NBC’s Olympics star stays in the game

August 20, 2008, 8:05 PM UTC
Fortune

Of all the NBC people working on the Olympic Games, there’s no one who has more ego and sweat-equity vested than Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics. When I spent time with him at the Turin Italy Winter Games two years ago, he left his custom-designed office in the International Broadcast Center (IBC) once in 17 days. For three minutes.

He’s a notoriously hands-on TV swashbuckler, as I called him in my 2006 Fortune profile. So I read with intrigue a front-page New York Times story Monday about NBC, “A Surprise Winner at the Olympic Games in Beijing: NBC” — all about the General Electric unit’s record viewership both on TV and online. The Times speculated that Ebersol, 61, might quit after the Beijing Games — to go out on top. Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, “tried to put those rumors to rest” by saying he’s looking forward to having Ebersol in charge for Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012. That hardly puts the speculation to rest.

So I asked one person who definitely knows: Ebersol’s wife. “No way,” Susan Saint James told me in an e-mail yesterday. “He always planned to go right through London. We’ve been to Vancouver, and he has already met with the London organizers. Can you picture Dick watching the Olympics on NBC? Don’t know where that came from.” (You might remember Saint James from her acting days, on McMillan and Wife and Kate & Allie)

My 2006 profile of Ebersol, Playing with Pain, portrayed him getting back in the big game, so to speak, following the loss of their 14-year-old son Teddy in a November 2004 plane crash. Ebersol himself survived the accident, thanks to a heroic rescue by Charlie Ebersol, his oldest son. Post-recovery Dick took Teddy’s laptop, decorated with a Tony Hawk skateboarding logo, everywhere with him. The computer is still working, Saint James says, but now she says “it sits in his office, in a proud spot forever.” Ebersol, a recovering technophobe, now totes an Apple MacBook Air on his global travels.