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What Are Friends For?
Steve Lopez
October 27, 1997
NBC peacock Don Ohlmeyer's brushback of the World Series didn't help his ratings
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October 27, 1997

What Are Friends For?

NBC peacock Don Ohlmeyer's brushback of the World Series didn't help his ratings

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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 call."

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.