Learning from Dick Ebersol’s Resignation

Dick Ebersol resigned as head of NBC’s sports division on May 19th and just a few days later Joe Posnanski wrote a piece on Ebersol in Sports Illustrated’s May 30th Point After column. What struck me about the article wasn’t anything about Ebersol’s vast list of credits, or any claim about his influence on modern sports or entertainment programming. It was what Ebersol told Posnanski about the most influential thing he ever learned:

“The most important thing to me, was to tell stories.”

Ebersol said it was a lesson he learned from his first boss, the legendary sports producer Roone Arledge. Ebersol told Posnanski that television seems to be turning away from storytelling, with everything  becoming fragmented and announcers making radio calls shouting about every play.

I had to chuckle and agree. I turned 50 this year, and while I can probably pass for 10 years younger (on a good hair day), I can’t help but feel a little old sometimes when discussing content for marketing and promotional projects with many clients. The idea of storytelling seems unimportant to most. Yet I still believe that a good story trumps style and glitzy design every-time. Great production values certainly never hurt a project, but a non-existent or poorly written story can kill one.

Stories engage people. They help people identify with characters, places and events. They can take viewers to a faraway time and place. They inspire, teach, make us laugh or comfort us, sometimes all at the same time. Yet many people have lost the ability to tell stories.

Over the years I’ve met with countless executives who have no idea what their corporate story is. They have no corporate identity, no focus on what they sell or what problem they solve for their customers. Most believe they sell a product or service. But people don’t buy stuff or lists of services. They buy a promise. They buy a feeling. They buy a solution. They want stuff to make their life better…to make them look and feel better or to confirm their status. They want products to make their kids smarter or their dog healthier. The best way to frame those promises is through stories.

Dick Ebersol is without a doubt a polarizing figure in sports programming. Some consider him one of the most influential executives in sports television history. Others believe he simply copied the techniques of his first boss, Roone Arledge. From helping create Saturday Night Live and producing dozens of Olympics telecasts, to choosing not to renew NFL rights in 1998 and creating the ill-conceived XFL, Ebersol certainly had his share of wins and losses in his 22-year NBC programming career. 

But I’m not looking to judge Ebersol or his place in programming history. I simply think that what he said, “the most important thing…was to tell stories…” is something worth repeating in this blog post.

In lamenting the absence of storytelling in most major sports programming today, Ebersol asked Posnanski, “How are we supposed to know what’s important?” Posnanski didn’t answer him. Neither can I. Stories help us understand the world we live in. They help us identify and empathize with people across the street and across the globe. They help us understand where we’ve been, and give us the inspiration to see what’s possible.

Nobody ever taught me that stories are an important tool in marketing, advertising or television production. It’s just something I’ve believed since I was in my 20s. But I’m glad Mr. Posnanski’s article reminded me that there are still executives out there who believe it too. I just hope the next generation of executives don’t forget it.