Mission Possible

Matt Lauer wants to explain this guy. The morning TV host is heading uptown in a limousine but he sure has time to tell his favorite Jim Bell story. It was about eight years ago when Bell, then his producer on the TODAY show, decided to haul Matt and the broadcast off to one of the world’s most dangerous cities: Kabul, Afghanistan.

“It was a mess—one of the least-safe places I had ever been. We were surrounded by security and they wouldn’t let us out of their sight. They didn’t want us to leave the safe house without a vest on. It was impossible to relax for a second. Everyone’s nerves were frayed.

“Sure enough, Jim starts emailing a friend. And after work one day he goes, ‘I got us covered tonight.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? The security guys don’t even want us to leave the compound.’

“He says, ‘We’re going out.’

“So we get our security guys and jump into our armored vehicle. Jim has booked us, by email, with an old buddy who runs a restaurant of some kind on the back roads of Kabul. We go into this gated compound where the gates actually slam behind our cars. And then we go into the compound where the guards have to check their weapons. They have a coat check for weapons! They get a claim check and literally hang their weapons on the wall!

“And that place,” he says, “to my memory, had the best pizza and the best beer I’ve ever had.”

Lauer laughs. “We’re in this bizarre place and Jim’s got a buddy there. Jim has a buddy everywhere. Wherever he goes, he’s got a buddy from high school or that he used to work with, and almost invariably hooking up with that buddy leads to an amazing experience.”

Chances are good that in the last decade you’ve watched a show produced by Bell. He seems to be the field marshal NBC turns to on ultra-complicated assignments. After his seven years on the TODAY show, he was made the point man for the network’s voluminous Olympics coverage. A Connecticut native, he has joined another 700 souls tilling the digital fields at NBC Sports’ thirty-three-acre campus in Stamford. As other executives have found, it’s a quick hike to the Greenwich home. That is, when he’s not somewhere in the wide world with a headset clamped on his very large noggin, battling in the Olympian trenches.

Lauer does some Olympics work, too, and doesn’t hesitate to say that both are the equivalent of trench warfare. “And Jim is a guy you want in the trenches.”

Walking into the new NBC facility, “trenches” is hardly the word to describe the gleaming environment. Bell has decided to do this interview in the commissary. It’s not a bad choice, as the large room with tall windows and light streaming in has a warm feel. This fits with Bell’s expansive, convivial nature. In the commissary he is not the Big Executive at His Desk. He’s just another guy at home in a crowd.

Right away, it was plain to see how natural it was for Jim Bell to find himself in positions of authority. He’s an imposingly tall man with a mighty girth, and he has the big, jocular voice you get growing up at the dinner table of a boisterous Irish-American family where everyone’s right. At Harvard he was an All-Ivy tackle on the football team. The role still fits—the big guy coming at you with brains and brawn. It’s no wonder the TV honchos looked him over and said, “OK, you’re in charge.”

MAN WITHOUT A PLAN
Bell was raised in Branford, the son of a lawyer for General Electric. For all the good examples in his life, when Bell graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1989, he still felt somewhat aimless.

“Everything about my future was uncertain,” he says. “Up to then, the days had all been spoken for, between school and sports. Unlike my classmates who were smart enough to actually have a plan, I didn’t. I thought it would be an interesting time as a government major to go to Europe. In 1989 there was a lot of tumult in Europe. The Wall was coming down and Communism was on the run.”

He was bumming around Spain, bunking in youth hostels, when he wandered over to Barcelona. “Through a friend of a friend, I found myself at an American-style football game. The next thing I knew they were asking me to coach.”

While most people would consider that a pretty phenomenal transition, Bell breezes past it. “My salary as coach was extraordinarily modest, but I did that for about a year.”

Needing money, he was reaching out to other American companies for work when he heard that an advance crew from NBC had arrived to scout the Barcelona Olympics. He jumped on it. “There was an executive who’d injured himself playing basketball and needed someone to push him in a wheelchair. I seemed up to the task. So I did that for two weeks.”

Sportscaster Bob Costas was one of the many people observing this scene—Bell, the man-mountain, helping this very large exec, Randy Falco. “He not only pushed him,” recalls Costas, “in some cases he actually picked him up and carried him. That created an impression—an image that stuck in your head.” Costas had seen a lot of hot Ivy League kids working as interns, but few worked with Bell’s diligence. Certainly no one else would throw an executive across their back. Another exec who raised an eye at this scene was Dick Ebersol, then the legendary chairman of NBC Sports.

