Longtime NBC press-publicity exec Gene Walsh died Sept. 1 at his home in Burbank. He was 87; publicist Charlie Barrett said Walsh died of natural causes.
Walsh was with NBC’s press and publicity departments for 30 years, from 1961 to 1991. He was the only executive to head that department for the broadcasting company at its two major production centers, New York City and Burbank.
He joined in New York in 1961 and worked in the magazine, trade and program publicity units. In 1973 he was promoted to head the 50-member department and was named an NBC VP in 1975. Two years later, he was transferred to Burbank and headed the 45-member department. He retired in 1991.
When in New York in 1975, Walsh was the architect of the publicity campaign for NBC’s then-new “Saturday Night Live.” In their 1986 book, “Saturday Night,” authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad credited Walsh for recognizing NBC’s weekly late-night comedy was “the only new show the network had that it could point to with any pride.”
Under Walsh, the superiority of NBC’s publicity operation was singled out by television critics. In 1983, David Williams, president of the Television Critics Assn., summarized the network’s semi-annual Hollywood press tours: “No network does as well as NBC in attending to the myriad of details that make a press tour succeed … NBC does it right … everyone at NBC is relaxed, friendly and to an astonishing degree, willing to tell you the truth.”
At his retirement ceremonies, Walsh said, “Johnny Carson and Bob Hope are the most savvy and professional of the hundreds of NBC stars I’ve worked with. In 1962, Johnny replaced Jack Paar as host of ‘Tonight’ and he smartly made himself available for a wide range of audience-building publicity, some which could be classified as frivolous. However, in a few years, with superstar status achieved and his ratings solidified, Johnny knew his best publicity was what he did every night on his show. He neither needed nor wanted any more audience-building publicity. Our primary job was to publicize what he did on his show and fend off the hundreds of interview requests from the press.”
Walsh added that the highlight of being at NBC was working with executives Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. In 1981, Grant left his MTM Prods. and signed a five–year contact as NBC’s chairman. It was a rescue mission: NBC was mired in last place. Brandon was NBC’s entertainment programming chief. Grant’s edict to everyone: ‘First be the best, then be first.’
“Grant and Brandon attracted to NBC the best writers, producers and actors by giving them virtually free rein. By the 1985-86 season, with a schedule including ‘Cheers,’ ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘Cosby,’ NBC climbed out of the cellar — winning the primetime ratings race for the first time, dominated the Emmy Awards, and staying on top for a decade.”
As a department manager, Mr. Walsh established an NBC record in union relations, obtaining three union de-certifications. He felt union representation, by providing the same salaries for all publicists, did not financially reward outstanding individual performances. He also convinced two union-represented groups — photographers in New York and publicists and photographers in Burbank — to decertify, making the entire NBC publicity operation non-union.
Walsh also started NBC’s press cost-recovery program, selling the department’s publicity materials — storylines, pictures and features — to the many syndication companies distributing NBC’s cancelled programs to stations.
He was a long-time member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and served as a governor and as chairman of the ATAS’ public relations committee. In 1985 he was one of the 13 founding members of the Television Publicity Executives Committee. He was also a member of the Museum of Television and Radio, plus a longtime member of the the Southern California Sports Broadcasters, and served on its board of directors and as treasurer.
Prior to joining NBC, Walsh was a reporter and sports columnist for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and a play-by-play announcer for radio station WNBZ in Saranac Lake.
He is survived by his three children.