Playing with pain
Dick Ebersol lived through the plane crash that killed his son. Now he's trying to lead a recovery at NBC. Will "Sunday Night Football" be the cure his network needs?
By Patricia Sellers, FORTUNE editor at large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE Magazine) - On a Friday around 11 A.M. at the end of his second week back at work, Dick Ebersol was running a meeting in his 15th-floor office at NBC when he got the phone call he'd been waiting for. National Football League COO Roger Goodell was calling with good news. "How soon would you be ready to come over and talk?" asked Goodell. Ebersol said he was ready then, but it would take him a while to get there. "I still have my cane."

Alone, the chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics slowly made his way the four blocks from Rockefeller Center to the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters, carefully navigating through midtown Manhattan foot traffic. Once inside, he was shown to a conference room where he sat by himself for about 20 minutes, contemplating what was about to happen. It was April 15, 2005. Bob Iger, then president (now CEO) of the Walt Disney Co. (Research), parent of ABC, had just visited NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and made it official that ABC would not renew its broadcast rights. That meant the door was open for Ebersol to seal a multibillion-dollar deal to bring the NFL back to NBC. Ebersol had been secretly planning this move for well over a year, through the darkest moments of his life. Five months earlier he had narrowly survived a deadly plane crash in the mountains of Colorado-a crash that took the life of his 14-year-old son, Teddy.

Tagliabue came in with Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and pulled out a piece of paper with handwritten discussion points that he, Bowlen, Goodell, and Ebersol had worked out in a meeting the week before: Starting in the fall of 2006, NBC would get the rights for a new primetime game on Sunday nights, plus exclusive rights to afternoon highlights for a pregame show. At $600 million a year over six years, the price would be just 9 percent more annually than what ABC had paid for the previous eight years of Monday Night Football. The four men quickly agreed to the basics of the $3.6 billion deal and shook hands.

The next afternoon a group of six NFL and NBC officials convened in Ebersol's office to close the deal. After two hours of negotiating, during which the executives puffed on Ebersol's stash of hand-rolled cigars, he felt ecstatic. But just at the moment of celebration, he caught a glimpse of one of his many pictures of Teddy and felt his eyes fill with tears. He retreated to a far corner of the office. "It was the first time since the accident that I had felt really big happiness," he says now, "and suddenly I thought to myself, 'How can I feel good? He's not here anymore.' "

Today, 17 months after the crash, Ebersol and his wife, actress Susan Saint James, are still grieving deeply. Meanwhile, the deal he brokered with the NFL has emerged as the centerpiece of his network's ambitious comeback plan. After a decade of dominating primetime, NBC has fallen hard and fast. Battered by expiring hits and resurgent rivals, the network finds itself mired in fourth place. This season NBC has only five programs in the top 30 (its highest-rated, the game show "Deal or No Deal," ranks No. 17 among adults 18 to 49). The problems at the network contributed to NBC Universal's 8 percent decline in first-quarter profits, reported by parent General Electric (Research) in mid April. And NBC's biggest moneymaker, "Today," is bracing for the fallout from Katie Couric's defection to the evening anchor chair at CBS (Research).

All of which raises the stakes for Ebersol's "Sunday Night Football", which this fall will replace ABC's "Monday Night Football" as the premier primetime game (at least in the eyes of the NFL and NBC; Disney's (Research) ESPN will carry the new "Monday Night Football"). Advertisers will get a preview in May at NBC's so-called upfront presentation, where Ebersol and his on-air talent (including NBC star Bob Costas and the peerless play-by-play duo of John Madden and Al Michaels, whom Ebersol poached from ABC) will be front and center. Nervous execs at NBC are counting on "Sunday Night Football" to be a top 20 hit and the platform the network needs to promote its fall slate. It is "the cornerstone of rebuilding," says NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker, who considers Ebersol a mentor and is now depending on him more than ever (see "Zucker's Plan" below).

But if Ebersol feels any pressure, he's not showing it. At 58, he has been at the helm of NBC Sports for 17 years and has become a powerbroker who throws his weight across both the network and GE. After a career in which he helped create "Saturday Night Live," popularized professional wrestling, and produced the past eight Olympic games for NBC, Ebersol exudes a been-there-done-that calm. And he operates with an assurance befitting a man who built a personal fortune as an independent producer. Among all the executives at GE, says CEO Jeffrey Immelt, "Dick is the most secure about his fit in the organization." Of course, with the life and death struggle he's endured, staging a few football games and taking on network rivals is hardly daunting to him. In fact, he seems to be spoiling for the fight. "I'm going to live in the production truck," he says, looking forward to September. "I'm going to have a ball." Putting on a show is what he has always loved best.

