Don Ohlmeyer Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Apr 30, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Don Ohlmeyer receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at tonight’s 28th annual Sports Emmy Awards ceremony at Frederick P. Rose Hall, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in Manhattan.
Mr. Ohlmeyer, 62, helped define sports on TV, first at ABC and later at NBC. With his own production company, Ohlmeyer Communications, he continued winning awards with movies, entertainment and sports programming for a number of outlets. He was convinced to rejoin NBC as president of the network’s West Coast operations in 1993, which would mark the beginning of that network’s fast rise from third to first place.
It is impossible to summarize his colorful career(s).
TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi recently had a long, wide-ranging conversation with Mr. Ohlmeyer. They talked about everything from what he learned from ABC Sports and News President Roone Arledge and what returning to ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in 2000 taught him about not being able to go home again, to how long the high from good ratings lasts and why it has always been the challenge — not the need for more power or more money — that drove his career.
TelevisionWeek: “Lifetime Achievement.” What does that mean? How would you say what you have achieved over the course of your, actually, multiple careers?
Don Ohlmeyer: I’ve never really spent much time thinking about it, very honestly. I have been fortunate to have been involved in some very high-profile things, whether it was “Monday Night Football,” “Wide World of Sports,” Super Bowls, World Series, “The Skins Game,” all these different things I’ve done that I guess a lot of people enjoyed. One of the things all of us at ABC Sports, at NBC Sports and at my company always tried to do is service the audience and try to be innovative, look for things that hadn’t been done before, take things that had been done before and try to do them better. But why they picked me I don’t know. I’m serious. My first reaction when they called me to tell me was, “They must have run out of people.” I think my career has been very workmanlike. I try to give people a day’s work for a day’s pay. I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I had an incredibly gratifying life being grossly overpaid for doing stuff I would have done for nothing because it was so damned interesting. From the time I started working at ABC Sports being around people like Howard Cosell, Jim McKay, Chet Forte, and having had someone like Roone Arledge as somewhat of a mentor, I’m an incredibly fortunate guy. Whatever success I’ve had in my professional career I don’t think I would have had had it not been for Roone taking an interest in me at a very early point in my career and pushing me along and challenging me and giving me responsibilities, and the time I spent with him talking, the things that he made clear to me that became part of my philosophy, and the things that I disagreed with him on and created a little bit of my own philosophy.
TVWeek: Were you comfortable disagreeing with him at an early age? Did he return your calls in a timely manner? There were a lot of people he made wait for his calls.
Mr. Ohlmeyer: When he didn’t, I knew not to take it personally. He didn’t return [pioneering NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle’s calls. I was always respectful, but I had no problems disagreeing. He loved to have philosophical disagreements. The later at night and the more cocktails we had, the more he loved it. I remember sitting on top of his house on Sagaponack and watching the sun come up and discussing what was right and wrong with the Olympics. Understanding all of those feelings made an impact on how you approached coverage of it. His understanding of the audience was the thing that always impressed me the most, the idea of serving the audience and the idea of being an extension of the audience, that your job was to provide them with the picture of what they would really want to see if they were sitting in the stands.
TVWeek: Did what Roone Arledge showed [on TV] reflect what he wanted to see or what he thought the audience wanted to see?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I think for him the two were the same. When I was doing my job, whether it was a sports show or a pilot for “ER,” I did it as if I was the audience. I wasn’t the female audience, but I made myself try to understand the female audience so I could look at it as if I were the female audience.
TVWeek: So talk about why you put George Clooney in “ER.”
Mr. Ohlmeyer: Why? Well you always want to have someone women want to [deleted]. Did you ever see him on “Sisters”?
TVWeek: He kept me watching “Sisters” far longer than I would have otherwise.
Mr. Ohlmeyer: And I knew that from talking to women. You become the audience by making sure you’re connected to the audience. The audience is not the critic for the Washington Post or the critic for the Los Angeles Times. The audience is my cousins in Louisiana. The audience is the people I went to high school with outside of Chicago. Those are the people I always kept in touch with.
