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TV-Radio / Larry Stewart

At NBC, They Can Read Terry O'Neil Like an Open Book

June 02, 1989|Larry Stewart

When Terry O'Neil, former ABC and CBS sports producer, wrote his book about the inner workings of the sports television business, "The Game Behind the Game," he thought he was through with the networks.

But lo and behold, a couple of weeks before the book's release date, O'Neil, 39, was named executive producer of NBC Sports, replacing popular Michael Weisman.

Suddenly, advance copies of the book were in great demand on the 14th and 15th floors at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, headquarters of NBC Sports.

The book is a revealing study of O'Neil. Some people might see him as honest. Others might not be so kind.

One thing for sure, he doesn't pull any punches in the book, delivering jabs at a number of former co-workers.

For example, he portrays Peter Lund, former president of CBS Sports, and Jim Spence, former senior vice president of ABC Sports, as weak, indecisive executives.

In 1985, Lund fired O'Neil. The final straw in their relationship was a dispute over a Tiffany Chin feature O'Neil produced, which was to have been shown as part of the coverage of that year's World Figure Skating Championships.

According to O'Neil, Lund was convinced that the piece, which showed Chin's mother, Marjorie, as domineering, might hurt CBS' relations with figure skating.

Lund rather casually told O'Neil not to run the piece. An argument ensued. A month later, O'Neil started hearing rumors that he would be fired. According to O'Neil, Lund finally told him, "T.O., the rumors are true."

His troubles with Spence came to a head in 1980, after O'Neil was named producer of ABC's "Monday Night Football." He lasted only three games, mainly because of confrontations with Howard Cosell. O'Neil, in the book, blames Spence for not backing him in those disputes.

He soon left ABC and went to CBS, where he took charge of, among other things, that network's pro football coverage. He says one of the first things he did was put out an edict: No drinking on the job.

In his book, he accuses announcers Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier of drinking during telecasts. "Alcohol was the lifeblood of the old CBS Sports," he writes.

Brookshier has denied the charge and has been quoted as saying, "The one thing you don't know about Terry O'Neil is the joke he was."

O'Neil writes that he told Summerall that he couldn't drink during telecasts, and that took care of that. O'Neil blames his predecessors at CBS as being too permissive.

One of the few mistakes O'Neil admits in the book was the way he told Vin Scully that Summerall, not Scully, would be paired with John Madden as the No. 1 pro football announcing team.

In 1981, O'Neil and other executives at CBS put Scully and Summerall through sort of an eight-week audition. For four weeks, Scully worked with Madden, and Summerall worked with Hank Stram. Then they switched commentators for four more weeks.

After the decision was made that Summerall and Madden would be the No. 1 team and would work that season's Super Bowl, O'Neil was selected to tell Scully.

He phoned Scully and said, "Vin, I have good news. You're going to be working two postseason games--a divisional playoff and the NFC championship game. Your partner for the second half of the season is going to be Hank Stram."

O'Neil writes: "Even as I was hearing myself say these words, I knew how wrong they were. Scully was spitting mad. He was in a New York hotel room between games of the World Series he was working for CBS radio. I offered to come across town to speak to him. He declined emphatically."

Scully left CBS after the 1982 football season, going to NBC.

Writes O'Neil: "On his way out the door, Scully told CBS corporate management that the Super Bowl disappointment was the largest factor, but another reason was the 'good news' phone call from Terry O'Neil."

A couple of weeks ago, O'Neil met with Scully in New York to discuss the announcer's future with NBC. It was their first conversation since that phone call.

"I showed him what I had written, and we laughed about it," O'Neil said. "Vin said he didn't remember the phone call."

Sounds as if Scully might have taken the diplomatic approach with his new boss.

Before getting the NBC job, O'Neil planned to take a 10-city tour to promote his book. Afterward, he asked Dick Ebersol, new president of NBC Sports and the man who hired him, if he should cancel the promotional tour considering the nature of the book.

O'Neil is well aware that people, particularly those in a high-profile field such as television, don't take kindly to seeing negative things about themselves in print.

Also, when last month's announcement concerning O'Neil was made, one thing Ebersol said was that he didn't want any of his employees saying anything derogatory about the competition--or about anybody else for that matter.

"When I asked Dick if I should cancel the tour, he said, no, to go ahead," O'Neil said.

But it was pared down from 10 cities to five. Los Angeles was the last stop late last week. O'Neil officially took over his new NBC job Tuesday.

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