Legends Behind the Lens: Mike Pearl
With a special eye for talent, he shaped the look and feel of sports television for generations
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
In building some of the most iconic sports-television franchises ever and producing many of the most memorable sports telecasts of all time, Mike Pearl has helped redefine how fans watch sports on TV. Whether as an executive in the boardroom or a producer in the control room, he has maintained a flair for innovation, a knack for finding great on-air talent, and, most important, an unwavering sense of loyalty to his peers.
“Mike’s philosophy about life is all about personal relationships and friends,” the late former NBA Commissioner David Stern once said. “If you’re a friend of Mike’s, you’re a friend for life, and there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do for a friend.”
Having studied mass communications/media studies at University of Miami, Pearl broke into the television business as a reporter at WTVJ Miami in 1968. It was the start of a career that would span more than four decades at five networks and garner 16 Emmy Awards.
“I’ve known Mike for over 45 years, and nothing has changed from his years at WTVJ to his years doing network sports,” says founding executive and former President of Fox Sports Ed Goren. “He has a passion for sports television and has a wonderful sense of talent. From the very beginning. Mike was more than just a producer and executive. He is a journalist with a fine sense of bringing a story and show to life.”
First Big Splash
Soon after landing a job at CBS Sports in 1975, Pearl made his first big splash in the industry when he revamped the format of The NFL Today and added on-air talent Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. The pregame show, which Pearl produced for four years, proved a massive hit for CBS, beginning an 18-year run as the highest-rated program in its timeslot (until the network lost its NFL rights in 1994) and paving the way for countless studio shows to follow.
“I have always believed that, with the right mix of [on-air] talent, anything is possible,” says Pearl. “When you find personalities that have great chemistry and complement each other, the rest is a walk in the park. That was truly the case with [The NFL Today]. With personalities like that, you couldn’t lose.”
In addition to his prowess in the studio, Pearl proved himself as a producer in the truck, working the front bench for CBS broadcasts of Super Bowl X, XII, and XIV, as well as the first live wire-to-wire coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1979. Pearl also headed up production on the CBS Sports Spectacular anthology series.
“Mike was my very first partner in network television,” says CBS Sports Lead Director Bob Fishman. “For more than three decades, as both a producer and executive, his leadership has made everyone better, whether working behind the scenes or in front of the camera. His ability to recognize new talent is unique, and, in the production truck, when things didn’t go according to plan, his skill at holding it all together was impressive. Despite his mostly quiet demeanor, there was never a question as to who was leading the broadcast.”
At the Alphabet Net
In 1980, Pearl took his producing talents to ABC, where he would spend eight years and produce a string of high-profile events, including Super Bowl XIX and XXII, Monday Night Football, the Indianapolis 500 (three times), the New York City Marathon, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Pearl also saw his first action at the Olympics — an event that would help to define his career throughout the ’80s and ’90s — serving as producer at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. In 1987, while at ABC, Pearl took home horseracing’s highest honor, the Eclipse Award, for producing the all three legs of the Triple Crown.
In 1988, Pearl returned to his roots at the Tiffany Network, serving as coordinating producer of CBS Sports’ coverage of the 1992 Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics (still the highest-rated Olympics ever).
“In the crazy, zany, wacky, and pressure-filled business of sports television, I think of Mike Pearl as always being the calmest guy in the storm. he is, without question, one of the most important figures [for] four decades in sports television. Yet, even rapid sports fans don’t know his name.” – Al Michaels
“I always believe in looking for the next challenge; I could never handle being stagnant,” says Pearl. “If it was something that was unknown and seemed like something that wasn’t necessarily in my comfort zone, then that’s where I wanted to be. That [philosophy] guided a lot of the decisions I ended up making in my career.”
Following the 1994 Games, Pearl was ready for that next challenge when Turner Sports President (and childhood friend) Harvey Schiller came calling with an opportunity to revamp the Turner Sports’ production operation.
“I knew from my own background in sports that we really needed to do something different,” says Schiller. “At the time, we were the single cable carrier of the NBA, and the expectation from Commissioner Stern when I got on board was, ‘We got to do something that’s different.’ I knew of Mike’s performance before, and it was clear that he was the guy that could hire the right people and get the job done.”
Introducing Charles Barkley
As SVP/executive producer at Turner Sports, Pearl oversaw all production of NFL, Atlanta Braves baseball, NASCAR, figure skating, golf, Wimbledon, and college football, as well as Turner’s cable coverage of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. However, his crowning achievement at the network was his revamp of NBA on TNT: his keen eye for talent and unique programming would result in a nine-time-Emmy-winning studio show and create one of sports television’s most incendiary and popular stars: Inside the NBA and Charles Barkley.
“When I grew up in this business, there was a differentiation between a terrestrial over-the-air production and a cable production, but, thanks to Executive Producer Mike Pearl, that distinction was smashed once and for all after his job on the NBA on Turner. That’s just a fact,” says Stern. “He put together a spectacular production and terrific on-air talent, and he had the audacity to hire Charles Barkley, so we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Mike Pearl.”
Schiller adds, “A lot of people in TV feel that the studio shows can waste money, but our studio show was so different because it was a gathering place and a way to capture everything that was happening in the NBA. There were times we had a higher rating on our show than we got for a game or anyone else got for a game. That’s pretty dramatic and very unusual in broadcast that a studio show gets a higher rating than a game. That tells you something.”
In 2003, just as ESPN President George Bodenheimer began overseeing Disney sibling ABC Sports, Pearl returned to the “House that Roone Built” as SVP/executive producer. During his years at ABC, he oversaw production of Monday Night Football (as well as Super Bowl XL), the BCS National Championship, the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the Open Championship, the Indianapolis 500, and the World Figure Skating Championships. He also continued to work his magic behind the mic, introducing the three-man ABC Golf booth of Mike Tirico, Nick Faldo, and Paul Azinger as well as anointing Al Michaels and Doc Rivers as the network’s top NBA announce team.
“Mike played a significant role at ABC Sports, thanks to his vast experience, knowledge of the industry, and keen skill,” say Bodenheimer. “In addition, he is a consummate team player, always putting the needs of the organization first. He was instrumental to our operation, and I highly value our time working together.”
Following the merger of ESPN and ABC Sports operations in 2005, Pearl continued to oversee special projects for ESPN and Disney, including a bid for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics. Pearl may be semi-retired and operating consulting firm Michael Pearl Productions, but his legacy continues to build.
“I don’t believe that there’s a single sport that we have in America or around the world that wouldn’t want to take advantage of his expertise,” says Schiller. “He’s extremely honest. I never heard him say a bad word about someone away from the person. That’s something very unusual in the broadcast business.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2015. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.