TVWeek: Your career has been an exceedingly eclectic one, to say the least. Is there a throughline?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I’ve always been a very restless person and I’ve always looked for challenges. I left ABC at the same time Roone was taking over news. My lawyer was his lawyer. Every time NBC would offer me more to come over there to do sports, ABC would match the offer without even a negotiation. It ultimately came down to the things Roone was talking about were pretty exciting. Fred Silverman was offering me things in prime time. There were things I could do in news. There were things I could do in sports. I said, “Roone, if I don’t leave, I’m never going to know if I’m any good or if I’m just pretty good because I work for you and with the greatest group of people in the business.” I went to NBC essentially to do the Olympics, some entertainment programming, some sports. I became executive producer of NBC Sports and not just the Olympics, and we changed a lot of things. We took a very staid and kind of tired department and infused it with a lot of young people, a lot of them still there today: David Neal, Tommy Roy. We hired people like Bob Costas and brought Bryant Gumbel along and made Dick Enberg the top announcer for football and basketball and baseball and paired him with Billy Packer and Al McGuire. We started a show called “Sports World” because we had to train the kids how to edit for the Olympics. I tried to bring a lot of the things I learned at Roone’s knee to NBC. I think we had a positive impact there. After 1982 I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was tired of it.
TVWeek: What do you get tired of? The game is always different.
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I wasn’t tired of sports, because I kept doing sports. I really wanted to do my own Olympics in Moscow, and I’m not sure I ever really recovered from the boycott and us not being able to do that. I kind of felt I was drained. I had kind of done all the stuff I felt I could contribute. So I went out and started my own company. At that time, everybody kind of felt the future was in cable. We did a lot in cable. We did entertainment. We did sports. “The Skins Game” is a good example. All I wanted to do was license “The Skins Game” to a network. I played Skins when I was a kid. I’d sit and watch golf tournaments, and this was a time when the big complaint was there were no names out there. There were different guys winning every week and they all looked the same, there weren’t a lot of personalities. They idea came about as I’m looking at a leader board and I don’t know any of these guys. I thought, “What if there was a leader board and it was Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson on it? People would be calling their neighbors.” The only time you could do it would be in the fourth quarter, but nobody thought golf would work in the fourth quarter. The thing that really gets me going is somebody saying “This won’t work.” When Chuck Howard assigned me to do “SuperStars” at ABC, nobody else in the department wanted to do it. I don’t think anybody thought it would work. It was totally made for television. The first few years it was called trash sports.
TVWeek: When that phrase was coined, what was your reaction?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: The people who coined that phrase did not have an appreciation or understanding of the audience.
TVWeek: Do you think that in its own way, “Dancing With the Stars” could be called a trash sport now?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I think anything can be called anything anybody wants to call it, but the fact of the matter is that “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” appeal to the public because it’s the American dream. “I’m this close to being discovered.” Or it’s watching somebody who’s terrific at something else try to do something that maybe they can do better. That was the key to “SuperStars.” At the time, the sports press felt any sport that didn’t have a commissioner on Park Avenue wasn’t legitimate, whether the public wanted to watch it or not. So, “The Skins Game,” as soon as people said it wouldn’t work, that was like, “Ooh, boy. Watch this.” Barry Frank at TWI and I worked our asses off and I think the first year we made $8,000. But it was the highest or second-highest [rated] golf telecast of the year. For the first four or five years it was one of the top two golf telecasts of the year. We made millions of dollars on it. I had my own company for 10 years and we were doing incredibly well, to the point where I got it structured to where I didn’t really have to do anything except pick projects I wanted to do, but I couldn’t find anything that interested me, so I got bored again. NBC came along, and what bigger challenge could you have than NBC? I remember Feb. 23, 1993, the day I started at NBC and my birthday. That was also the date of an article in Time magazine, a big article about how it was over for NBC. It was done and NBC could never come back. I put it on my wall behind my desk at NBC. I said, “In two years this guy is going to eat his f***ing words.” It took us like 26 months.
