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SBJ/20090323/Forty Under 40
Published March 23, 2009
For David Berson, the week of Jan. 20 was as typical as any other week of the year.
Even though he oversees program planning and strategy for ESPN, Berson’s thoughts on Jan. 20 were not on sports. Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated as the country’s first African-American president, and Berson was trying to figure out how ESPN’s networks would cover it.
At the same time, he was developing ESPN’s content strategies and schedules years down the road, trying to figure out which content to devote to specific channels, broadband sites and mobile platforms. “I spend a lot of my job thinking years ahead,” Berson said. “Right now, I’m spending a lot of time on 2014 and what we could do around the Olympics, for example.”
Such is the life for Berson, the executive most responsible for deciding what viewers can watch on all of ESPN’s networks. One of many ESPNers who started at the company as an intern, Berson develops the programming strategies around every ESPN platform, including the TV networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPNU and ESPN Deportes), broadband sites (ESPN360) and ESPN Mobile.
A tireless worker, Berson has spent 14 years climbing Bristol’s corporate ladder and now manages a department with nearly 200 executives.
Though he works hard to keep a low profile, he has earned a stellar reputation both inside and outside of Bristol. He’s a trusted member of ESPN President George Bodenheimer’s senior management team, put in charge of several internal committees. Plus, sources say, he’s been contacted about some high-profile industry jobs — ones that he has declined to pursue.
“David is the Felix Unger of sports, as meticulous and organized as anyone you will ever encounter in our business,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming. “When I get up at 6 a.m. and check my PDA, if there’s no messages from David it’s always a surprise.”
But back to the inauguration. The week before, Berson helped develop ESPN’s inauguration strategy through an impromptu hallway meeting in Bristol with ESPN executives John Skipper and Norby Williamson. The trio decided that ESPN would show the swearing-in live and ESPNews would show the swearing-in and the speech. ESPN2 would stay with its morning program, “First Take.”
“This is not an event we would typically cover on ESPN, but we felt it was an historic occasion that warranted coverage,” Berson said.
Berson spent the inauguration in his Bristol office, watching all of ESPN’s networks on multiple screens, making sure the coverage was handled correctly.
The next day, however, Berson’s mind was focused on the future.
The morning after the inauguration, he arrived in ESPN’s New York office for an 8 a.m. staff meeting led by Skipper. It’s during that weekly two-hour meeting that Berson helps decide which content ESPN should put on its multiple platforms, from TV channels to broadband sites to mobile.
When that meeting ended, Berson headed across town to the NFL’s offices with ESPN executives Wildhack and Leah LaPlaca to discuss ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” schedule for next year.
“David is really smart and really passionate about his work,” said Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. “His presence at a meeting makes the meeting more productive, his involvement in any initiative makes for a better result, and his business sense and personal touch usually helps resolve difficult issues in a rational manner.”