"THEY USED TO ROLL OVER FOR US," gripes Ebersol. It's 9 P.M. on Friday, Feb. 24, in Turin, Italy, less than 24 hours after the most competitive night in U.S. TV history, and he is waving his trademark Montecristo No. 4 cigar as he pads around his custom-designed office (including a chimney) inside the sprawling International Broadcast Center. The night before, from 8 to 9, Fox Broadcasting's American Idol attracted 23.4 million viewers to trounce NBC's marquee Olympic event, the women's figure-skating finals, which drew 17.7 million. It turned out to be NBC's highest-rated night in 18 months, but CBS's "Survivor" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" siphoned off millions of additional households. Grouse as he might, Ebersol offers a grudging respect for his rivals. "I'm a competitive SOB, but I have to admit that this is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant stuff."

The Olympics are more than just Ebersol's entry in the TV ratings race. He was the first network boss to bid for (and win) the rights for multiple Olympics. Currently he has NBC signed up to carry the next three, through 2012. He possesses a passion for the Games so intense that it nearly destroyed his marriage four years ago. "It's like having a girlfriend," says Susan Saint James ruefully. In Turin, Ebersol at first comes across as driven as ever. (He went outside the broadcast center just once in 17 days - for three minutes.) But dig a little, and it's clear that things are different for the notoriously hard-driving TV swashbuckler. "I've learned to be patient," says Ebersol, as we talk for four hours straight in his office in Turin - about football, NBC's turnaround plan, and his own recovery from the accident.

He shows me where, from about 7 A.M. to 11 A.M., he squeezes in his daily sleep: a queen-sized bed in one corner of his office. A total technophobe until a year ago, he describes how he takes a computer that belonged to his late son Teddy to bed with him. Balancing the laptop on his chest, he reads Olympics coverage and sports news before he nods off and as soon as he wakes up. "This has changed my life," he says. He's talking about more than just the laptop.

ON NOV. 28, 2004, a wintry Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Ebersols were flying home from California on a chartered Bombardier Challenger 601 twinjet after watching USC trounce Notre Dame (where oldest son Charlie was a student) in football. The plane stopped in Montrose, Colo., to drop off Saint James, who planned to spend a few days preparing the family ski house in Telluride for Christmas. Before they took off again Teddy gave Charlie a big hug and said, "Don't forget to wear your seatbelt." As the plane took off in low visibility, Teddy watched the final game of the 2004 American League Championship Series - in which his favorite team, the Red Sox, beat his father's beloved Yankees to advance to the World Series - for the fourth time in five days on his DVD player.

"Dad, I'm scared." Those were Teddy's last words as the aircraft tipped left during takeoff, then right, then left again before landing on its left wingtip and then on its nose. With both engines still roaring, the plane skidded 900 feet on its belly, crashing through a fence and hitting a two-foot embankment before stopping at the edge of a 50-foot cliff. Ebersol was trapped inside the plane, face down underneath the kitchen galley. He vaguely remembers Charlie (who, despite Teddy's warning, had not worn a seatbelt) lifting the heavy equipment and carrying him through the flames. "Two guys in a pickup truck yelled, 'Don't go back. The plane is about to explode,'" Ebersol recalls. Charlie, who had a broken hand and back, went in anyway. Teddy was nowhere to be found. Charlie came out and pulled Dick further from the plane right before it exploded.

The pilot and flight attendant died instantly. Ebersol says that he knew that Teddy was dead too. "The first thing I said to Susan in the emergency room was, 'Honey, you're just going to have to realize that we were blessed to have 14 incredible years with Teddy. He's gone.'" The next day, NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright, his wife, Suzanne, and Television Group president Randy Falco flew to Colorado on a GE plane. It was Falco, along with GE's top pilot Howard Winkler, who went to the crash site and prodded the authorities to get a crane to lift the plane's wreckage. Teddy's body was underneath. Falco identified him. "None of us saw Teddy after he died," Saint James says, referring to the family. "We didn't want to remember him burned and beat up."