“At the end of two weeks,” Bell remembers, “he looked at me and said, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Biding my time before I decide whether to go to law school or not.’ He said, ‘Well, I might have a job for you in New York if you’re interested.’” In only a few weeks, Bell transitioned from fetching coffee for executives to working on the team that prepared profiles of Olympic athletes. And these weren’t just heart-tuggers from Ohio. He and his team were canvassing Uganda in hopes of finding past gold medalist runner John Akii-Bua. “He’d become a policeman but had to go into hiding under Idi Amin’s reign.” Then it was on to Namibia, where sprinter Frankie Fredericks trained in the desert. The spectacular visuals pleased him, but the soul of Africa moved him. “At that age, to be able to go to Africa left a very deep impression on me.”

Working the Barcelona Games he made an even more important connection in his life, his future wife, Angelique. A dynamo from Great Neck with a Dominican, Mexican and Lebanese background, Angelique had been working the Olympics research department for a year when it was announced that this storied character was coming to the office. “I’d heard so much about him,” she says, talking with machine-gun speed. “Jim Bell in Barcelona, Jim Bell speaks Catalan. I had to get a look at this guy. Everyone was sitting on my desk in the open area waiting to see this guy. He came around the corner. He was this hulking beast with a shaved head. He was enormous. Huge. I was like, ‘Good for you, nice to meet you, bye-bye.’

“He was assigned to the desk behind me, as luck would have it. He was really bored and used to throw pennies at the back of my head. At first I was, ‘OK, you’re really funny, a big jock. I ran in high school and college, I knew the profile. Enough already.’ But when he shifted to quarters …‘Oh. He likes me.’ ”

When Bell speaks of her, he lights up in a grand smile. “She has an elegant toughness about her,” he says, beaming. “Very appealing. As anyone who knows her will tell you, she is unafraid to speak truth to power—or size. She’s about 5-1 and I’m 6-4. So I think we all appreciate her candor, her spirit and her heart. She’s a force.”

The relationship moved with Olympian speed through the event. “Afterward we announced our engagement at the wrap party, which took place in a bullring. I was fortunate to meet someone who has been as great a partner as I could have ever hoped for.”

After Barcelona they returned to the New York operations and put down new roots in Greenwich. Angelique went to work for NBC News and rose to producer at Dateline NBC. “After Bell Boy No. 1, she stuck it out for a while,” Jim says, “but after No. 2, it became difficult. It’s a tough decision and choice, and there’s not necessarily a right answer. ‘Oh, what if I had…?’ I think she’s at peace these eighteen years later.”

Well, she’s gotten as much peace as you get in a house with four sons, all of whom joined the wrestling team. Two are now in college, with two more headed that way. But does she miss the news business?

“I do miss it when there are big, breaking news stories,” she says. “It was harder when the kids were younger and there were some big stories. I felt bad when the baby would cry when the nanny would leave, and I would be, ‘No, no, the baby should cry when I leave.’”

Feeling lucky to be in Greenwich, she volunteered with DART—Dana’s Angels Research Trust. And for ten years, she’s been on board with the Greenwich leadership council of Save the Children. “Globally, it’s an incredible organization.” Still a producer at heart, she can write a speech or head out into the strife-torn fields.

RUNNING THE TV STEEPLECHASE
Jim’s career at NBC Sports, meanwhile, was streaking at what appears to be his normal breakneck speed. “It was a great decade,” he recalls, mentally flipping through his scrapbooks, “what with Michael Jordan and all those NBA Championships, the Pete Sampras Wimbledons and Dallas Cowboy Super Bowls, many great golf events, you were just swinging from one event to the next.

“But at the end of that decade—because of the costs of keeping those sports—fiscal sanity prevailed.” Gone was the baseball, then the football, then the NBA. In 2000, he turned his full attention to Olympics broadcasts, but after five years NBC asked him to run their critical profit center, the TODAY show.

For all of its jolly smoothness on morning TV screens, the TODAY show is a daily marathon for the creators and packed with enough backstage intrigue to fill fourteen Russian novels.

Matt Lauer will never forget the first time he met Bell. “I was asked by the president of NBC News to have a clandestine meeting with him on the 52nd floor of 30 Rock. They were thinking of having Jim take over on the TODAY show. No one was allowed to know we were meeting. And he almost projected too much confidence and calm. I kidded him about it later. I said, ‘You were right on the hairy edge of cocky.’”

He told Bell that the show would vacuum up all this time. With four young boys, Lauer warned, this would be crazy. “And he said, ‘I can do it, and I can still be a great husband and a great dad to those boys.’”

“Afterward, I used an expression he’ll hate seeing in the piece, but he’ll know I’m telling the truth. When I left the meeting, I went in to see the president of NBC News and I said, ‘You know, he’s a great guy, very eager, ambitious, but, he may have a slight case of Harvard-itis.’ The guy knew exactly what I was talking about because he went to Harvard.”

