Don Ohlmeyer was no stranger to controversy during his six-year run as NBC’s West Coast president, mostly due to his tendency--rare these days in executive circles--to bluntly say what was on his mind.
Ohlmeyer famously referred to then-Disney President Michael Ovitz as “the antichrist,” proclaimed his belief in longtime friend O.J. Simpson’s innocence and only half-jokingly suggested News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch belonged in jail. He trashed the push for content-based TV ratings, played hardball with Hollywood studios, chastised the news media (including NBC’s station in Los Angeles) for irresponsibility, and booted Norm Macdonald from “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” anchor chair, then rejected ads for Macdonald’s movie after the comic publicly derided him.
“I’m not a great politician,” Ohlmeyer said, exhibiting a gift for understatement.
Yet he also guided the network through a period of enormous prosperity amid wrenching industry upheaval, one in which competitors ABC and CBS changed hands as part of a dizzying series of mergers. NBC was staggering when Ohlmeyer arrived in 1993, but under Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield (who was kept as entertainment chief despite speculation he would be ousted) the network reclaimed its No. 1 status in prime time and late night, rolled up billions of dollars in profits and earned critical acclaim for series such as “ER,” “Frasier” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
Having recently left NBC (he chose not to renew his contract, but remains a consultant), Ohlmeyer, 54, sat in his Beverly Hills home and reflected on his tour of duty. He is quick to state no one person can take credit for success in TV, which clearly hasn’t prevented many from trying.
“This is the ultimate collaborative business, in that, with very few exceptions, one person’s success is so tied to what 50 other people do,” Ohlmeyer said. “I think too much time is spent trying to get credit, as opposed to sharing credit.”
Prior to assuming the NBC post, Ohlmeyer’s credits ranged from producing “Monday Night Football” and the Emmy-winning movie “Special Bulletin” to establishing golf’s Skins Game. While his swagger didn’t always endear him to others--picture John Wayne firing off network notes instead of six-guns--his perspective on TV benefits from a sense of context, unlike the many executives so consumed with that night’s ratings that thinking ahead to next week is a stretch.
Ohlmeyer insists he accepted the job as a challenge, to discover if a third-place network--at the time written off for dead by many--could climb back to the top.
“There’s two reasons to want to do this job: One is you desperately want and need to win. The other is you care about what people say about you in the press, and what people say about you at cocktail parties. And they are mutually exclusive,” he said.
Ohlmeyer certainly didn’t curry favor among elected officials, blasting them for what he viewed as disingenuous motives in targeting television as a cause of societal violence.
“When I got here they wanted me to go down to the first hearings [on TV violence] in Washington,” he recalled. “I said you don’t want me to go . . . because it doesn’t matter what question it is they ask me, my first answer will be, ‘Don’t you guys have something real to do? Isn’t there something important, as opposed to talking about what’s on commercial broadcasting?’
“I thought it was a sad commentary on the state of politics in America, that these guys could actually make [political] hay with this.”
This is not to say Hollywood is above reproach. Far from it. But as Ohlmeyer points out, it’s simplistic to say the media “causes” violence when Detroit and Toronto essentially have access to the same TV programs, yet the murder rate in the U.S. city is vastly higher than its nearby Canadian counterpart.
To Ohlmeyer, the root of violence is an intricately woven problem, and most people understand that. Conceding the media plays a part, he suggests wholesale news coverage of events like the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.,--given what’s known about imitative behavior and teen suicides--deserves more scrutiny than the effects of watching entertainment shows.
“I always prided myself on staying on top of what’s going on in the country, what’s going on in the world,” Ohlmeyer said. “What the last six years brought into focus to me was the real political hypocrisy that exists in the country, the obfuscation that goes on . . . the attitude ‘We won’t address the real problems. We’ll pass a few laws, we’ll issue a couple of press releases, and the public will go on their merry way.’ ”
On a different front, Ohlmeyer maintains those in the TV industry must recognize the seismic economic shift that has shaken their business. In that respect, he defends the vast amount NBC paid to renew top-rated “ER” for three seasons but not money squandered on less formidable properties.
“It is not the cost of success that kills this business. It’s the cost of failure,” he said. “In success, there’s plenty of money for everybody. [But] the attitude has become, with some of the talent and most of the agencies, ‘We want to be paid to fail.’ ”
Despite expressing satisfaction he wasn’t carried out feet first, Ohlmeyer acknowledged running a network takes its toll.
“There’s very few other businesses where you’re changing your products continuously over the course of the year,” he said. “McDonald’s, once every five years they introduce a new product. . . .
“Most other businesses, you can get away from in one form or another. You can’t get away from television. Wherever you go, there is one. This is a business that you can’t shut out.”
That said, he stressed there’s no magic formula to it, even for those on the outside looking in. “The business is so competitive, if somebody writes a really good script, it’s going to get made,” he said. “There’s very few really talented people that don’t succeed in this business. . . . The networks and the studios spend tens of millions of dollars trying to find the next person. There’s nobody trying to keep anybody out.
“I think people try to make the business far more mystical than it really is. There’s nothing mystical about it. At the core is hard work, attention to detail and good taste, probably in that order.”
In the near future, Ohlmeyer plans to give the hard work part a rest. He will direct, a trade he has plied in the past, and explore the still-murky convergence of TV, computers and technology, which intrigues him. Having made a fortune in television, he also has the luxury, if he chooses, to do nothing for awhile--an option he has considered more seriously since his father’s death in January.
“He was 85,” Ohlmeyer said. “At no point as he got toward the end did he say, ‘You know, son, I just didn’t spend enough time in the office.’ ”
Brian Lowry’s column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.