Not long ago, on a Wednesday night in July in Washington, D.C., a veteran NBC News executive producer named David Corvo stood onstage inside the U.S. Capitol visitors center and addressed a room full of several hundred bureaucrats, military staffers, journalists and District gadflies gathered to watch a preview of a new NBC series, called The Wanted, that promised to do the impossible: make the important but tedious concerns of the nation’s capital sexy, watchable and cinematic.
The show had a daring premise: a hefty team of paramilitary journalists, outfitted with Kevlar vests and helicopters, would chase down alleged terrorists and war criminals, who at times were living openly overseas and in the U.S. See journalist, see journalist hunt, see journalist catch bad guy. That’s action.
After Mr. Corvo introduced The Wanted, he ceded the spotlight to the young man who had brought it to life. Charlie Ebersol, trim and confident, was wearing a get-up rarely seen in the sartorial backwaters of the District—a sleek gray suit over black Chuck Taylor sneakers. He was 26 years old, the swaggering scion of the actress Susan Saint James and the TV executive Dick Ebersol—the head of NBC sports, one of the creators of Saturday Night Live and arguably the second most powerful boss at NBC Universal behind chief Jeff Zucker.
Mr. Ebersol began by thanking NBC News president Steve Capus. He was a visionary, said Mr. Ebersol, for supporting a project led by two guys with no experience developing prime-time television. “We were blessed to have NBC News come on board,” said Mr. Ebersol.
The blessing was short-lived. Less than two months later, The Wanted has come and gone amid a flurry of largely negative reviews. The ambition behind the series might have been big, but the eventual ratings were tiny by prime-time NBC standards. The premiere on Monday, July 20, drew a scant 2.99 million viewers, fourth among the broadcast networks at 10 p.m., even finishing behind Spanish-language Univision. The second episode, on Monday, July 27, did even worse, attracting only 2.17 million viewers.
Mr. Ebersol’s NBC debut was a flop.
The Truth About Charlie
The Wanted was only Mr. Ebersol’s second project for television (he also produced a documentary film that was picked up by HBO—more on that shortly), but it’s clear looking back even to his college years that Mr. Ebersol, with his gilded pedigree, has long been big on ideas and weak on execution.
In the spring of 2003, as a board member of the undergraduate student union at Notre Dame, Mr. Ebersol proposed a concert on campus, the proceeds of which would go to charities in Africa. He told classmates he planned on lining up U2 and Bruce Springsteen to play Notre Dame Stadium. “This is not pipe dream,” Mr. Ebersol would later tell the campus newspaper. “One day, Notre Dame students will wake up on the morning of the biggest concert this country’s schools have ever seen.”
The concert never materialized (although Mr. Ebersol eventually did manage to get SNL-alum David Spade to perform on campus).
At the same time, Mr. Ebersol was struggling to realize his grand political goals in campus politics. Twice, he ran feverish campaigns to become the president of the student body. Both times, he lost.
In the fall of 2004, his family was struck with a sudden, public tragedy that briefly put him in the news. Shortly after takeoff, a private jet carrying Mr. Ebersol and members of his family crashed at a small, regional airport near their vacation home in Telluride, Colo. Mr. Ebersol’s younger brother Teddy died in the crash, and he and his father both suffered serious injuries.
After the plane crash, according to press clippings from the time, Mr. Ebersol left Notre Dame, where he was still a few credits shy of graduating, and moved to Los Angeles to learn the family business.
In a profile published in the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 2007, Mr. Ebersol was living as a long-term house guest of Lilly Tartikoff, the widow of legendary NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff. Then 24 years old, he was already playing the part of the seasoned Hollywood veteran, helping Ms. Tartikoff’s 12-year-old daughter pitch animated series to executives around town. Despite his inexperience, he began to pursue his birthright: flashy producer, potential NBC executive. No page duties required.
Out of Africa
Mr. Ebersol’s first apparent success as a producer came in 2005 when he and his childhood friend Kip Kroeger completed a feature-length documentary called Ithuteng (Never Stop Learning). The documentary, which was directed by Charlie’s teenage brother Willie, offered a moving portrait of an inspiring teacher named Jacqueline “Mama Jackie” Maarohanye, who ran a school in Soweto, South Africa, for underprivileged kids. The film was accepted in several festivals. HBO bought the rights. Oprah Winfrey gave a large donation to the school.
