Lighting up a cigarette, Don Ohlmeyer leans forward to explain precisely what's wrong with cable television.
It's not just that cable is overly dependent on movies and hasn't really developed different programming, he asserts, or that video cassette recorders are chomping away at pay cable viewership. It's that cable hasn't got what Hollywood and the networks have all got.
"Cable hasn't developed any stars," says Ohlmeyer, puffing away. "Who knows who's on cable? That, to me, is one of its major problems. In the early days of television, CBS Chairman William Paley put the biggest stars from radio on television because he knew the audience would follow."
Ohlmeyer, 39, has a knack for picking out and packaging potential stars.
Several years ago, as producer for one of NBC's less successful programs, he chose a ferocious-looking bodyguard as a contestant in a "world's toughest bouncer" contest. That ex-bodyguard is now known as Mr. T on NBC's hit program "The A Team." However, that's just the most egregious example of Ohlmeyer's media flair. As Roone Arledge's protege at ABC, Ohlmeyer helped shape that network's style and signature in sports coverage and was a founding producer of ABC's Monday Night Football. He was also responsible for the rise of such "trash-sports" as "Battle of the Network Stars," which pitted various television personalities against each other in pseudo-sporting events. The shows were a huge ratings hit.
When he left Arledge and ABC in 1977 for NBC, he helped turn around the then-third place network's moribund sports department. From flashy graphics and camera angles to broadcasting an NFL game without announcers, Ohlmeyer would do virtually anything to generate some excitement over fairly routine sporting events.
Now, backed by Nabisco Brands Inc., the multibillion dollar consumer foods company, Ohlmeyer is trying to breathe some ratings life into ABC's newly acquired Entertainment & Sports Programming Network while building his own multimedia company -- Ohlmeyer Communications.
"We want to be a fully-integrated communications company -- whatever that means," says Ohlmeyer, who says his group has been profitable since it began two years ago.
In Ohlmeyer's mind, media success boils down to taking a proven concept, putting a little twist on it and then marketing to the maximum.
"There's no difference between positioning ESPN than positioning a cracker," says Ohlmeyer, who has an oversize sculpture of an Oreo cookie sitting his desk and who persuaded Nabisco to invest $60 million in a 20 percent stake in the network. "You have to ask what is the unique selling proposition of the service."
Ohlmeyer predicts that the cable sports channel, which has been a money loser since 1979, will be running in the black next year. He says he has ideas on both the business and the creative sides that should help make a difference.
It's this blend of programming and marketing savvy that sets Ohlmeyer apart from other independent producers.
"For a creative type, Don makes a very good impression on the business types," says Herb Granath, president of ABC Video Enterprises, which now runs ESPN. "And, of course, Don knows how to put together a good show."
Though barely two years old, his company is responsible for over 200 hours of programming and has racked up an impressive set of awards. "Special Bulletin," a controversial docudrama about nuclear terrorism done in imitation of network news style, won critical raves, solid ratings and an Emmy.
Ohlmeyer recently produced the MTV Music Awards, a sort of Grammy Awards of music video, for the popular cable television channel. He then turned around and syndicated the replay of the awards to commercial television for a tidy but undisclosed profit. That marks one of the first times programming originally produced for cable has been successfully marketed to broadcast television.
"Every year, we want to develop a program that can be an annual seller for us," says Ohlmeyer, who points out that, in addition to the MTV Awards, his company also produces a high-ratings "match play" golf tournament featuring the game's top pros.
By taking established television formats -- such as award shows and sporting events -- and increasing their value by putting a new wrinkle into them, Ohlmeyer says, "We can produce network-quality programming at below-network-quality costs."
Ohlmeyer points out that controlling costs also makes it easier to get sponsorship for cable distribution, since advertisers don't want to pay network rates for the smaller cable-television audiences.
"Advertisers are beginning to recognize that cable, at the right price, is a part of the mix," Ohlmeyer asserts.
Indeed, this may be the key to his company's relationship with Nabisco, which spends over $750 million a year on advertising and promotion.
"When Nabisco was deciding what its focus was as a company," says Ohlmeyer, "it realized that it was in the communications business, and not just the cookie business. They didn't just have to make a product, but they also had to convey and communicate the value of the product."
It was at that point that Nabisco decided to hire Ohlmeyer, with his network experience, as a consultant and give him office space in their New York headquarters, where he could launch his new company.
Ohlmeyer, Nabisco and ABC's Granath all believe that this sort of corporate alliance is the beginning of a new wave of advertiser-supported programming. "Companies need to take more than a passive interest in these new communications technologies," says Ohlmeyer. "This is Nabisco's way of doing that."
Granath points out that advertisers first got into television via sponsored shows, notably Procter & Gamble's "soap operas." "That could well be how they finally participate in cable, too," he said.