The Don of TV

After a 33-year career in television, Malibu resident Don Ohlmeyer now takes it easy, doing such things as painting that he didn't have time for before.

After retiring from the television network industry in 2000, Malibuite and Pepperdine professor Don Ohlmeyer recounts his unexpected and very successful career in television, greenlighting such hits as “Friends,” “Frasier” and “ER.”

By Steven Genson/Special to The Malibu Times

During an afternoon repose in his Malibu beachfront abode, former NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer discussed his decorated career in television. His 33-year stint in television included four career changes, 16 Emmy Awards and the formation of his communications company.

Originally, Ohlmeyer had no intention of seeking employment in the entertainment industry. His initial aspirations from when he first graduated from Notre Dame with a communications degree were much simpler. “I just wanted to own a bar and write the great American novel,” Ohlmeyer said. But fate caught up to him one night at a bar; not very different from the one Ohlmeyer envisioned he would one day own.

Sitting back in an oversized pearl-colored cushioned chair with his feet extended on its matching ottoman, Ohlmeyer, 59, puffed on a Marlboro Red and remembered how he got his first job in television. Ohlmeyer, now a professor at Pepperdine University, recalled that he had just beaten a group of people in several games of billiards who turned out to be from the television network ABC. Befriending the man who won, he was eventually offered an associate director position at the network.

By 1972, Ohlmeyer had become producer of the new prime-time sports event, “Monday Night Football,” which has evolved into a popular staple in today’s football television. In 1977, he left ABC for NBC sports until 1982 when he left the network industry for the first time.

With only 10 years experience, Ohlmeyer formed the Ohlmeyer Communications Company and began adding corporate experience to his resume as its chief executive officer. This firm, which served clients from the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball, also spawned the first made-for-television golf event, “The Skins Game.”

In 1993, the floundering third-place network NBC presented Ohlmeyer an opportunity to return to network television and a challenge that he could not refuse: make it the leading network. Ohlmeyer noted, “One of the flaws of the executive side of programming is that not enough people have experience doing shows.” To NBC’s advantage, Ohlmeyer had vast experience on the creative side of programming as well as the executive.

After only 22 months on the job, Ohlmeyer had conquered NBC’s challenge to become the first-place network. He achieved this feat by approving shows such as “Friends,” “Fraiser,” “ER” and other hit shows encompassed in the “Must See T.V.” moniker. When asked how he could turn the network around so quickly, Ohlmeyer replied, “Fear is a great motivator.”

As to what makes a program a success, Ohlmeyer said, “The key to a hit show is in the writing. If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” He gave much credit of the successes of NBC’s shows to the writers whom he lauded as very talented. Ohlmeyer added that to be a successful network, program developers as well as the executives “need to understand what is going on in society.”

Leaving the television industry for the second and final time in 2000, Ohlmeyer retired to his Malibu home to do things he did not have as much time to do before. His walls are now adorned with abstract works of art that are also displayed around galleries in the region, which he paints in his private studio. He also likes to spend time at home with his family and write.

As a man thankful for his successes, Ohlmeyer felt the desire to “give something back.” He began teaching at Pepperdine University, his son’s alma mater, starting with a lecture series. This evolved into Ohlmeyer teaching a class and organizing a mentorship for bright communications students.

As far as his dream of writing the great American novel…well, he’s working on it.