SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/Olympics

In Control

Approach honed at ‘Today’ show prepares executive producer Jim Bell for orchestrating the chaos of the Olympics for NBC

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New York was still lurching to life when Jim Bell, the executive producer of the “Today” show, bounded up a flight of stairs and pushed open a door to Rockefeller Center’s plaza. It was 6:30 in the morning, and he wanted to be sure the rain forecast for later in the day would hold off long enough for his “Today” show anchors to use the outdoor set.

It was one of his last steps of preparation for the show’s 7 to 11 a.m. broadcast, a live, four-hour window of organized chaos that mirrors a sports broadcast in its length and complexity. Bell’s success in managing the show for the last seven years was a major reason NBC Sports Chair Mark Lazarus named him the new executive producer of the network’s Summer Olympics telecasts, which begin in two weeks. The 45-year-old not only grew up at NBC Sports and worked on eight Olympics, but also proved at “Today” just how adept he could be at organizing a live broadcast, keeping a large audience and making critical decisions with ease.

The ability to adapt to the unexpected made NBC'S Jim Bell a popular choice to  succeed his mentor, Dick Ebersol, as executive producer of the Olympics.
Photo by: PETER KRAMER / NBC
On a morning in late May, Bell showed just what that meant. Wearing a navy suit jacket, gray slacks and a blue shirt open at the collar, he tilted his head back and peered skyward through a pair of trendy, rectangular eyeglasses. There was no rain, so he hustled back downstairs to the control room.

UB40’s “Red, Red Wine” was playing over the control room’s speakers as he settled into a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone around him was bobbing to the music, waiting for the show to begin in a few minutes. As cameras zoomed in on “Today” show reporter Thanh Truong, he began to tug on the lapels of his suit and dance for the producers.

“All hell has broken loose,” Bell said, as laughter rippled across the control room.

Everyone was relaxed and prepared for that day’s show. Then, less than three minutes before 7 a.m., someone in the back of the room shouted that a suspect had implicated himself in the homicide of Etan Patz, the Brooklyn boy who disappeared in 1979 on his way to a school bus stop. The first five minutes of the show had to change.

As the team scrambled, Bell was calm.

“Can we get [NBC New York investigative reporter Jonathan] Dienst?” Bell asked.

“Fifteen,” someone shouted, beginning a countdown to the show.

“We can make it the second item, if that helps,” a producer said.

“Ten … nine … eight …”

“It does,” Bell said. “Put in the phoner. Put in the phoner.”

“Four … Three … Two …”

The show was live, but producers still hadn’t connected with Dienst. One producer leaned forward in her chair and pressed the phone to her ear, trying to get him. Bell barely moved. He waited for word that Dienst was on the line, then watched a split second later as “Today” news anchor Natalie Morales asked for Dienst’s report.

When the segment ended, he uncapped a plastic water bottle and drained the last third of it in one, long chug. He pitched the bottle in a trash can three feet away, leaned back in his seat and put his arms behind his head, completely relaxed.
This, after all, is how Bell has spent his mornings the last seven years. He spends days carefully planning the first four hours of NBC’s cornerstone show and often finds himself changing entire sections in response to the unexpected. His ability to do so swiftly and calmly has been part of the reason the “Today” show has dominated morning ratings.

His unflappability and ease at adjusting to the unexpected was a major reason Lazarus tapped him to succeed his mentor, Dick Ebersol, and become the first new executive producer of a Summer Olympics in two decades. He never loses composure, and this year has been no exception.

Since being named to the Olympics position last August, Bell has juggled two jobs, and he’s done so during one of the most difficult periods at the “Today” show. In March, the “Today” show became embroiled in a scandal after it was revealed that an audio clip in the Trayvon Martin case was edited to make shooter George Zimmerman sound racist. In April, its 852-week streak as the top-rated morning news show ended. And in June, it abruptly removed anchor Ann Curry from her position and replaced her with Savannah Guthrie.

