Between now and the day you watch the closing ceremonies of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the name and works of NBC wunderkind Don Ohlmeyer should become as familiar to the TV-viewing public as those of, say, the man who used to be Ohlmeyer's boss, ABC wonder-worker Roone Arledge. Those who read TV credits, however, are already aware of Ohlmeyer's talents. He just about leads the world in Emmys with seven, and has been the producer of some of sports programming's biggest hits—ABC's Monday Night Football and Superstars—plus at least one of its giant artistic failures, ABC's Monday Night Baseball. Last May, NBC lured the 33-year-old Ohlmeyer away from ABC for a reported $400,000 yearly, and on Jan. 22, with Ohlmeyer as executive producer, the network launched its new Sunday afternoon anthology show, SportsWorld. This is a large departure for a very conservative network that long prided itself on being "No. 1 in live sports television." Accent on "live."
In certain respects, SportsWorld resembles both ABC's Wide World of Sports and CBS' Sports Spectacular, and weekend viewers may feel that with the addition of SportsWorld they are watching the same events in triplicate instead of duplicate: the customary boxing bout; assorted Bulgars hoisting weights; and a little wrist wrestling—all of it coming from Las Vegas, the site television executives consider the true Olympus. Off its first seven programs, however, Sports-World has at least tried for a fresh look even though its critics put it down as basically a "three-year pregame show for the Moscow Olympics."
There is some truth in that. Having paid a hefty $85 million for the rights to the 1980 Summer Olympics, NBC decided to cover them with 150 hours of telecasts. Sports-World will be used to build viewer (and advertiser) interest in this huge chunk of air time by making the U.S. aware of the various athletic competitions that lead up to the Games themselves. "Our hope is to develop a nationwide awareness of upcoming Olympic performers," says Ohlmeyer. "We also want to hone our production standards. We have already sent crews all over the world looking for the right amateur events to do." To help personalize the prospective Olympic competitors, NBC has hired independent producer-writer-director Bud Greenspan, who was responsible for Public Broadcasting's widely praised The Olympiad two years ago.
Beyond building a potential Olympic audience, Ohlmeyer hopes to make SportsWorlda show for the entire family, and NBC's ratings can use any part of any family anytime. The first three editions of SportsWorld averaged 15.5 million viewers, an increase of 8 million from a year ago when the network was showing Grandstand in the same time slot, but SportsWorld still didn't draw the audience of CBS' telecasts of NBA basketball.
Ohlmeyer was born in New Orleans, grew up in Glenview, Ill. and attended Notre Dame. Ohlmeyer has worked in virtually all areas of television and as production assistant, director and producer, and picked up vast technical knowledge from Arledge, with whom he was associated through three Summer Olympics. Within the television industry—as opposed to the world at large—Ohlmeyer is best known for Monday Night Football, which, he says, became such a huge success because ABC made the games "an event, something special. Monday nights became a happening."
SportsWorld is put together so that its first and longest segment usually deals with an Olympic-related event and occupies up to half of the 90-minute show. That, at any rate, is the theory. In the first seven shows, though, SportsWorld carried only four Olympic-type events: two track and field meets, a two-part report on women's gymnastics, and a women's international swimming meet. Jousting, the feature for Feb. 26, was dropped as an Olympic sport some years ago.
The first segment is followed by what NBC calls "a minor event, a sport not covered routinely on television." On the early shows, this turned out to mean shorties on such sports as softball on ice.
Following these, SportsWorld takes a topic in the news and undertakes to explore all sides of it. On the first three broadcasts the subject was violence in sports among players and fans. The difficulty here was that after painstakingly demonstrating the connection between sports and violence all over the world, Ohlmeyer and company left the viewer with a headful of mixed feelings and a variety of possible answers to the problem. Unfortunately, one person not interviewed was NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, who refused to talk to SportsWorld because it appeared at the same time as an NBA telecast.
One of Ohlmeyer's future projects for discussion will be trashsport and how TV deals with it. Because Ohlmeyer has produced shows such as Superstars ( ABC), US Against the World ( NBC) and that absolutely must-miss. Battle of the Network Stars ( ABC), how he handles that subject should be fascinating to behold.
Notwithstanding, what is most commendable so far about SportsWorld is its intention to give devotees of amateur athletics a chance to see something different. On the schedule in coming weeks are the finals of the AIAW basketball tournament, U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. basketball, and two amateur ring events including the National Golden Gloves and Armed Forces boxing. The main question about the rest of the series is whether it can avoid looking too much like Wide World and Sports Spectacular.