But the grief Lauer anticipated during the transition simply went missing. “His learning curve was almost nonexistent. He just went right into it.”

Bell was still just getting his feel for the job when London was rocked by the 2005 terror attacks. “Seeing that story develop, and how dangerous a place the world still was,” Bell recalls, “and how we were trying to react to it in real time and make sure we had all the right information. You want to be first, but, man oh man, you want to be right. The seriousness of that…” He looks up. “It’s not like if you post the wrong yardage stats on a quarterback! You can’t get careless on a story like London on that day. There was a moment early on where I realized, Wow, it’s different.

“The TODAY show is a big tent and into it was crowded the happy talk as well as the deadly talk from Haiti, or a murder trial like Casey Anthony’s. Each of them, he notes, changed him. “Hurricane Katrina was hugely impactful for me.”

Not everything went smoothly. The emotionally wrought departure of Ann Curry, who was replaced by Savannah Guthrie, happened on Bell’s watch. And the show’s ratings began to slip a little against ABC’s Good Morning America.

In 2011, NBC was acquired by telecommunications giant Comcast. Ebersol departed, and under the eye of new sports chairman Mark Lazarus, another recent Greenwich transplant, the sports group was given marching orders to expand like crazy. Big news deals were struck in football, hockey, NASCAR, soccer, golf, tennis and Triple Crown racing. (This is why the Stamford hallways bustle with 700 people—expanding to 1,100 during an Olympics.) Most important—i.e., the most profitable—are football and the Olympics.

With the massive move to sports, it was decided in 2012 to move Bell back to his home turf, the Olympics, and replace him on the TODAY show with veteran producer (and Rowayton resident) Don Nash. Bell was made executive producer for the winter and summer Games, every two years a feast of triumph and frustration, every show a melodrama veering between the sweet and the apocalyptic. Then there are the inevitable anguished critiques in the press and the armchair crowd’s hot-roasted snarkfest on Twitter.

“In Rio, everything was compounded. You had a major health story with Zika. You had pollution in the water, a president being impeached. You had economic turmoil. But they pulled it off. There is a certain spirit to the people there.” Zika, he thinks, was a bigger situation in Florida than it was in Rio.

Next up: PyeongChang, Korea.

“What could go wrong?” he says, lighting up a raffish grin. “We’re excited about it for growth in winter sports. The biggest growth is where the population is booming and that’s in Asia. Two of the next ones are there, including China in 2022.”

So, why Bell? What’s behind these big leaps?

Bell is smart enough not to grandstand. “One of the things I had and hope to continue to have is curiosity,” he says with an abashed, choir-boy calm. “To be curious about things is to wonder about them, ask about them. Hopefully figure a thing or two out about them. ‘Why this replay? Why this camera shot? Why this announcer? What if we did this differently?’”

Angelique also points to his curiosity and willingness to learn. “It’s a tremendous trait and we try to encourage that in our boys, too.”

“He’s very calm,” amends Bob Costas. “Now we’ve gone through three Olympics, and I’ve never seen him lose his cool or not be calm. Even when there’s something contentious, he’s a calm hand on the helm.”

Matt Lauer agrees: “He’s just this kind of guy who can tell you with a look, ‘I got this.’ It’s one thing to be smart or funny, but it’s another to project an air of calm while the air is crumbling around you—it’s a real accomplishment.”

Then Lauer laughs. “You’re in Rio, you’re a day out from Opening Ceremonies, you walk into this office expecting him to be pale and tearing out his hair, but you walk in and all he wants to do is shoot the shit. You feel like saying to Jim, ‘I love you, I’d love to shoot the shit, but the Olympics start tomorrow! Don’t you have something to worry about?’ And he’s just calm. I think that’s what makes him good at his job.”

The job, meanwhile, is expanding like crazy, especially when you consider all the screens, large and small, that transmit the information. Even Costas has to grin: “If you count all the television platforms, digital platforms and all the rest, there are more hours of Olympics than there are hours in a year.

“The evolution with Jim,” Costas says, “is that people want what they want—right now. If you want to see live fencing at one in the afternoon, you’re going to find it.” And Bell and his crew will be finding experts to talk about it.

His own studies of the shifting marketplace have been aided greatly by having a focus group of four sons. He can watch their multimedia obsessions close-up. “The other night we were talking about a skit on Saturday Night Live that we wanted to see again. So I run to the DVR and I’m trying to find it, and they said, ‘What are you doing?’ They already had it up on a computer screen.” He grinned. “That’s the new divide.”

The irony was not lost on Mr. Television in his living room.

 

 

share this story

© Moffly Media, 2008-2022. All rights reserved. Website by Web Publisher PRO