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Ohlmeyer and Zucker take beating in Littlefield book

April 4, 2012 |  5:19 pm

Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer

Former NBC executives Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Zucker take a beating in a new book by their ex-colleague Warren Littlefield, who was entertainment president of the peacock network during its 1990s glory days of "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER."

In "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV," Littlefield and other former NBC executives, actors and producers pile on Ohlmeyer and Zucker. Ohlmeyer, who was Littlefield's boss for many years, takes heat for his difficult personality while Zucker, who was at NBC News in the 1990s but later rose to the top of the network, gets knocked for what is viewed as a disdain for creative people and show business.

The book, coming out May 1, is co-written by Littlefield and author T.R. Pearson. Like "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN," it is an oral history featuring quotes from many of the key executives who worked at NBC 20 years ago, including former NBC President Bob Wright, scheduling chief Preston Beckman (now at Fox), Jamie Tarses (now a producer) and David Nevins (now head of programming for Showtime).

The producers behind many of NBC's hits are also in the book, as are actors including Jerry Seinfeld and much of the cast of "Friends," "ER" and "Will & Grace."

While the general public will likely focus on how "Seinfeld" got made and what made the cast of "Friends" tick, industry insiders will be looking for dirt, and there is no shortage of that.

Ohlmeyer, who came to NBC in the early 1990s after a long and successful career as a sports producer, was credited with bringing stability and leadership to NBC Entertainment after Brandon Tartikoff had left the network. 

But he also had a strong personality, didn't suffer fools gladly and battled alcoholism, later going to the Betty Ford rehab center. He is described as a bully by Littlefield and former NBC executive Harold Brook, and Beckman and others talk about how they knew when Olhlmeyer had been hitting the sauce.

"You knew when Don was hungover," said Littlefield's longtime assistant Patty Mann. "He'd wear these blue satiny jogging outfits with loafers and no socks.... You could also tell Don's condition by the way he parked."

Beckman compared Ohlmeyer to an "abusive dad."

Littlefield, who chafed under Ohlmeyer in those days, said he tried to like him but couldn't.

"Don was first a drunk bully and then a sober bully, but always a bully ... he was an abusive impediment far too much of the time," Littlefield said.

Tarses simply said "we stopped having as much fun when Don came, he changed the whole tenor of the place."

Ohlmeyer's volatile personality gets a lot of attention, but he does get praise for being smart with good programming instincts. Brook called him "one of the smartest guys in broadcasting," and John Miller, who was heading marketing for the network then, said he was a "good leader."

Zucker, on the other hand, just gets slammed. Beckman said his job was to "build a schedule so even Jeff Zucker needs four years to destroy it."

Although Littlefield was out of NBC by the time Zucker had begun to rise to overseeing entertainment, lots of shots are taken at him by producers who had shows at the network in those days.

"Jeff Zucker is the worst thing that ever happened to network television," said Steve Levitan, the co-creator of ABC's hit "Modern Family" and creator of "Just Shoot Me," which ran on NBC from 1997 to 2003.

Littlefield takes a more academic approach to describing Zucker.

"The Zuckerization of the network in recent years has been marked by the belief that viewers exist to be manipulated rather than nourished.... This philosophy in practice resulted in Jay Leno at 10:00 five nights a week, and we all know how well that went," wrote Littlefield.

Ohlemyer and Zucker declined to comment on the book.

— Joe Flint

Photo: Don Ohlmeyer (left) and Warren Littlefield in their glory days. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

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