Ebersol's injuries were severe. He broke his back in six places, his coccyx, his pelvis, three ribs, and his sternum - which made it extremely painful for him to cry. Encased in a plastic body cast, he spent nine days in St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo. GE then flew him to Connecticut for another 60 days at home in bed. Saint James moved their king-sized bed out of their bedroom and moved in Dick's hospital bed and a twin for herself.

EBERSOL IS A STRAPPING FIGURE, 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds, and he has an innate confidence that often makes him seem even bigger. So it was that much more striking on the day of Teddy's funeral to see him lying on a hospital gurney in front of the pulpit of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Litchfield, Conn. Jeff Immelt was at the service, as was a phalanx of GE brass and a parade of media-industry friends, including Katie Couric, Jann Wenner, and Lorne Michaels. Says Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios, who has known Ebersol since the 1970s: "The funeral was as bad a day for as bad a circumstance as anyone can imagine, but it was the most moving and, at the same time, healing thing I've ever seen."

Paying tribute to Teddy, Paul Simon sat on a stool beside the altar and sang "Citizen of the Planet," a song that Ebersol had used at the Olympics in Athens that summer. The Ebersol children - 21-year-old Charlie, 18-year-old Willie, and Saint James's son and daughter, Harmony and Sunshine, from her first marriage - each talked about their younger brother as an affectionate kid with an unbridled passion for the Red Sox, the team his father loved to hate. The entire congregation sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." But the most emotional moment came when Saint James stood on the altar and spoke beautifully about each family member. She saved Dick for last.

"It would be a terrible mistake if you, Dick, were to ever entertain any thought such as, 'I should have been home more, or I worked too much and that was bad,'" she said. "Because your passion and creativity and vision and successes and devotion to the details of your work and all the joy that you got from that was the pulse of our house - the heartbeat. We all thrived on it and learned from it, and it rubbed off on us. And once we were able to teach you to check your crown at the door on weekends, we also owned a part of it."

"In one fell swoop, she touched my heart and popped my balloon," Ebersol says now. "It was an incredibly loving gesture to relieve some of the guilt."

THE HARD-CHARGING Duncan Dickie Ebersol began his career at age 19 when he took two years off from Yale to be the first-ever Olympics researcher at ABC. For the son of a Litchfield lawyer who had hoped to be a superstar athlete, it was a dream gig - traveling around the U.S. and Europe interviewing athletes and writing mini-bios for Roone Arledge, the legendary chief of ABC Sports. Ebersol embraced Arledge's style of dramatizing the athletes' lives outside the competition. "Almost everything I know about storytelling and promotion, I learned from Roone," he says. Ebersol was a 26-year-old producer for ABC's Wide World of Sports when NBC invited him to run its sports division. He passed. "I felt I was too young to compete against Roone. And NBC just wasn't interested in letting me do sports in a different way."

A few months later NBC returned with a stranger offer: head of weekend late-night programming. He took the job, intrigued by the task of developing a replacement for Saturday reruns of "The Tonight Show," and found a hot young producer, Lorne Michaels, in Los Angeles. Together they started "Saturday Night Live" in 1975. "I was the one drug-free person, but I almost died from an excess of ego," says Ebersol, who found that managing his uptight NBC bosses was often as challenging as managing John Belushi and other volatile SNL cast members. At 28, he became NBC's first VP under 30 and moved up to run comedy. Arrogant and opinionated, he clashed frequently with Fred Silverman, NBC's iron-willed president. Silverman promoted Brandon Tartikoff, Ebersol's deputy, over him to head NBC's entertainment division. In 1979, when Ebersol was 31, he got fired. "It wasn't that I had become insufferable, but I developed a hauteur," he says.

Ebersol spent the '80s as an independent producer, mostly with great results. He returned to SNL, at Tartikoff's behest, in 1981 when Michaels quit and NBC threatened to cancel the show. (Tartikoff, whom Ebersol considered his best friend, died in 1997 at age 48 of Hodgkin's disease.) SNL the second time around - with Ebersol as executive producer, but not an NBC employee - was a lucky break. Susan Saint James was his first guest host. They met in October 1981 and married six weeks later. The ratings didn't improve during Ebersol's four years at SNL. But he showed a keen eye for talent, making stars of Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal. "He saved the show," says Michaels. Running his own company, Ebersol also created "Saturday Night's Main Event" with wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, "Later" with Bob Costas, and "Friday Night Videos" - taking home some $50 million from those shows.

