By DAVID BAUDER and RACHEL COHEN
NEW YORK (AP) — Dick Ebersol, who made NBC the TV home of the Olympics for more than two decades, will watch someone else run the network’s coverage of next year’s Summer Games.
The powerful TV executive behind shows from “Saturday Night Live” to “Sunday Night Football” resigned Thursday as head of NBC Sports in a contract dispute with his new bosses at Comcast.
The break was sudden and unexpected: Ebersol had been given a promotion when Comcast took over NBCUniversal earlier this year and appeared Monday at a presentation NBC gave to advertisers in New York, tossing footballs from the stage and talking about coverage of the 2012 London Olympics.
Now, he said he’ll be an uninvolved spectator.
“I think it’ll be fun once I get past thinking, ‘I would’ve done that differently,”‘ he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Ebersol, who is married to actress Susan Saint James, survived a plane crash that killed their teenage son in 2004.
He has had a profound effect on what the nation has watched on television since the 1970s — and his exit could portend big changes in the TV landscape in the next decade.
Ebersol said he wanted “to make a really cool deal” with Comcast executives. “We just couldn’t get to the same place.” His nine-year contract with NBC was due to expire at the end of next year.
He said his resignation was partly timed so it would be clear with both Comcast and the International Olympic Committee that he would no longer be involved with the Olympics.
Mark Lazarus, the former Turner Entertainment Group president who joined the company in February to run its cable sports operation, will replace Ebersol.
It’s another major signal that the Philadelphia-based cable giant was breaking from NBC’s recent past. During the same presentation to advertisers this week, new Comcast appointee Ted Harbert made it a point to say NBC had to do “a little less reinventing the wheel” and get back to broadcasting basics.
“I had a long run and loved every bit of it,” Ebersol said.
The 63-year-old Ebersol’s dedication to the Olympics dates to 1967, when he temporarily left Yale to work at ABC as an Olympics researcher at the side of renowned TV producer Roone Arledge.
Ebersol, who began running NBC Sports in 1989, has made it the Olympics network: NBC has broadcast every Summer Olympics since 1988 and every Winter Games since 2002.
“I’ve worn the five (Olympics) rings on the inside of my heart as much as anybody,” Ebersol said.
Under Ebersol, NBC’s telecasts from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics were billed as “plausibly live” — a term coined to describe the showing of taped material as if it were live, withholding results from viewers to heighten the suspense.
When NBC showed some events in Atlanta a few hours after they took place, it got roasted by the critics.
Even in more recent years, his Olympics coverage — some live, some taped — has been called anachronistic in the fast-moving information world. But Ebersol said the strong ratings the Olympics achieve are a sign that his style, which dates back to Arledge, is the right one.
Next month, the IOC holds its auction for broadcast rights to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Networks can also bid on a four-games package including the 2018 and 2020 Olympics, whose host cities have not yet been chosen. The IOC is hoping to surpass the previous $2.2 billion deal.
His resignation could be a sign from Ebersol’s new bosses at Comcast that they’re not willing to pay any price to keep the Olympics, though he said he believed the company was serious about holding onto the games. Despite strong ratings, NBC lost more than $200 million covering the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 because its bid did not anticipate the economic downturn. There’s real concern among some in sports that an Olympics in Russia, well out of U.S. time zones, could be a tough sell for the American audience.
There were published reports in recent months that despite the united public front, Ebersol and Comcast executives had clashed in preparation for the Olympics bid.
IOC President Jacques Rogge says Ebersol’s resignation came as a shock and that he was told it had “absolutely nothing to do” with the upcoming bids. He said he has been assured that NBC will bid on the U.S. Olympic broadcast rights for those games despite Ebersol’s resignation.
Rogge said he spoke by phone with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and two other executives who “reiterated the full support of NBC/Comcast for the Olympic movement and the Olympic Games.”
Earlier this year, Comcast had chosen Ebersol to oversee the NBC Sports Group, which included NBC Sports, Versus, the Golf Channel and a string of regional sports networks the company owns.
After working with ABC and Arledge at three Olympics, Ebersol moved to NBC as one of the network’s youngest executives, in charge of weekend late-night programming. He teamed with Lorne Michaels to develop “Saturday Night Live,” a comedy institution that endures today.
When Michaels left the show for several years, Ebersol was executive producer of “SNL” from 1981 to 1985. He briefly left NBC for his own production company, developing “Later with Bob Costas” and working with Vince McMahon to televise professional wrestling.
Even as a sports executive, he kept his hand in other parts of the company. Ebersol took on a public attack role during NBC’s contentious divorce with former “Tonight” show host Conan O’Brien, publicly criticizing the comedian’s stewardship of the late-night series.
During 1995-96, NBC became the only network to televise the World Series, Super Bowl, NBA finals and Summer Olympics in one year. The Sporting News in 1996 named Ebersol the most powerful person in sports.
Costas, the longtime NBC announcer, lauded Ebersol’s gift for producing major events and “capturing the atmosphere and sense of occasion.”
“Over the years he has been by far the most important person in my professional life and one of my closest friends,” Costas said.
“Sunday Night Football,” which Ebersol largely put together, has been a huge ratings success for the network in the past five years, increasingly helping NBC keep afloat in the fall as its prime-time schedule continues to slump.
“Dick Ebersol is an incredible talent whose contributions to the company over the last four decades in sports, news and entertainment are unsurpassed,” said Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal and executive vice president of Comcast.
Burke said that “we will miss his intellect, experience and passion for the television business.”
Ebersol said he will leave NBC in June. He said one reason he was leaving was because of fatigue; on top of his executive responsibilities, he travels many weeks of the year to produce events.
“He’s the most engaged sports executive I’ve ever known,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who credited Ebersol’s aggressive promotion of the sport for boosting ratings in the 1990s.
Ebersol was in the headlines for the 2004 tragedy in which a small plane with ice on its wings crashed in Colorado and killed three people, including his 14-year-old son, Teddy. Dick and another son, Charlie, were seriously injured in the crash.
Ebersol said one of his career’s most memorable moments was the reaction to Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta. “It was a long process to convince the organizers to let it be him,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson in Lausanne, Switzerland, contributed to this report.