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He Was a Legendary TV Sports Producer Who Became the Controversial West Coast President of NBC: Don Ohlmeyer Dead at 72

Sep 11, 2017  •  Post A Comment

A sports producer who rose to become an influential network television executive, Don Ohlmeyer, the former president of NBC’s West Coast division and the first producer hired by ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” has died. The New York Times reports that Ohlmeyer died Sunday in Indian Wells, Calif., of cancer. He was 72.

Ohlmeyer guided NBC to No. 1 in prime time in the 1990s on the strength of “Seinfeld,” “ER” and other programs, The Times reports.

“Mr. Ohlmeyer, a cocksure, creative personality, was well known to NBC when it hired him in 1993 to resurrect its once-dominant entertainment division,” The Times reports. “After a decade as a disciple to Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, Mr. Ohlmeyer had left to be executive producer of NBC Sports, then formed his own company, Ohlmeyer Communications, to produce sports and entertainment programs.

“Promised autonomy by Bob Wright, the president of NBC, Mr. Ohlmeyer evaluated the network’s prime-time assets: ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Law & Order’ were not yet hits, ‘Cheers’ was in its final season, and ‘L.A. Law’ was no longer a powerhouse.”

Reflecting on that period, Ohlmeyer told the Archive of American Television in 2004: “When I got there, I used to say, there was the smell of death.”

“That did not last long,” The Times reports. “Carried along by new series like ‘ER,’ ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier,’ and the emergence of ‘Seinfeld,’ NBC rose to No. 1 in prime time during the 1995-6 season. And in late-night programming, the decision to help Jay Leno thrive as the host of ‘The Tonight Show’ paid off. Mr. Leno had been chosen over David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson, and Mr. Letterman’s new show on CBS eventually succumbed to Mr. Leno in the ratings race.”

Ohlmeyer’s tenure at NBC was characterized by difficult relationships with some of the other brass at the network, notably Warren Littlefield. Ohlmeyer stepped down from the NBC job in 1999.

One Comment

  1. I was saddened to learn that my old friend Don Ohlmeyer had died. I haven’t spoken with him in years but I have always remembered him fondly. Yes, we had our share of run-ins and he once went for a year or so without speaking to me but we got over it. I always respected his creativity and his loyalty. Loyalty was always very big with Don, even extending to O.J. Simpson far longer than it should have. Don once flew to Minneapolis to participate in a panel discussion that I was moderating. Another time he showed up at a cocktail party EM was hosting in L.A., telling me later, “You know, Ron, I never do these things but I did this one for you.” I still have a sign he gave me years ago for some reason. It reads, “I can please only one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow isn’t looking good either.” Don and I were very different people in many ways. The difference was highlighted when he once leaked a story to me when I was working for the Chicago Tribune. NBC was signing a deal to televise football games played by members of the College Football Association, which was an organization of the super powers of college football. When I wrote my column about that deal, I reported all the particulars that Don had provided (without quoting him, of course) and then I tore into the deal, suggesting that NBC should be ashamed of itself for undermining less powerful members of the NCAA. That was when our long period of silence began. I’m glad he eventually got over it and even saw fit to become a loyal friend again. Don could respect even when he disagreed. He was a charismatic personality with a ready sense of humor. He always took my calls and would usually answer by saying, “Roone!,” a play on the similar-sounding name of his old mentor, Roone Arledge. Yes, Don gave the world a lot of trash sports and dubious deals but he also gave television a lot of high-energy executive leadership and undeniable competency. Beyond that he was a thoroughly decent guy. He once noticed that the Chicago winter was taking a heavy toll on his aging parents so he moved them both back to their native Louisiana. Don was a good son as well as a good guy. I’ll miss him. So will the television industry

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