Just in case you needed one more piece of evidence that there
are no great thinkers in television programming, it came last
Friday when an NBC big shot had conniptions over the possibility
that the World Series would wipe out a night of "must-see TV."
Baseball's image has nose-dived in recent years, but this was a
new low for the game--being insulted by the very network that
was about to broadcast the Fall Classic. Don Ohlmeyer, president
of NBC West Coast, whatever that means, said he was rooting for
either the Florida Marlins or the Cleveland Indians to sweep the
Series and get out of the way of the new national pastime:
watching Friends, Seinfeld and ER on Thursday nights.
If the Series went to a fifth game, those ratings blockbusters
would be knocked off the air, which rattled Ohlmeyer because
they figure to pull more viewers than any baseball game. "We're
looking for four and out," Ohlmeyer said during a conference
call with members of the New York media who cover the television
industry. When his words appeared in print nationwide last
Saturday, they must have endeared him to the citizens of Florida
and Ohio, not to mention his bosses and all the advertisers who
ponied up millions for World Series airtime. Generally a Series
has to go at least six games before a network profits, but
Ohlmeyer was pulling for the sweep. "The faster it's over with,`
the better it is," he said.
It must be this special feel for drama that put Ohlmeyer, a
former sports guru at ABC and an ardent O.J. Simpson apologist,
at the top of the television entertainment industry. He also
said that if it were up to him, NBC would completely dump
baseball, whose ratings for even its showcase event have been
mostly in decline during the '90s: "I would love it if somebody
wanted it right now.... If the A&E channel called, I'd take the
You can understand why the guy is so worked up. If you had only
one decent night of shows a week--which is all it takes to be
considered a genius in the programming business--would you want
to lose it to a bunch of jocks who don't even play in the
biggest television markets? Imagine how frustrating it must be
to reach the level of importance at which you can decide
something as cosmically vital as which new sitcom will follow
Seinfeld, yet you don't have quite enough power to realign
baseball so that every team plays in either New York or Los
Angeles, or to ensure that no game invades the sacred time slot
of a ratings winner. Ohlmeyer said last year's postseason
baseball games interrupted the momentum of NBC's fall lineup,
"and we never recovered from it."
From one NBC official's perspective, stupid comments by network
TV bosses are no aberration--they're part of a rich and storied
tradition. That man is Ohlmeyer's good buddy Dick Ebersol, who
also happens to be president of NBC Sports. "I'm the guy who two
years ago said baseball shouldn't be on NBC again this century,"
says Ebersol, who was in a lather at the time over a failed TV
venture with Major League Baseball called The Baseball Network.
Then five months later he was back in cahoots with baseball,
divvying up postseason rights with Fox. "All major television
executives say really dumb and silly things from time to time,"
says Ebersol. "Obviously this was Don's turn. We've got a
fortune invested in baseball."
It's $400 million, to be precise, which is what NBC paid Major
League Baseball for its share of postseason rights through 2000.
Ohlmeyer must have checked the contract moments after running
his mouth because barely had he finished with the New York media
than he was on the phone to Ebersol, confessing his sins. "Don
and I are inseparable best friends of 30 years," says Ebersol,
"and he called me within a half hour to say he'd said something
really stupid and he really regretted it."
Ohlmeyer couldn't be reached for comment, but Ebersol says he
put Ohlmeyer and acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig on the
phone together during the Game 1 broadcast--which had a little
bit of baseball sprinkled in among endless pitches for NBC
shows--to clear the air.
If he'd been using his head, Ohlmeyer might have suggested a
lineup change in the broadcast booth for Thursday night--when
there will be a game on NBC--so people wouldn't forget about his
prize sitcoms. Who would you rather have calling the game? That
love boat crew of Costas, Morgan and Uecker, whose Mr. Belvedere
sank years ago? Or Seinfeld, Kramer and Costanza, who used to
work for the Yankees? Talk about must-see TV.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of hand hitting television set and knocking baseball players from screen]