Through all of that, Bell also worked on the Olympics. For most of the last year, he offered feedback on Olympics features, responded to emails from Olympics staff and spent Fridays at NBC Sports offices in Connecticut making key programming decisions about what events and features should air. In May and June, he increased that to two to three afternoons a week, and he moved into his Olympics role full time this month, taking over a position that will go a long way to determining whether the network attracts the roughly 25 million prime-time viewers necessary to make its $1.18 billion investment in the London Games worthwhile.

The responsibilities at “Today” or the Olympics alone would pack enough pressure to weigh down most TV executives, but colleagues say Bell never showed it.

“He’s a guy who’s under a tremendous amount of pressure, yet he’s extremely cool,” said Don Nash, the “Today” show’s senior broadcast producer. “It blows me away sometimes. He never gets flustered planning for the next week, planning for the next month. I’ve said to him, ‘I don’t know how you do this.’ In the office he’s extremely, extremely cool.”

Photo by: PETER KRAMER / NBC
NBC Olympics Coordinating Producer Molly Solomon added, “He’s not complaining about going to work at 5 a.m., and going to his second job in Connecticut hours later. You can tell he’s embracing this. It’s remarkable to watch someone work that hard.”

Solomon, like many others, has known Bell since he started at NBC more than two decades ago.

Bell landed a job with the network literally by
Since last August, Bell has juggled the Olympics position with his “Today” job during one of the most turbulent periods in the long-running morning show’s history.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
accident. He was in Spain in 1989 taking a year off between graduation and law school when he got a call from NBC’s human resources department. Someone in the department knew his father, an attorney at GE, and wondered if Bell, a 6-foot-4 defensive lineman at Harvard, would assist NBC Olympics Chief Operating Officer Randy Falco, who had blown out his knee playing basketball, during a trip to Barcelona.

After the trip, Falco offered Bell a job as a production assistant in NBC’s Olympics profiles unit. Bell spent the next two years going to Cuba, Africa and other far-flung locales gathering material for athlete features aired during the Barcelona Olympics. He then spent more than a decade producing NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball games. He also climbed the Olympic production ladder from co-producer of daytime in 1996 to producer of CNBC’s coverage in 2000 to coordinating producer of afternoon and late-night coverage in 2004.

When “Today” show ratings began to slip in 2005, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker turned to the then-37-year-old Bell to take over as executive producer. Zucker wanted someone from outside the news division, and both Falco and Ebersol recommended Bell. He became the third person to take the helm at “Today” in four years and he took over at a time when its lead over “Good Morning America” had shriveled to 45,000 viewers a day.

Bell threw himself into the job, pulling up tapes of the show stretching back 10 years and looking for ways to improve it. He ultimately decided the show had become too scripted and encouraged its hosts, then Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, to talk to each other more, and he extended that when the show brought on Meredith Vieira as its new anchor in 2006. The move helped widen the show’s lead over “Good Morning, America” and extend its run as the No. 1-rated morning show for seven more years with 5.4 million viewers.

“He changed the fortunes of the ‘Today’ show by coming in when he did,” said Brian Stelter, a New York Times reporter who is writing a book about morning news shows called “Top of the Morning.” “With morning shows what’s most important is the anchors, and it’s about producing to their strengths. Jim was successful in forming and strengthening his relationship with the anchors. He had, and has, a knack for talent.”

When Ebersol resigned from NBC last year, Lazarus wanted to hire someone within the company as executive producer for the London Games. Bringing in an outsider would have been too disruptive to the team of Olympics producers already in place, and it didn’t make much sense because many of the feature segments had already been produced.