TVWeek: What was the first thing, big, little or medium-sized, you did at NBC when you went back there?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I got rid of the smell of death in the hallways. Everybody was afraid they were going to be fired. Everybody was afraid they couldn’t pick a good time slot, that they couldn’t make a good casting choice. They were afraid of their shadows. I tried to instill them with confidence.
TVWeek: What was the first show you commissioned or had a significant impact on, if it was already in development?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: Development was already basically done in February. The first thing I did was turn the whole night “Cheers” left [the air] from just the [final] episode into a whole extravaganza. We made an event out of it and ended it with Jay Leno going back to Boston. The first year’s schedule, the big thing was we decided to put all the comedies on Thursday night. We moved “Mad About You” to Thursday night. We had already put “Seinfeld” behind “Cheers.” We put “Frasier” on the air. The next year we developed “Friends” and “ER” and all those shows.
TVWeek: You got firmly behind “Seinfeld” why?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: It just needed to find an audience, One of the things I learned from Roone is that it’s important to know what you don’t know and to find some people whose opinion you respect who know stuff you don’t know. If I don’t understand the older female audience, I’ve got to find someone who does. One of the advantages I had going back to NBC was that I was the only person who ever had that job that actually wrote, produced and directed a television show. So I came at things from the other side. I used to hate going into a network executive’s office and they’d have all these pages’ corners turned down with their line notes. That wasn’t the guidance I was looking for. That was them pretending they were executives. I think the only note I ever gave John Wells on “ER” was: “I’m going to do a promotional campaign about heroes with compassion. I hope that’s what the series is.” I read the pilot. It was fantastic.
As a network executive, your job is not to tell John Wells how to do a show. It’s not to tell Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David how to do “Seinfeld.” Your job may be to say, “Have you ever thought about?” or “Does this stuff bother you at all?”
On the pilot for “Friends,” we had enormous arguments with James Burrows and Kaufman, Bright and Crane because Courteney Cox’s character Monica had a one-night stand. I thought the audience would resent her for that. We argued about it and argued about it and argued about it, and in the end I said, “You know what? This is your show. If you want them to sleep together, go right ahead. I’ve made my point. You’ve listened to it. I hear your points. I’m not saying I’m right. I’ve just shared what I thought.” They let Monica sleep with him and the show was a big success.
There were some other general notes I gave like that to people. Dick Wolf loved to tell the story about how I told him watching “Law & Order” was like watching Christiaan Barnard doing open-heart surgery. It was pristine. It was beautiful. It was clean. Dick was in the office and kind of puffing up and I said, “Now, if you want to stay on the air, get me to believe it’s my f***ing kid on the operating table, because your show has no heart.” He put some heart in the show. Those are the kind of notes I think you can give that are helpful, not trying to tell them about this line on page 13. That’s pretending you’re doing the show. If you have to give line notes to people, you’re in business with the wrong people.
TVWeek: What was the toughest part of that stretch of time at NBC?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: The first 18 months was trying not to commit suicide every time you got the numbers in the morning. The next five years was trying not to get too confident. The most dangerous thing an organization faces is success. You don’t know how debilitating it is when things aren’t going well and you get those numbers every morning. Conversely, you don’t know how exhilarating it is when — I remember the first time on a Thursday night when our ratings were higher than all the other networks combined. Then we had a week when we had all 10 of the top 10 shows. I cannot explain the exhilaration.
TVWeek: How long did that exhilaration last?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: A couple of weeks. It lasts for a while, but not a long while. Then you’re off to the next challenge. You go from being the hunter to being the hunted.
TVWeek: Talk about your departure from NBC in 1999.
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I was done. It was just time for me to move on to another phase of my life. I really felt like I had pretty much done everything I could do there. I was drained. I also think that in those jobs, there’s a certain lifespan where you seem to have a knack for what the audience wants to see. You seem to have a knack for being able to get things put together the right way. It takes incredible concentration. I just was really tired. And my priorities in life had changed. For whatever reason, throughout my career, I never got the “More Disease” where things were about more money, more power, more whatever.