In 1989 Jack Welch, then GE's CEO, and Bob Wright, then NBC's chief, approached him to run NBC Sports and be SVP of News, but Ebersol resisted. "I didn't want to be an executive," recalls Ebersol, who agreed only when assured that he would be first and foremost a producer. He stumbled early on in news, infamously bringing Deborah Norville to "Today." (He also plucked a young reporter named Katie Couric from duty in Washington, D.C., and made her "Today's" national correspondent.) Exhausted by the double duty, Ebersol quit news and focused on sports. By thinking fresh and taking risks, he rebuilt a stodgy and unprofitable business. In his first big play, he paid $600 million to broadcast the NBA. Most people thought Ebersol was crazy, but he proved them wrong. With hoop stars like Michael Jordan taking the league to new heights, NBC ended up earning hundreds of millions in profits on the NBA throughout the '90s.

Ebersol so loved NBC Sports - and so enjoyed the control he wielded - that he twice passed on offers to head NBC's entertainment division. Today he is not only the longest-serving broadcast sports boss but also the steadiest profit-producer. While ESPN and other cable sports networks earn profits from two sources (advertisers and subscribers), broadcast sports operations often function as audience aggregators and loss leaders. NBC Sports and Olympics, efficiently employing only 100 people full-time, has generated returns - albeit paltry - on about $500 million in revenues in non-Olympic years and $1.5 billion in Olympic years. (This year's Olympics, despite disappointing TV ratings, will deliver about $60 million in profits.)

Ebersol's track record and canny relationship-building skills give him a sway that goes way beyond his title. He proved that recently when he played a critical behind-the-scenes role in a top-level reorganization at NBC. Last November, when Zucker was promoted to CEO, Ebersol learned that TV group president Randy Falco and other key executives were unhappy with planned shifts of responsibility and were inclined to leave the network. Ebersol swung into hyperdrive, calling Wright and Immelt and effectively brokering a realignment that everybody could live with. To ease Falco and others' discomfort about reporting to Zucker instead of Wright, Ebersol proposed that all the company's senior TV execs - including himself - report to Zucker. None of the people involved are comfortable discussing the episode, but some close to the situation call Ebersol's performance remarkably generous.

As a manager, Ebersol typically shows the sort of fiscal discipline that GE covets. He walked away from the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Baseball a few years ago when rights fees rose radically (tripling over a decade, in some cases). "By doing that, NBC avoided huge losses," says Morgan Stanley media analyst Rich Bilotti. Of course, it also meant relinquishing huge promotional vehicles to NBC's rivals - a course of action that Ebersol is now reversing.

When he does spend GE's billions, he devises clever ways to contribute to the whole company. He built into NBC's recent Olympics and NFL deals opportunities for various GE divisions to sell goods and services, from lighting to MRI machines to stadium construction loans. "It will be worth $800 million to $1 billion in Beijing," Immelt says, referring to the 2008 Summer Games. "By mimicking that deal with the NFL contract, we could get up to $200 million a year in revenues there too." Clearly, the one-time independent producer knows how to be the consummate company man.

"I WAS POSSESSED," Ebersol says about his work. We are sitting side by side in a golf cart in the TV-production compound of The Players Championship tournament in Ponte Vedra, Fla. It's a crisp Saturday afternoon in late March. When I tell Ebersol that since we talked in Turin, his wife said to me that his life as superstar sports boss hurt their marriage and his relationship with Teddy, he winces. "That's who I am," he says, squinting into the bright sun. Then he opens up. "The only way Teddy saw me would be if he came to events," he says, explaining that while the family lives in Litchfield, he lives alone in Manhattan during the week and travels to sports events most weekends. "He'd come to my turf. There was really no other way for him to know me."

