By Patricia Sellers
October 6, 2009

“The N.F.L. is more of a guarantee of success than if you got Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie to do an hour drama series for the network. You can’t guarantee that it will be a ratings success.”

— Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal

Sports, today in a New York Times story about Sunday Night Football‘s stellar ratings–one of the few bright spots for the woe-begotten broadcast network.

While Jay Leno was supposed to be NBC’s ratings savior, that role apparently is going to Ebersol, whom I profiled three years ago–in an exclusive story called “Playing With Pain,” about his recovery from a devastating plane crash (he lost his 14-year-old son, Teddy) and his bold $3.6 billion bid for NFL broadcast rights. Most people were skeptical of Ebersol’s big bet back then, and not even outlandish optimists predicted that Sunday Night Football, his grand concoction, would transform TV’s most popular night into a sports bonanza. “We should be in the top ten or 12 shows every week,” he told me cautiously back then, noting that Monday Night Football, then on ABC

and now on ESPN, had ranked tenth in total households the previous season.

Turns out, even Ebersol low-balled the opportunity. Last season, Sunday Night Football was No. 4 in households and, more importantly, No. 3 among adults ages 18-49. That’s the audience that advertisers–and NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker–care most about. Only American Idol on Fox

performed better. This season, Sunday Night Football‘s viewership is way up, averaging over 20 million viewers. Nice for a guy who has been running NBC Sports for 20 years and never, ever gives up. —Patricia Sellers

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