When I went into rehab, it really changed my life. It was the first time I really stopped and kind of analyzed my life. I’ve always made choices based on what was the next challenge. This time the next challenge was creating a different kind of life. I’ve found that in teaching and painting and spending more time with my kids. I’ve had a lot of different offers, but I’ve just been on the Nancy Reagan program, you know, “Just say no.” People all the time ask me “Do you miss it?” and I say “Miss what?” When I went to NBC the challenge was can you go from third to first in a declining business, and we did that. Once you do that — I stayed for a while but the bloom was off the rose. As you look from the outside you see how debilitating the “More Disease” can be. I contracted a lot of things in my life, but never “More.” This is another thing I learned from Roone Arledge. He once told me if you’re not prepared to leave over a matter of principle, you’re just in a money trap. I think that made it easier to succeed.
TVWeek: Is there a favorite career chapter?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: I enjoyed directing the Indy 500 the most. It was the most incredibly challenging thing I’ve ever done. The first show I ever worked on at ABC was the Indy 500, when we did it on film. We did it on tape 10 years later. Then they started doing it live and I went back in the ’80s and ’90s and directed it. I think directing open-wheel auto racing is the toughest thing I’ve ever directed. In 3 1/2 hours you make more decisions than most people make in a lifetime. It’s total mental concentration. There’s nothing I’ve ever done where I walked out of the truck as mentally drained.
TVWeek: Is that something you might like to try now that there are so many more production toys?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: No. No. Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. When I went back and did “Monday Night Football” for ABC, I wasn’t a 27-year-old kid anymore. I didn’t have an inexhaustible amount of energy. I didn’t have an inexhaustible amount of patience. I didn’t have the drive to put in it. You can’t go back to what you once were.
TVWeek: How many of Dennis Miller’s long and obscure words did you know when he uttered them in the “Monday Night Football” booth?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: Most of them. I love Dennis. For what we were trying to accomplish, which was bring a younger demographic, a younger male demographic, the show was successful that year. But I knew the press would hate it, because he wasn’t one of them. Dennis coming to sports was like me going to entertainment. I thought Al Michaels and Dennis and Dan Fouts were very, very good together.
TVWeek: You’ve been teaching television communications classes at Pepperdine University. How did you get into that and why did you get into that?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: Somebody asked me if I wanted to do it and, like the guy in “Five Easy Pieces” who took off all of his clothes and jumped in the cactus patch, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The business has been incredibly good to me, and in a small way it’s a way to give something back to the business, to try to share what you know with these young minds and hopefully inspire some kids to do some great things. Time will tell, but I spend as much time trying to inspire them as I do trying to educate them. I try to give them a grounding in story and in audience and in who the great people were and what the great ideas were, and, really, in their own way, how simple they were. It’s so, so refreshing to see a group of kids for whom an ethical grounding is a part of their life.
TVWeek: You have become immersed in painting, which many people might not have expected of Don Ohlmeyer. How did that happen?
Mr. Ohlmeyer: When I left NBC it was not to retire, it was to do different things. One of them was the teaching thing and one of them was to learn more about art. I took some courses at UCLA in night school in art history. The more I learned about it, the more I appreciated it, the more I became fascinated with it, so I decided I wanted to try it. I went out and got some canvases and some paints and some brushes and started painting. I was just doing it for my own edification and my own pleasure and then somebody wanted to buy one and I had a show and we sold like 20 pieces, so it took on a different spin. I had kind of a rough year last year, and every time I went in to paint I’d end up with really dark stuff that made me more depressed. So I’ve kind of stayed away from it, but I’m getting back into it.
TVWeek: It’s a very solitary pursuit and all your adult life you were part of a team.
Mr. Ohlmeyer: There’s always been a side of me that liked to be alone. That’s one of the things I like about the painting.


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