In the winter of 2005, however, a number of students from the school revealed to a South African news program that Ms. Maarohanye had coached them to make up false, horrific stories about their childhoods in order to get more money from donors. Eventually, the subject behind Mr. Ebersol’s glowing documentary was formally charged with offenses, ranging from assault to kidnapping to arson.
Though his project was undermined, Mr. Ebersol’s reputation as a producer escaped largely unscathed. The pair went on to make another documentary about a snowboarder.
Mr. Ebersol continued to work the Hollywood scene, eventually landing a much-coveted production deal with NBC Universal. Roughly two years ago, while on the lookout for projects, Mr. Ebersol met a young producer for NBC Dateline named Adam Ciralsky. Mr. Ciralsky had an idea for a series. Mr. Ebersol liked it. The two men—one with an idea and one with the ability to open doors—clicked. Meetings with then NBC Universal head Ben Silverman eventually led to a green light in Hollywood, which eventually led to moral, financial and personnel support for The Wanted from the NBC News division back in New York. It almost seemed charmed. Or, blessed, rather.
Yet, like Mr. Eberson’s documentary about the South African school, The Wanted soon ran into controversy. Months before it was ready to air, the series triggered a round of stories in the press questioning the producers’ methodology. When reporters from The Wanted showed up at a small college in Maryland for a confrontational interview with a native of Rwanda who had been accused of war crimes (which he denied) and who was now teaching French at the school, the college president, a former journalist himself, criticized the producers for seemingly working hand-in-hand with Rwandan prosecutors. Human rights observers worried publicly that the show would accidentally target innocent individuals. Federal officials worried that such tactics could interfere with their investigations. Media watchdogs wondered aloud if it was such a good idea for NBC to further blur the line between journalists and law enforcement. Foreign correspondents scratched their heads.
At the same time, Mr. Ebersol was proving to have something of a tin ear to the mounting concerns. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he explained that camera crew members were asked to watch The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum before shooting for the series—not exactly the kind of disclosure that would reassure critics worried that The Wanted was a shallow entertainment series masquerading as news.
When the first episode aired, most TV critics piled on (“Silly, self-important and journalistically out to lunch,” wrote David Zurawik in The Baltimore Sun) while other critics, including Tom Shales of The Washington Post and a wide array of conservative bloggers, complimented it. But the low ratings ensured the series’ abbreviated run. After who knows how many millions of dollars spent on development, production and promotion, NBC executives said that after two episodes, they were done.
In the meantime, articles in outlets such as The New Republic and Buffalo News continued to take in-depth looks at some of the subjects targeted in The Wanted and inevitably found that the cases were complicated, nuanced and layered—not the kind of situations that would work in a simple good guys vs. bad guys format. Producers, it seemed, should have known better.
Overall, The Wanted amounted to what was arguably the worst public-relations hit that a broadcast news network has taken since CBS’s “Rather-gate controversy” and Mr. Rather’s subsequent lawsuit against his former employers.
In the end, NBC News executives won’t say exactly how much they spent on two poorly rated episodes of The Wanted, and no one has reported a precise figure in the press. Nor is it entirely clear what, if anything, will happen to the remaining episodes that have yet to air. Earlier this summer, ShineReveille International purchased worldwide distribution rights to the series. Questions to ShineReveille about the possibility of The Wanted airing overseas were referred back to Mr. Ebersol, who did not return repeated emails about this story from The Observer.
Of course, nobody is likely to lose their jobs for The Wanted’s shortcomings. Television development has a notoriously high fatality rate. Even when you’re succeeding, 95 percent of your new series might fizzle. Experimentation, even failure, can be a good thing—if you’re willing to acknowledge the reasons underlying the failure.
For instance: to judge by The Wanted, big swaggering production values aren’t a magic solution to breaking through viewers’ apathy when it comes to international news. Also, famous TV pedigree or not, experience matters. No word on what Mr. Ebersol will take on next for NBC, but perhaps this time he should stay closer to home.
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