SBJ/April 1-7, 2013/Media

Young Ebersol finds his place in TV production

Most of the people in the cabin of the chartered plane carrying Dick Ebersol’s family passed out from the G-forces when it began its fatal plunge shortly after takeoff in 2004.

But Ebersol’s son Charlie remained awake the entire time and has never shaken the memory of how he felt in that moment.

“Before the plane crash, I mistook being good at something for loving something. After the plane crash, I only did things I loved.”
Charlie Ebersol
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
“When the plane was actually crashing, I wasn’t even scared. I was just angry,” he said. “If there are things that I can be jealous of my father in that situation, he was unconscious pretty early in the crash, whereas I, unfortunately, have a pretty clear memory of all of my thoughts.”

Those thoughts haunt Ebersol and have driven him ever since. They pushed him toward an entirely new, but obviously familiar, career path of television production.

He was a Notre Dame student at the time. Before the crash, he started several businesses while in high school and college and, he says, made serious money. His lot in life, he assumed, was to continue chasing the almighty dollar.

Those feelings changed post-crash. That feeling of anger — the feeling that he was leading a life that felt unfulfilling — was something that caused him to take a second look at what he wanted to do for a living.

“Before the plane crash, I mistook being good at something for loving something. After the plane crash, I only did things I loved,” said Ebersol, whose 14-year-old brother Teddy died in the crash. “It changed my life. It changed my approach to everything.”

That theme of second chances has played a major role in Ebersol’s career since. He had been working in film production but decided to ditch it for the simple reason that he did not feel fulfilled.

“Movies are a very uninvolved business,” said the 30-year-old Ebersol. “If you’re a producer and you’re not the writer, you’re not the actor, you’re not the director, most of your job is just money. There’s no juice to it.”

Just 24 years old at the time, Ebersol recalled telling his dad about his new plan. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just go do what makes you happy,’” Ebersol said.

Ebersol decided to move deeper into the family business with TV production. Many of his projects did not focus on sports, such as the controversial NBC series “The Wanted,” which was panned by TV critics for espousing vigilante justice but was described by Ebersol as “some of the most amazing storytelling that I’ve ever been able to do.”

Ebersol, with father Dick and mother Susan Saint James, co-founded a production company specializing in reality series.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Some of his most significant work, though, did involve sports, such as the 2007 documentary “Don’t Look Down” about Olympic snowboarder Shaun White and the 2008 documentary on Notre Dame football called “Tradition Never Graduates.”

By 2010, he was ready to launch The Hochberg-Ebersol Co. with Justin Hochberg, a producer with whom Ebersol worked on “The Wanted.” Within the first six weeks, the company sold four pilots, he said.

Based in Los Angeles, The Hochberg-Ebersol Co. is best known for producing reality shows. It sold TNT its first reality show, called “The Great Escape.” It sold CNBC its first reality show, “The Big Fix,” which will debut this summer.

On April 11, USA Network will debut its first reality show, called “The Moment,” which is near to Ebersol’s heart. The show’s premise is based on giving people second chances, and many of the episodes have sports-related themes. The show is hosted by Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, who was given a second chance at the NFL after he famously took a job stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa. With Warner’s involvement, Ebersol had to negotiate to use NFL game footage for the show’s opening.

“The first 30 seconds of every episode has Super Bowl footage — complete with Al Michaels’ voice — which traditionally is outrageously expensive and also hard to come by because they don’t traditionally like having it on off-networks,” Ebersol said, referring to networks that are not NFL broadcast partners.

Ebersol’s company is working on two projects for the NFL. They still are in the development phase, so Ebersol could not talk specifically about them. But he mentioned them to underscore the importance of the long-standing relationships he has developed with the league and to show why he’s happier fostering the established relationships he has in TV rather than acting as a money man for movies.

Thanks to the fact that his father produced NFL games for decades, Ebersol has known NFL executives like Roger Goodell and Howard Katz since he was a child. He points to those relationships, and his ability to navigate the NFL’s hierarchy, as a reason his company has cut deals with the country’s most popular sports league.

“The NFL is all about two things,” Ebersol said. “They want people who will help their brand in a positive light, and they are all about people who are loyal, good storytellers.”

He points to the NFL’s relationship with USA Network as an example. Two years ago, Ebersol and USA wanted to work with the NFL on a series called “NFL Characters Unite.” Ebersol counseled the network not to view a deal with the league as a one-off. Rather, he suggested looking at it as a long-term partnership. The NFL was happy with the series, which pairs players with kids having a tough time getting through adolescence. Last year, for example, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward helped a student who was being bullied.

With the network’s foot in the door thanks to “NFL Characters Unite,” Ebersol met with Katz and the league’s vice president of entertainment marketing and promotions, Tracy Perlman, to discuss using NFL footage in “The Moment.” The conversations were easier because both sides trusted each other after their experience with “NFL Characters Unite,” Ebersol said.

Ebersol tells a similar story about NASCAR, which agreed to be the subject of an episode for “The Moment.”

“I was raised around NASCAR, especially with Richard Childress,” Ebersol said.

Childress, president and CEO of Richard Childress Racing and a longtime friend of Dick Ebersol, recalls bumping into a young Charlie Ebersol at races years ago. More recently, when Ebersol approached with an idea to have former driver Kyle Shields try out for Childress’ team, the NASCAR executive jumped at the chance. “When I knew that Charlie was going to be doing it, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get to work with him,” Childress said. “I thought it would be great exposure with a great network and a great producer.”

Another sports entity that goes to great lengths to protect its brand is Notre Dame. As an alum, Ebersol has deep roots throughout South Bend, and he convinced the administration to take part in an episode where it interviewed former football player Vincent Moiso for a coaching position.

Ebersol first approached Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. Many Notre Dame officials were skeptical about taking part in a reality show. But after a flurry of conference calls, Ebersol convinced the school’s brass to take part.

“We’re not looking to get on a reality show,” said Dan Skendzel, Notre Dame’s digital media program director. “There was a very healthy dose of skepticism of this show when it was first pitched. But the more we dug into it, the more we talked to Charlie about it, it was clear it was a little bit different. It wasn’t just a publicity stunt.”

Skendzel cited Notre Dame’s history with the Ebersol family, and Charlie, in particular, as the main reason they decided to move forward. “Charlie as executive producer — him being in that role — was no small part of our decision because we knew Charlie and he is part of the Notre Dame family,” Skendzel said.

Though Ebersol followed his father into the TV business, he says he’s not interested in producing live sports.

“I watched my father perfect the art and become one of, if not the greatest, to do it,” he said. “It would be a little bit like Michael Jordan’s son going into basketball.”

If he has followed in his father’s footsteps at all, it’s as a storyteller. Ebersol says he wants to make the stories behind sports accessible to viewers who may not have an interest in sports otherwise. As he says, “If your father is a mechanic, you learn cars. If your father is a conductor, you learn music. With me, I would go to the Olympics and I would work in TV from a very young age.”



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