In his last TV job, Michael Weisman oversaw the production of the San Franciso 49ers' comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1989 Super Bowl on NBC--a broadcast seen by about 120 million people. Today he oversees "The Pat Sajak Show"--a program that on a good night flickers in about 3 million homes.
"Yes, but now I'm in show business," enthuses Weisman, the former executive producer of NBC Sports who took control of "Sajak" last month. "I always had the feeling in sports that I wasn't in show business. I might have done Super Bowls and the World Series and the Olympics and Wimbledon, and it's prestigious and all that, but if I met somebody who knew somebody on a sitcom, I'd go, 'Wow.' "
Essentially, Weisman's new job is to save "Sajak"--CBS' year-old late-night talk show that has floundered in the ratings and, for the most part, has been snubbed by A-list celebrity guests. While "The Arsenio Hall Show," which debuted just a week before it, has soared in syndication and both Johnny Carson and David Letterman have lumbered on unscathed, "Sajak" has been plagued by rumors that the network was about to kill it.
Into the brink, like the little Dutch boy trying to plug an ever-so-leaky dike, stepped Weisman, 40, a man who, except for a short stint as a page on "The Tonight Show," has done nothing but sports his entire adult life.
Bursting with enthusiasm for Pat Sajak, the band, the guests and the whole late-night talk show milieu, Weisman acknowledged in a recent interview that his primary obstacle is to overcome the "loser" image that has haunted the show and thus encourage the public to give the program another chance.
To make an old show appear new again, Weisman gave the show a whole new look this week. There's a new set, a new opening, a new musical theme, new comedy features, including a three-times-a-week comedic soap opera performed by The Groundlings comedy troupe, and a new "roundtable," in which the guests on each show sit together for several minutes of unrehearsed conversation. Dan Miller is still the announcer, but he no longer serves as Sajak's Ed McMahon-styled sidekick.
Weisman's intent is to rebuke the prevailing notion that "Sajak" is simply a copycat of other successful talk shows. He pointed out that when "Sajak" premiered in January, 1989, ratings for the first few weeks were very good. But viewers soon deserted the program; Weisman theorizes that they decided "Sajak" was little more than an imitation "Tonight Show." As ratings dipped, CBS then tried several changes in the show, even asking Sajak to adopt a looser, funkier, more "Arsenio"-like attitude at one point, but nothing seemed to revive it.
"Pat was never comfortable emulating Carson or Arsenio," Weisman said. "And as they made these changes, the show became more unfocused and confusing, and I think Pat was confused and that probably came through the screen."
In his 18 years at NBC Sports, the last six as executive producer, Weisman earned a reputation as an innovator. He was responsible for the infamous "Silent Minute" during the 1986 Super Bowl pre-game show. He also put microphones on assistant football coaches in the press box during a game and on a catcher when he went out to the mound to talk to his pitcher so fans could get a glimpse of what went on in the private, behind-the-scenes world of big time sporting events. He also hired Gayle Sierens, the first woman to announce football play-by-play on a network.
"I've always had the feeling that if I was curious about something, the public is probably curious too," Weisman said. "And everyone would say, 'Wow, revolutionary.' I found in sports that the more chances I took, even if they didn't work out, people liked the fact that we took chances and we tried. Because so much of the business is a copycat business. I don't have the confidence with the talk-show genre just yet to make some of the more radical changes that I think I'll eventually make, but as we go we'll really start to play around."
Having worked his way to the top of the NBC sports hierarchy, Weisman suddenly found himself with lots of time to play around last May when the new president of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, fired Weisman so he could bring in his own man as executive producer, Terry O'Neill. Weisman was subsequently besieged with other sports offers but, with nearly two years remaining on his hefty NBC contract, he decided that he needed a break from balls, strikes and instant replay.
"I'd done it all in sports, and I think it was Grant Tinker who said, 'Get out of sports. You don't need to do another World Series or another Super Bowl,' " Weisman said. "Looking back, the best thing that could have happened to me was to get fired from NBC because I would have never quit. I was making too much money, it was too prestigious, too comfortable, but frankly I was not as enthused as I was even a few years ago."
He decided to write what he called "a Linda Ellerbee-like autobiography, certainly not a kiss and tell book," that would try to capture the humor and the stories involved in big time television sports. And he took note of the fact that in recent years, several sports executives, including current ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger and Weisman's predecessor at NBC, Don Ohlmeyer, who now heads his own production company, had made successful transitions from sports to entertainment.
Then CBS' entertainment division called "out of the blue" with a multi-year offer that includes future producing opportunities, probably on several prime-time specials, in addition to overseeing "Sajak." Weisman insists that his only concern right now is "Sajak," but he concedes that it is unlikely he would have uprooted his wife and two grade school-aged children from New York to Los Angeles solely for a show that had been rumored for months to be on its way out.
He also said that he will not have anything to do with CBS Sports, despite the fact that the network recently has been buying up the television rights to such significant sports properties as major league baseball and the 1992 Olympics.
New CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky has expressed support for "Sajak" and, while no one expects the ratings to jump by the end of the month, Weisman said that "the network is looking forward to some positive movement, at least in terms of perception. If we succeed there, and I do think with this new identity people will come to feel more comfortable with Pat, that should buy us some time. CBS (which is still last among the big three in prime time ratings), has a lot of other areas that they are devoting a lot of attention to right now, and I suspect that they will give the show some time. What does that mean in English, I don't know, but that's the fun of the job."
It's a new game every night.