashes, Ebersol fired O'Donoghue January 17, 1982 and imposed order to the previously-chaotic show structure.
Part of the new order meant sacrificing SNL's old repertory emphasis. Ebersol turned the focus of the show to Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, the only cast members he retained from the Doumanian chaos. Other performers quickly resented being shunted to the backwaters while Eddie and Joe stood out. And the splits became wider when Eddie landed big box-office success with 48 HRS. and Trading Places. Piscopo in particular thrust his wrath on Dick for favoring Eddie on the air and associating himself with Eddie off it.
Not even Eddie trusted Dick at the end. The two agreed that half the shows in the 1983-84 season would see Eddie perform in videotaped sketches. For most of the season, Eddie tried doing "eye for an eye" tactics at Dick, staying away from the SNL offices whenever he could before he finally quit the show for real on February 25, 1984.
With his attention in 1983-84 divided between family and his Friday Night Videos for NBC, Dick faced the serious possibility of quitting SNL. Instead, he rebuilt it for 1984-85 with established stars, such as Billy Crystal and Martin Short. He also turned most of the production chores over to Bob Tischler, who had been on Dick's side all this time. But the burden of being the "George Steinbrenner of Comedy" proved heavy. Ebersol resigned from SNL the next spring, producing his last show on April 13, 1985.
In four years, Dick produced 81 SNL shows with 17 cast members and 71 hosts. But it was his first host, Susan Saint James, who provided Dick's most enduring SNL memory. They married six weeks after she hosted.
After SNL, Dick Ebersol made firm inroads on the path of duplicating the achievements of his mentor, Roone Arledge. It certainly began auspiciously, with Saturday Night's Main Event. These low-grade wrestling specials ran once a month in SNL's time period from 1985 to 1989. While he co-owned Saturday Night's Main Event, Dick could not engender any pride in the series (the FCC doesn't call it sport either). By the time these specials burned out their welcome, Ebersol became executive director of NBC Sports.
Under Ebersol, NBC Sports has not had that much to cheer about. The 1992 "Olympic Triplecast" was trumped by audiences not willing to pay big bucks to see more events at Barcelona during inconvenient hours. In the next ten years, NBC would also lose its contracts to cover (in order) the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. And the network's devotion to the short-lived XFL in 2001, was doomed to a ratings nadir.
An NBC sports schedule that includes Arena League football, horse races, NASCAR and golf still finds its pride, though. Besides its commitment to Division I college football (with Notre Dame at the forefront), NBC Sports has a lock on both the Summer and Winter Olympics. They learned their lesson in February 2002, spreading their Salt Lake coverage over NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC (every standard cable system gets all three). And while many have turned up their noses on the Games in general due to countless scandals that have rocked the IOC, Dick Ebersol's network still bears the Olympic rings below its standard peacock logo.