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We made the judgment that several sports properties might make an immediate impact on prime time and help turn CBS around. It may work, it may not. Sports acquisitions are just one of the layers of strategy in this company.
Well, reduced to cold Corporatespeak, it all sounds pretty matter-of-fact. But the truth is, Pilson is describing something pretty damned exciting, something even a bit historic. For at no time in the annals of television has so much money been spent ($3.5 billion) so fast to buy so much "property"—in this case an array of sporting jewels that includes over-the-air network TV rights to four baseball regular seasons, A four All-Star Games, four baseball playoff series in each major league, four World Series, two Olympic Games, four NFC regular seasons, four NFC playoff series, one Super Bowl, one Masters golf tournament and seven 32-game NCAA basketball tournaments. To the big spenders at CBS, this blast of billions may have been nothing more than a "layer of strategy." But to the rest of the TV sports world, and to fans in general, it was a volcanic, not to say vulgar, spewing of riches that left Pilson's rivals awed, angry, envious—and helpless.
Indeed, at one point during CBS's 15-month-long attack of the moneybags, NBC Sports president Arthur Watson gasped, "They've got to be out of their minds." And Dennis Swanson, president of ABC Sports, which used to be the most profligate of all the network sports divisions, simply shook his head and said, "We're not the government. Maybe this fits CBS's strategy, but we have our own shareholders to answer to, and we can't justify losing money week after week on anything."
Untroubled by such scoffing, Pilson crows, "We're in as dominant a position as a sports network as anyone has ever been. There has never been a period when there were so many properties for sale that all had to be negotiated in such a brief time [December 1988 to March '90]. We won a few and we lost a few, but we got everything we really wanted."
At enormous risk, he might have added. The future of CBS may be at stake in this decision to use sports as a springboard to ratings supremacy in prime time. But it was a gamble that the network's CEO, Laurence Tisch, and Pilson made with enthusiasm. And they did it despite the fact that as recently as five years ago Pilson was prophesying doom and gloom if networks didn't rein in their spending for sports. "Times change," he says now.
So who is this guy who rose out of the pack of network yes-men and yuppies to become the No. 1 impresario of TV sports in America? Well, what do you visualize when you think of a TV impresario? A colorful high roller, confidant to jocks and talk-show hosts, companion to congressmen and beauty queens, conspicuous user of limousines? You do? Well, forget it.
This czar of TV sports is none of the above. He is a steady, abstemious, bespectacled 50-year-old with a Yale Law degree and a pharmacist's name: Neal Pilson. Smart, articulate and icily logical, he is so coolly dispassionate that he effectively fired his star announcer, Brent Musburger, at 2:30 in the morning the day before Musburger was to have worked the NCAA championship basketball game. Pilson subsists on a low-cholesterol diet and finds he must keep an eye on his anxiety levels. He says, "You have to be able to step away from yourself during intense negotiations and say to yourself, O.K., now, Neal, you know why you're not eating, not sleeping, not conducting any kind of sensible conversation with your wife? It's because you're taking your business everywhere you go—to the shower, on vacation. But that's the way you are, Neal, so don't worry about it. Just keep an eye on what's next."
Whatever is next, it always adds up to a 75-hour work week for Pilson. And in the deluge of detail and decision-making he faces each day, he has come to believe that corporate mankind's most important attribute is "the ability to prioritize." After a day of high-tension prioritizing in his 30th-floor office at Black Rock, CBS's Manhattan skyscraper, he heads straight home to the suburb of Chappaqua, N.Y., where he dines with Frieda, his wife of 28 years, does more CBS Sports work and retires by 11 p.m.
He doesn't drink, and he is on the road about 170 days a year. One of the secrets of his success, he says, is that "I really know how to travel. I am always at the airport at least an hour early because I want to avoid unnecessary, stressful situations. If I do encounter a delay, I always carry a little portable office kit with a dictating machine, cellular phone, stapler, staple remover, ruler, calculator, Scotch tape and paper clips. Not long ago, I was delayed at the Kansas City airport for four hours. I did two months of expense accounts."
When friends or associates are asked if Pilson has any consuming hobbies, they pause for a while, then report that he is a wizard at using the Airline Travel Guide to decipher the fastest routes between cities and that he can recite from memory all of the quickest routes into town from every major airport in America. He has always been an enthusiastic though mediocre athlete. He played junior varsity basketball at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., as well as recreational softball and touch football well into his 40's, and he once coached his son's peewee hockey team. He is now trying to polish his tennis and golf games, though it's a struggle.