Online Updates From London

SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily on July 23 will be launching a comprehensive, daily website devoted to the London Olympics and the business behind it. The site, which will be accessible at www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/
SB-Blogs/Olympics/London-Olympics, will be free and run through Monday, Aug. 13, the day after the closing ceremony. SportsBusiness Journal Olympics writer Tripp Mickle and media writer John Ourand will be on the ground in London providing news updates, people pieces and personal insights from the Games. Among the features will be daily updates on sponsor news and activation, athlete endorsements, and media coverage, as well as keeping up with the people and events from the sports business industry.

Lazarus chose Bell after a corporate event to celebrate NBC’s success in extending its Olympic rights through 2020. During the event, he caught a glimpse of Bell celebrating the rights deal with Solomon and Peter Diamond, Olympics senior vice president. Lazarus was impressed by the genuine happiness they shared. He also believed Bell’s experience at the “Today” show, which draws a female-heavy audience much like the Olympics, equipped him with the skills necessary to oversee the London Games.

“It’s like an air traffic controller,” Lazarus said. “The ‘Today’ show is very similar to the Olympics. Planes are flying everywhere, and you have to decide what lands and when.”

Lazarus was concerned Bell might have trouble juggling his “Today” show responsibilities with the Olympics, but Bell said it hasn’t been an issue largely because of his familiarity with NBC’s Olympics team.

“What some people would do in a day or couple of days we can accomplish in hours,” Bell said of the Olympics team. “We have common history. We have stories. We’ve been to dinners and seen each other’s children born. That trust and relationship and confidence we have in each other leads to the efficiency in this pre-Olympic phase that allows us to accomplish a lot.”

In addition to delegating to the Olympics team already in place, Bell met with Ebersol almost weekly for lunch. He considers himself one of Ebersol’s protégés and is deeply influenced by the former NBC Sports and Olympics chairman’s approach to storytelling. He said Ebersol had been invaluable in offering recommendations such as where to program certain sports during an Olympics taped for prime time.

When pressed for specifics, Bell grinned.

“When in doubt, go with diving,” he joked.

Bell will manage more live programming than his predecessor ever did. NBC will show every event live and deliver a total of 5,500 hours to Olympic viewers. The schedule for what events will air online and on TV is largely set by Diamond, but decisions Bell makes during the Games to pull an event for that night’s prime-time broadcast will have a domino effect that requires a reshuffling of that day’s plan.

But most people tuning in to the Olympics this summer won’t be able to tell that a different executive producer is behind the broadcast. Bell’s plan for the Games is very similar to Ebersol’s. Athlete stories will drive the production, features will skew toward the sentimental, and prime-time broadcasts will emphasize swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

Watching Bell work at the “Today” show this spring underscored just how true that would be. He spent most of the morning responding to email, checking Twitter, jumping in and out of websites like TMZ and Cooks Illustrated. But around 8:20, he put on his headset and focused on the monitors.

“Quiet,” he said to his team in the control room. “Stop talking.”

A feature began to play about a man who was raising awareness of breast cancer by posing for self-portraits in nothing but a pink tutu. The story has what could be described as a trademark NBC Olympics feel: It was sentimental, courageous and inspirational. The image of a chubby man stripping down to his underwear and slipping on a pink tutu wasn’t all that different from the story of a blind Mongolian marathoner whom Bell watched cross the finish line at the Barcelona Games.

As Morales narrated the man’s story and talked about his wife’s battle with breast cancer, the music of Sigur Rós, an Icelandic band, crescendoed in the background. Bell asked his colleagues what the song was and then bought it on his laptop.

“Can we get that on the way out?” he asked.

As the segment came to an end and images of the man in a tutu flashed on the screen, a producer plugged the music from Bell’s laptop into the broadcast. The swelling music complemented the images and gave the final moments of the segment depth before it faded to black.

“Nice,” Bell said.

Two hours after the tutu segment, the “Today” show staff gathered in Bell’s office to talk about the next day’s show. Nash, the show’s senior broadcast producer, went around the room of 19 people asking what items they had for the next day’s show.

Only one person wasn’t there — Bell. He had another job to do.

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.

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