His family didn't stand a chance against NBC. As Saint James says, "How many stories are there of big-time executives with wives who live in the country? That's classic. And how many stories are there of families where the wife retires to take care of the kids? John Updike covered that one." Once a TV star - on NBC's "McMillan and Wife" with Rock Hudson in the 1970s and on "Kate & Allie" in the '80s - Saint James, now 59, quit acting in 1990. That was the year Teddy was born and the year after Ebersol joined NBC Sports. "I wasn't seeing my husband much, and that made me grouchy - which made Teddy grouchy," she says. Struggling with learning disabilities and his parents' marital problems, Teddy withdrew. At the Olympics - "the hardest thing in our marriage," she says - Ebersol had no time for family. He refused to let them into the TV control room, his command central. Fed up, Saint James quit going after the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Dick and Susan split in late 2001 and came close to divorce. But after nine months they reconciled. And with that, Teddy's outlook improved remarkably. Before long he had a new passion, baseball, and specifically the Red Sox - obviously to ruffle his Yankees-loving father. When Susan asked Teddy why he became such a baseball fanatic, he told her, "I just didn't think I was close enough to Dad. I thought if we had a language, we would grow closer."

IN THE DAYS AFTER THE CRASH, the family confronted its pain. "The most important thing," Ebersol says, "was Susan telling us early on that it's okay to be sad and it's okay to cry, but let's not be mad or angry or bitter." The kids didn't like it when he called a trauma specialist, the chief of psychiatry at the local hospital, to come to the house for four hours each week. "We have broken hearts and we need to deal with that," Ebersol told the kids. As awful as it was for him to spend a winter at home in bed, Saint James says, "the thing that saved our family was that Dick was injured in such a way that he couldn't move. He couldn't avoid thinking about Teddy and the accident and the kids."

Moreover, sharing the grief brought Dick and Susan closer. Together they read 3,000 letters that poured in from friends, NBC colleagues, and people they didn't even know. They sent 3,000 thank-you letters, writing a short personal note at the bottom of each one. When I ask Ebersol how losing their son affects their marriage today, he says, "We're almost always unbelievably sad."

And yet through it all Ebersol never stopped thinking about work. When Jeff Zucker visited him in the hospital in Colorado, four days after the crash, they ended up discussing strategy - specifically, how to win the TV rights to the NFL. "It was therapeutic for him to talk about it," says Zucker, who has survived a battle with cancer. "It gave him something to look forward to and - I don't want to be overdramatic - but it gave him something to live for."

Even beyond the timing, there was an irony to their strategizing. Ebersol, remember, had turned his back on a series of multi-billion-dollar professional sports deals. And Zucker, as NBC Entertainment's boss before he stepped up to run the network, had steadfastly maintained that scripted dramas and comedies would determine NBC's success in primetime. So why bid on football now?

As it turns out, the two execs had decided months earlier that the entertainment slate looked so weak that it was time to reverse course. They had already begun persuading their NBC and GE colleagues that a big sports buy would be essential to buoy ratings and launch a new generation of shows. Even during his convalescence, Ebersol threw himself into the planning and began speaking regularly with the NFL to lay the groundwork. Saint James believes that her husband's work enabled him to move forward from their tragedy more quickly than she has. "He's creating stuff," she says. "For him, things are being born."

AS HE CHATS at the Players Championship, Ebersol can hardly contain his excitement about "Sunday Night Football". "This will be the first time ever that a broadcast network is doing an hourlong primetime pregame show," he says, outlining his plan for the Sept. 10 launch. (Opening game: Giants vs. Colts - Manning against Manning.) He is calling the program "Football Night in America" - just in case viewers miss the idea that he's staging a must-see event.

Turning the broadcast into a hit won't be easy. "The biggest challenge is that the game is at the conclusion of a lot of football games on Sunday," says George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. Indeed, afternoon games on CBS and Fox will spill past 7 P.M., when Ebersol's pregame program is due to start. Then NBC will go up against ABC's mighty Sunday lineup, which currently includes "Desperate Housewives" and the hit hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy." CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus questions whether NBC can get the ratings to make its $3.6 billion investment pay off. "Our ratings projections did not justify it," he says.

But even though the audience for "Monday Night Football" - which will be Ebersol's audience - peaked in 1989 and scored its lowest ratings ever this past season, Ebersol is unfazed. "We should be in the top ten or 12 shows every week," he says. ("Monday Night Football" ranked tenth in households this past season.) One key advantage over ABC's contract: flexible scheduling. This gives NBC an option to select superior matchups toward the end of the season rather than stick with disappointing preseason picks.

