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NBC hands the ball to Ohlmeyer

Donald W. Ohlmeyer Jr., a 25-year veteran of network sports divisions and production, has taken the reins of NBC’s entertainment operations under the newly created position of president, NBC, West Coast. Entertainment president Warren Littlefield and NBC Enterprises president John Agoglia will now report to Ohlmeyer.

The announcement follows long-standing speculation that NBC–which has fallen from first to a distant third in the prime time ratings over the past two years– would shake up the entertainment division, with much conjecture about the future of Littlefield.

However, bringing in Ohlmeyer, 48, was also seen by many as “a slap” to Agoglia, who, doubling as exec VP of in-house production unit NBC Prods., had previously reported directly to Robert C.Wright, NBC president and chief executive officer. Littlefield, who was named president in July 1990, had also reported to Wright since the departure a year later of NBC Entertainment Group chairman Brandon Tartikoff.

In a teleconference late yesterday, both Wright and Ohlmeyer went to great lengths to refute persistent industry gossip that the Burbank reshuffling was somehow a death knell for Littlefield and his staff. “The perception that my coming means Warren is on shaky ground is a misperception,” Ohlmeyer said.

Wright likened the new management structure to “one-stop shopping” for the creative community and hoped that the news would not cause concern among the rank-and-file of the Peacock web’s programming staff, though he admitted that there was probably some “apprehension.”

Sources at NBC suggest that in Ohlmeyer’s hiring, Wright sought to clone himself and thus have a like-minded operative who could ride shotgun on the West Coast operation, while the CEO concentrated on affiliate relations, sales and sports matters back East.

Reports first surfaced several weeks ago that NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol had been offered a similar position on the West Coast but turned it down. There have also been rumors that Tartikoff–a close friend of Ohlmeyer’s–had consulted NBC and officials of parent General Electric regarding the change. Many also see the fingerprints of Ebersol on Ohlmeyer’s hiring.

While acknowledging that he has tried to talk Ebersol into “broadening his interests” at the network, however, Wright maintained that Ebersol “was not angling for this job” and that no one had served as the go-between to Ohlmeyer. Wright said he had contacted the producer/entrepreneur on his own about a month ago after repeated contact over the years about joining NBC.

Wright said he’d discussed the prospect of hiring Ohlmeyer with several industry heavyweights– including producer and former NBC topper Fred Silverman and former “Tonight Show” exec producer Fred De Cordova–all to rave reviews.

Reached yesterday, Tartikoff–the self-described “mogul without portfolio”–said that while he’s a friend of Ohlmeyer’s, his own involvement in NBC affairshas been overstated in the press. “I think that people will remember Feb. 3 as the beginning of the turnaround at NBC,” he added.

In his first day on the job, Ohlmeyer provided few specifics except to offer “100% of my confidence” to Littlefield and his staff. NBC is currently in the middle of development season for next fall, with its schedule to be announced in May. While few expect immediate changes following Ohlmeyer’s appointment, Littlefield and his staff are not seen to be out of the woods in terms of a management shift.

Littlefield, for his part, said he’s “relieved” by the announcement, which he was notified about Tuesday night. “I think it only makes things easier,” he said , adding that it will free him from certain administrative responsibilities interacting with New York in order to focus on developing programs.

As for the buzz of rumors that third-place NBC would take action to shake up its executive roster, Littlefield maintained the announcement should “put an end to speculation. … NBC was thinking about doing something (to change its staff) , and now they’ve done it.” He also expressed support for “a course correction” toward broadcasting as opposed to exclusively targeting the age 18-49 demographic. Ohlmeyer said that NBC had erred by getting “too young, too narrow, too fast,” adding that he wants to “try and broaden the tent a little bit.”

Ohlmeyer, called a “visionary” by one producer, said nothing willchange in terms of Littlefield’s ability to make deals and that his own responsibility is to “pull together a team of people who can take this network to the next level.”

Several outsiders have cited a lack of leadership as one of NBC’s problems (one source called it “a ship without a captain”) in addition to the tight-fisted grip of GE. In broad strokes, Ohlmeyer said he wants to “take NBC back to its position of pre-eminence of the late ’80s” and “help define what NBC’s going to look like into the next century.”

As a former NBC executive and occasional golf partner of GE chief exec Jack Welch, Ohlmeyer has been on NBC’s wish list for quite some time. If there was one overriding concern among web execs about Ohlmeyer, it had to do with his instincts as an entertainment programmer.

At NBC in the past, he was responsible for such noble failures as the medical series “Lifestories” and the much-maligned “Games People Play” a show hosted by Bryant Gumbel and Cyndy Garvey that featured segments like “The World Bellyflopping Championship.”

His own company, Ohlmeyer Communications Co., has long been an innovative producer and the marketer of sports programming (see related story). Many in the industry believe that this jet-setter who splits time among homes in Manhattan, Hawaii and Southern California may be just the man to turn NBC’s fortunes around.

The network has a long way to go, ranking third in prime time (after six straight years as the No. 1 network through the 1990-91 season), last in daytime and on the verge of losing David Letterman, a significant part of its late night franchise.

The challenge won’t get any easier with “Cheers” leaving after the current season, but Ohlmeyer– alluding to the Super Bowl to demonstrate the potential of network TV–said there is “nothing wrong with any network that two or three good hits wouldn’t cure.”

Ohlmeyer also noted wryly that he’s happy to have NBC TV Stations prez John Rohrbeck, who oversees daytime, still reporting to Wright, freeing him from one potential headache.

Ohlmeyer’s company–which is owned in part by RJR Nabisco and provides programming for the networks, ESPN, TNT and other outlets–will remain intact. He began his Emmy-Award winning career in network television as a protege of ABC’s Roone Arledge, starting at the web after meeting an ABC exec in a South Bend, Ind., pool hall while still an undergrad at Notre Dame.

Many TV executives who have worked with Ohlmeyer both at ABC and NBC Sports suggest that the new West Coast supremo will bring a fresh eye to the way the network does business and look beyond traditional formats and means for selling advertising to try and lead NBC out of third place.

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