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July 06, 2016

Reality That Inspires

A life-changing experience taught Charlie Ebersol that, "life is extraordinarily delicate and in some cases very short." That led to an epiphany: "I have to answer to myself every morning when I wake up, that I know what I'm doing has some sort of meaning."

Cecily Knobler

Charlie Ebersol has a consistent through-line when it comes to making television.

Whether it’s the extremely successful millionaire who helps save small businesses (CNBC’s The Profit), the rich Texas tycoons who invest in people with big hearts (West Texas Investors Club), or the families who sacrifice everything for their Olympic-hopeful children (Lifetime’s Gold Medal Families), most of the shows of which he’s a part, (alongside co-founder Mike Lanigan and producing partner Dan Lanigan,) are encouraging and inspiring.   

When it comes to being influential in television, the apple didn't fall from the tree. With Dick Ebersol and actress Susan Saint James as his parents, Charlie was inspired by a family who shines on both sides of the camera. And he continues the family legacy in entertainment with not only pride, but with a moral obligation to create positive work that helps inspire others.

West Texas Investors Club returned for a second season June 7th on CNBC, and Gold Medal Families premieres June 28th on Lifetime. We sat down with Charlie to find out more.

With your parents being who they are, you basically grew up in the world of entertainment. What was it like being around that?

Storytelling was incredibly important in my family. It was really important that you had a beginning, middle and end and that you kept the audience interested.

If you look at the way my father did the Olympics and you look at how my mother brought her characters to life, it was always about story. It was always about drawing an audience in. 

Your production company's (The Company) mission statement is to bring “Joy, Happiness and Change to the world through entertainment." Can you talk a little bit about that?

In television, people invite you into their house. In film, they leave their house to go see you. And if someone is going to invite me into their house, it’s important that what I'm delivering is going to be in line with what I believe.

And I believe in education through entertainment. I think you have a responsibility to do more than just create content you can sell. One of the expressions I use is “I want to feed people spinach, but I want them to think they’re eating cotton candy."  

My dad talked about the only thing that matters is passion. And one of the things that’s in the mission statement is that if you have passion and if you put passion into something, the audience can feel that.

And so when I create a show like West Texas Investors Club or Gold Medal Families, the team that comes on is buying into the bigger mission and their work reflects it. What is the expression? People who don’t like showing up have jobs, people who do have careers? That’s what we’re about.  

You mentioned West Texas Investors Club, which just started its second season. How did you team up with Rooster and Butch for this show?

After I created The Profit, one of the things I was struck by was that it seemed to work largely because it was about this underlying problem the U.S. has, which is that we’re obsessed with mega success and we ignore failure, despite the fact that failure is rampant in this country.

And the idea of The Profit was that all of those businesses that are failing aren’t failures. There are good fundamental businesses in there that are being run by somebody who needs help. But then the thought was, well what if you got to them earlier?

So when I met Rooster and Butch and was looking at the way they invested money, their investment was entirely predicated on giving people the support to build sustainable businesses.

If they were getting their money above the interest rate that they would get from a bank, as far as they were concerned, this was a great investment. And that was probably the closest thing to my belief system I’ve ever seen in business.

What also struck me about them was that they're good natured.

Yes, it seems like the West Texas Investors are investing in the character of the person, as much as the businesses.

It’s the single most important thing. Because at the end of the day, you can invest in a good guy with a bad idea and get a good business out of it. You invest in a bad guy with a good idea, and you’re gonna get screwed.

There’s a thing with Rooster and Butch that is extraordinarily important which is that their handshake is way more valuable than any contract. And that’s because regardless of what happens with the deal, they’ve got the memories of elephants and they know that at the end of the day, their only value is their name.

So if they shake your hand, that’s a business deal. Their premise isn’t how do I get an extra $5000 out of this person? And that’s a hugely important distinction.

Anything we should know about the second season?

We have an episode this season about Butch, who never made it past the fifth grade. He’s incredibly successful, but they look at a company that’s about afterschool education. And he goes back to school and they train him to teach this program.

And look, we’ve done a lot of great shows and the entrepreneurs have done some incredible things. But this is the first time I've ever done a show where the main piece of talent was willing to put themselves in a really uncomfortable situation.

And to see him actually deal with it and come through it, it’s a really beautiful episode. Honestly, it’s probably one of the things I’m the most proud of that we’ve ever done.

Now let's switch gears to Gold Medal Families, which premiered June 28th.  Can you tell us a little about this show?

Gold Medal Families was extraordinarily important to me. Obviously I grew up around the Olympics. I spent the majority of my childhood at either Winter or Summer or trials. But the nuance was I spent the majority of my time with the families of the athletes.

The thing that always struck me is that they would have wildly different backgrounds of what they’d gone through, but there was this commonality of commitment and sacrifice and love and familial support.

And I think this show is an extraordinary example of two things: 1) What it actually takes to become an Olympian by way of the family, which is the untold story. And 2) There is no cookie cutter design of what a family is supposed to look like.

You have every version of what family looks like and the through-line is that the most exceptional success comes from this idea of a loving parent, however that's defined.  

The other thing is, television is about drama. The number one note you get when you're producing any form of television, scripted or unscripted, is "what are the stakes?"

Well there's nothing that has bigger stakes in the non-military justice world other than the Olympics. And to have a partner like Lifetime who really understands drama and what the family unit is about, but then also had the creative generosity to give us the space to create the show that we needed to create, was really spectacular.   

It seems like the common thread between The Profit, West Texas Investors Club, and Gold Medal Families is that they're all about champions who inspire others to become heroes. Is this a life theme for you?

Life is not an individual sport. And there is no exception to the rule that everyone who has succeeded and overcome has done it with the support of family or community or friends. And for me, the common through-line with everything I do is about celebrating community and people coming together and doing something for each other.

In total candor, the thing that's probably the most difficult part of my job is the continual fight against cynicism. My mission statement, what we're honestly trying to do with this company and what I'm trying to do in every aspect of my life, is to combat cynicism. 

William Hung didn't make American Idol the number one show on television, Kelly Clarkson did. Because you're not tuning in to watch people who can't sing, you tune in to see the diamond in the rough. And that is, at a base level, what we as a society look for.  

Which comes back to your mission statement.

Everything that I'm trying to create, from Space Jam to Gold Medal Families and everything in between is largely about celebrating joy, happiness and change.

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