Increasingly, Ebersol is thinking about ways to carry sports on the Web. His Internet appreciation is another legacy of the crash. While he was recovering, his son Charlie's best friend, Kip Kroeger, told him that he had to learn to use a computer. On the laptop that Kip retrieved from Teddy's bedroom, Ebersol learned the basics. He doesn't do e-mail (he doesn't type), but he carries his son's cream-colored iBook, with a Tony Hawk skateboarding logo, wherever he goes. "It's Dick's way of honoring Teddy and taking the memory of Teddy with him," says Bob Costas.

Indeed, Teddy is never far from his thoughts. Every day when he is back at home in Connecticut - still not often, since work keeps him on the run - Ebersol visits his son's grave, usually by himself. Next to the small stone, simply marked TEDDY, is the grave of Michael Mortara, who was a senior executive at Goldman Sachs and one of Ebersol's closest friends when he died of a brain aneurysm in 2000. "I lean against Mike's tomb and talk to both of them," Ebersol says. Ebersol has also kept Teddy's cellphone account active. He rarely calls to hear Teddy's voicemail greeting anymore, though. "It says, 'I'm not here right now. Leave a message.' That is unbelievably painful to hear because he's not here right now and I can't leave a message."

It is now 7 P.M., and as we end a long day at the golf tournament we begin talking about holding on to memories. I mention that the week before, Susan told me they were in a crisis because Teddy's computer died. Ebersol nods. "I was bound and determined to keep it alive," he says. So he and Susan took the iBook to an Apple (Research) store in a Florida mall. The technicians were uncertain the computer could be fixed. Later they called: It needed only one new part. "This is big," Ebersol says, smiling broadly. He expects Teddy's computer to be back in his hands any day now.

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EBERSOL THROUGH THE YEARS

1967 Joins ABC Sports at 19 as the first-ever Olympics researcher and becomes the protege of "Wide World of Sports" legend Roone Arledge.

1975 As director of weekend late-night programming at NBC, recruits Lorne Michaels to create "Saturday Night Live."

1981 Returns to SNL as executive producer and helps make stars of Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal.

1983 Forms No Sleep Productions, scoring hits with "Friday Night Videos", the WWF, and "Later" with Bob Costas.

1989 Returns to NBC as president of NBC Sports and SVP of NBC News. Brings Deborah Norville to "Today" - a failure. Puts the NBA on NBC.

1995 Cuts innovative deal for TV rights to five Olympics (2000-08) for $3.5 billion. In 2003, buys two more.

ZUCKER'S PLAN TO MAKE THE PEACOCK STRUT AGAIN

The first week in April was frenetic for NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker. On Monday he moved offices. Tuesday, he prepped for the media craze around Katie Couric's jump from Today to CBS. Wednesday he fielded that flak. Thursday he announced ABC's Meredith Vieira as Couric's replacement. That's more than enough tumult for a boss with a flagging network to fix. Yet Zucker hardly seemed spent Friday evening as he got ready for his 41st birthday on April 9. He spoke with FORTUNE's Patricia Sellers about coping with change and reviving NBC.

Moving is stressful. Couldn't you have picked a better time?

What's worse is that I'm doing major renovations at home.

Today is NBC's biggest moneymaker, generating $250 million in annual profits. What are the chances that Katie's leaving will not hurt its profitability?

Listen, no one is taking these changes lightly. But I can't imagine anyone better qualified to step into that role than Meredith Vieira. We take pride in our transitions. Brian Williams took over from Tom Brokaw, and the Nightly News has been No. 1 since the day he sat down.

What's your strategy to pull NBC out of fourth place in primetime?

Mass and class-quality shows that are extremely commercial and fit the NBC brand. "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" are perfect examples.

How important is the NFL?

Very important. It's part of what will bring back that mass - a lot of viewers. Which gives us a promotional base, which hopefully allows us to reach mass and class.

What about putting TV shows online?

Virtually every program we develop has a TV and digital component. This summer we'll be producing exclusively for NBC.com ten three-minute "webisodes" of "The Office," available for advertisers to buy time. Our digital business currently generates about $50 million in revenue. In the next couple of years, it'll be a couple hundred million annually.

Does it drive you crazy that NBC's primetime woes get all the attention?

We were in first place for ten years. You gotta take the good with the bad. But it obscures the tremendous success at networks like USA and Bravo, which had record first quarters. Our cable entertainment group is the biggest piece of our business in terms of the bottom line. That would shock people. Primetime is 15 percent of profits but most of people's attention. Top of page

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