Don Ohlmeyer, a television producer who shaped sports and entertainment programming over more than three decades, producing the ABC juggernaut “Monday Night Football” in the 1970s and propelling NBC to the top of the prime-time ratings in the 1990s with shows such as “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “ER,” died Sept. 10 at his home in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 72.
The cause was cancer, according to his family.
Mr. Ohlmeyer was a revered, if at times divisive, figure in the television industry that he helped make and remake through a series of high-ranking executive positions. He won 16 Emmys and, after influencing the viewing habits of tens of millions of viewers, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
He began his career at ABC and in the 1970s became executive producer of the network’s “Monday Night Football,” which featured as on-air personalities veteran sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and New York Giants Hall of Famer Frank Gifford.
To enliven the drama of athletic matchups, he ordered more cameras and more camera angles.
“The shots of stadium lights gleaming off the players’ helmets, backed by the staccato voice of Howard Cosell, made even humdrum matchups seem like once-in-a-lifetime epics,” the New York Times once wrote.
In 1977, Mr. Ohlmeyer left ABC to become executive producer of NBC Sports, where he hired Bob Costas and Bryant Gumbel as commentators. After several years in that post, he ran an independent company, Ohlmeyer Communications, before returning to NBC in 1993 as West Coast president with oversight over entertainment programming.
He said that he wished to explore the broadcast world beyond sports because of the “sameness” that had come to characterize athletic coverage.
“People have seen thousands of games,” he told the Times. “How do you get them to watch my telecast?”
Mr. Ohlmeyer was widely credited with persuading people — many, many of them — to watch his telecasts on NBC with the “Must-See TV” lineup on Thursday nights. Shepherding shows such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Will and Grace” and “ER,” he led the network from the bottom to the No. 1 spot in the prime-time ratings.
Amid his professional successes, Mr. Ohlmeyer faced personal struggles, including alcoholism, for which he sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., after an intervention that reportedly involved NBC President Bob Wright.
Seeking treatment “is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Mr. Ohlmeyer said in 1997 after completing the program. “I wish I’d done it a long time ago.”
He also weathered strained relationships with colleagues, including Norm Macdonald, the comic who then hosted the faux news program “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.”
Mr. Ohlmeyer was widely said to have forced Macdonald’s removal from the news feature because of the comedian’s frequent jokes about O.J. Simpson, a friend of Mr. Ohlmeyer, when the former football star was on trial for the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.
Mr. Ohlmeyer denied the charge, noting that he had in no way moved to prohibit Jay Leno, then the host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” to traffic in similar humor. The claim was somewhat undercut when Mr. Ohlmeyer declined to run commercials for “Dirty Work,” a 1998 movie starring Macdonald.
Mr. Ohlmeyer retired from NBC in 1999, only to return to ABC in 2000 to head “Monday Night Football” once again. He eliminated Boomer Esiason, the retired quarterback, as a commentator, filling the slot with former San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and comedian Dennis Miller.
After roughly a year in the job, Mr. Ohlmeyer retired again, saying that the frequent travel had become too burdensome. He became an ombudsman for ESPN, which now airs “Monday Night Football” and where he was an early financial investor.
Donald Winfred Ohlmeyer Jr. was born in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 1945. He grew up in the Chicago area, where his father worked at a brewery. His mother was a physical education teacher.
The younger Ohlmeyer received a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Notre Dame in 1966. The next year, he was hired by ABC, where he had done entry-level work as a college student.
“From the first day I went to work at ABC Sports, it was like giving heroin to an addict,” Mr. Ohlmeyer said in 2008, when he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. “I just absolutely loved it; I couldn’t wait to go to work. I was mesmerized by how shows were put together.”
Mr. Ohlmeyer’s marriages to Dossie Mahaffey and Adrian “Muffy” Perry ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Linda “L.J.” Jonsson of Indian Wells; three sons from his first marriage, Drew Ohlmeyer of Aliso Viejo, Calif., and Chris Ohlmeyer and Todd Ohlmeyer, both of Austin; a son from his second marriage, Kemper Ohlmeyer of Los Angeles; and nine grandchildren.
Even after decades in sports broadcasting, Mr. Ohlmeyer looked back with nostalgia on the first event he helped cover: the Indianapolis 500.
“There’s nothing,” he told USA Today, “that matches the moment when ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ is announced.”