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From 'Saturday Night' to 'Sunday Night,' Dick Ebersol looks back on 40 years in TV

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For TV viewers of a certain age, Dick Ebersol shaped your weekend for 40 years. His broadcast career started when he dropped out of college in 1967 to join ABC Sports. Ebersol eventually moved on to NBC, where he co-created "Saturday Night Live." Later, he rebuilt that network's sports department. His crowning achievement, "Sunday Night Football," would become the most-watched TV show in America.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Dick Ebersol details his career and life in a new book, "From Saturday Night To Sunday Night: My Forty Years Of Laughter, Tears, And Touchdowns In TV." So imagine a time when he didn't even have a TV set.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

JIM MCKAY: Spanning the globe.

DICK EBERSOL: In the early '60s as a kid, my world exploded when my father decided finally to allow television in our home. I loved baseball at the time. I loved football. But my first great love affair was television sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

MCKAY: This is "ABC's Wide World Of Sports."

EBERSOL: I loved trying to write sports myself, but I found myself often at a loss with my vocabulary for really making it exciting enough for a reader. And now suddenly there was this television show that was making me feel - whether it was on a big mountaintop in Austria...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He's inexperienced. He fell on his first jump.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: A lot of speed in that track now.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Look out.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Look at him go.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Oh. Oh, baby.

EBERSOL: ...Or whether it was - I was in a football stadium...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: This is one of a number of cameras that we have strategically placed today to give you views of a football game that you've never seen before. In addition, we have a camera high in the air, suspended from a 130-foot plane.

EBERSOL: ...I felt I was at the game. And all those things fed into this central part of my whole head, which was, this is how you do it. This is how you best tell stories.

SHAPIRO: While living abroad in France, Ebersol went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1967.

EBERSOL: All I cared about was, could I find the "Wide World Of Sports" people? And finally, after searching for several hours, I saw a "Wide World Of Sports" banner, and I went over by a camera setup...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: It is now 10 p.m. in France.

EBERSOL: ...And ultimately talked my way into a gofer job - go for coffee, go for ice cream, go for cigarettes. And that was the beginning of my career in television.

SUMMERS: At ABC, he worked his way up from Olympics researcher in 1968 to eventually being groomed to replace his boss, the legendary TV executive Roone Arledge. Ebersol wasn't 30 yet. Then in 1974, he was stunned by a call from NBC. It had a hole in its Saturday night lineup, and they wanted to fill it with a new kind of show, and they wanted him to create it. So he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

SHAPIRO: Ebersol was at "Saturday Night Live" from its beginning in 1975, and he was the one who unleashed Lorne Michaels on Saturdays. His co-creator and producer was then a relatively unknown Canadian who went on to become the face of a comedy institution.

EBERSOL: I was roaming comedy clubs on the East and West Coast and meeting various people, and I happened to be in an agent's office in LA. And this young man came out of the office of one of the better comedy agents in LA, and we were introduced. And his name was Lorne Michaels. Lorne and I hit it off, and we made him an offer to come to NBC. And I did not fancy myself as a comedy writer. I wasn't, nor was I really a comedy producer. I was a guy who knew how to mount television shows. Whether I could mount a television comedy show wasn't, in my mind, a question. But luckily, from Day 1, I formed this relationship with Lorne that really worked for both of us. So we sort of became a perfect match.

SUMMERS: After a decade at "Saturday Night Live," Ebersol eventually returned to his first love - sports. He ran NBC's sports division for more than two decades. One of his biggest wins was acquiring the NBA at the time when the league was about to explode in popularity in the U.S. and abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: Jordan - oh, spectacular ball by Michael Jordan.

SHAPIRO: He also made sure the network was the television home for the Olympics for decades to come. From his first gig as a researcher in 1968 to running NBC's Olympics coverage, by the 2004 Games in Athens, Dick Ebersol's career had gone full circle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: And so in the land where the Olympics were born and where they were restored now in the year 2004, inside one of the first great stadiums of the 21st century, the games return to their creators.

SUMMERS: Later that year, he was traveling back home with his two sons, 21-year-old Charlie and 14-year-old Teddy, on his jet. They had just had a Thanksgiving to remember with extended family in Los Angeles. After a brief layover in Montrose, Colo., they were set to take off again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The National Transportation Safety Board is examining wreckage of a plane crash that killed the son of NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol. The NTSB is still far from determining what caused the accident.

SHAPIRO: Ebersol's jet crashed almost immediately after takeoff in snowy conditions. Ebersol, half-unconscious and badly injured, was pulled out of the wreckage by his older son, Charlie. Teddy, who was sitting next to Ebersol, was swept out of his seat during the crash, and his body was found later. As unthinkable as losing a child may be, Ebersol found that remembering the child he lost was the only way forward.

EBERSOL: When people ask me, what did I learn from all this; what can I convey to people who lose a child - and I always say the same thing. Talk about that child who's deceased and has gone off to meet his or her maker. It's important that you talk about that child and what that child brought into your lives not so that you'll cry more and more but just so that that wonderful relationship remains a part - an important part of your family. And I know my grandkids - they'll start asking a million questions about Teddy, interesting questions about, did he do this? Did he do that? What did he dream about? And I have to say it doesn't bring us to tears. It puts this wonderful young boy in our family as a presence almost every day to this day.

SUMMERS: Despite immense physical and mental pain, Ebersol went back to work. While some of us would take it easy after coming back from such trauma, Ebersol created "Sunday Night Football."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #7: When the 256-game NFL schedule came out last spring, if you had to pick one game you wanted to see, this would be the one.

SUMMERS: And it became the top-rated TV show in America almost immediately.

SHAPIRO: Finally, after four decades of giving America its weekend TV, Dick Ebersol retired in 2011. He says he owes all of his achievements to the people he met along the way.

EBERSOL: Those relationships also kept me from ever getting too far ahead of myself with, wow, look at this success, or, look at that success. That kind of ego did not engulf me. I love the people around me, and I would never do anything to make them feel anything other than being the most important part of many, many a project, more important than me.

SUMMERS: Dick Ebersol talking about his indelible career, which you can read all about in his book "From Saturday Night To Sunday Night: My Forty Years Of Laughter, Tears, And Touchdowns On TV."

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabe O'Connor
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.