Washington Post

NBC executives
testing their meddle

For many loyal viewers of "Saturday Night Live," the most dependable highlight of each week's show was the "Weekend Update" mock newscast, anchored by Norm Macdonald and produced by veteran comedy writer James Downey.

But NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer didn't like it. He didn't think it was funny. Perhaps the jokes went over his head. And so, a week ago, he fired Macdonald from the "Update" segment and Downey with him. Both remain on the staff of "SNL" but were gone from "Update" as of last Saturday night, when comic Colin Quinn took over.

Even for network executives as full of vanity and hubris as NBC's, the firing seemed a shockingly arrogant and embarrassing gesture. Macdonald, appearing soon after on David Letterman's CBS "Late Show," was stupefied but, he said, somewhat amused. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," said yesterday from his home in New York, "It was not unexpected, but when it actually came down it was stunning."

For Michaels, the past few weeks have been further complicated by the death and funeral of Chris Farley, the former "SNL" cast member who died of a drug overdose, and by the fact that early Monday morning, Michaels and wife Alice celebrated the birth of their third child, a girl.

Ohlmeyer's campaign to get Macdonald and Downey off "Update" had been unrelenting for at least three years, insiders say. "I wish I could say it was sudden and arbitrary, but it's been going on for a long time," Michaels confirmed. Ohlmeyer and other West Coast NBC executives like Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, and Rick Ludwin, vice president for late night, apparently have been obsessed with forcing Macdonald out of the anchor chair and over the holidays finally lowered the proverbial boom.

On the day the news became public, Ludwin happened to be visiting the set of "Seinfeld," the No. 1 comedy on TV, which will end its NBC run, much to NBC executives' dismay, at the close of this season. According to reports, "Seinfeld" writers, and then Jerry Seinfeld himself, were furious about the firings and vented their wrath on Ludwin, who eventually ran away. They told him Macdonald's "Update" was the best thing on the show; one or two apparently said it was the only good thing on the show.

A call to Ludwin for his version of the story was intercepted by an NBC publicist yesterday. She had no comment.

The strange event is symptomatic of life at GE-owned NBC, where some sort of executive dementia seems to have set in as part of the network's huge success in prime time, early morning and late night. Ohlmeyer, friend and defender of O.J. Simpson and 1996 graduate of a 28-day program for substance abusers at the Betty Ford Center, may be having delusions of grandeur on a spectacular scale.

What's happening in NBC's corridors of power is something akin to an executive riot. And that's not just in the entertainment division. NBC News President Andrew Lack recently made a complete fool of himself when he declared, to much subsequent derision, "I am America's news leader." A short time later, America's News Leader hired Geraldo Rivera, a move that embarrassed, among others, veteran "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw.

Few things would be more satisfying than to see NBC's ratings slip into the gutter next season when "Seinfeld" is gone and when companion hit "ER" could also move to another network, with Fox and CBS currently the most eager competitors for the series. Weak NBC shows that depended on proximity to "Seinfeld" and "ER" would plummet in popularity. "Mad About You" could be going to another network next fall, too. And yesterday, NBC failed in a bid to steal "Monday Night Football" away from ABC, after also losing a package of AFC games to CBS on Monday.

The network might topple from first place in ratings and profits for the first time in years. Cheers – albeit silent cheers – would go up from many of the truly creative people who make television programs. And from all those who've been victims of NBC's nutty, nitpicky executives.

One group of NBC Entertainment vice presidents holds weekly meetings on shows that air in the late-night time period – a huge profit center for the network – congratulating themselves on the ratings success of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and composing an endless series of critical notes to the producers of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" as well as those of "Saturday Night Live."

Among their dubious brainstorms: A couple of seasons ago, O'Brien's show featured a funny puppet character called Polly the Peacock, based on the old NBC color-TV logo. Polly had a bad habit of trashing the shows on all the other networks. It was a funny routine – but some executive took offense and ordered it dropped.

The amount of spurious and imperial meddling is apparently now far more epidemic at NBC than at either of the two other major networks. "When the network is really doing well, more attention is paid to us," Michaels says, and not cheerfully.

Writer Downey, speaking from his home in New York yesterday, sounded more entertained than alarmed at the madness of it all. "This is not a brave front. I don't stay home and cry alone. I've had a good time doing 'Update' the past 3 1/2 years, but I didn't expect to do this forever. Norm is the guy for whom it's humiliating because of the weird circumstances. It's really unprecedented.

"It's also a stupid, stupid thing. If they felt this strongly, they still should have waited until the summer to make the change."

Downey says he has met Ohlmeyer twice in his life, both times getting a cold shoulder: "He's been definitely trying to get me fired and make me unemployed for the last five years. That's the basis of our relationship. He don't like me. I know that."

What happens to Downey next has yet to be decided. He has a contract with "SNL" until the end of the season, but the contract calls for him to supervise "Weekend Update," which he is now banned from doing. "I'm certainly not going to quit," he says. Downey has been with "SNL" off-and-on since the second season of the landmark late-night show. His other jobs included head writer for David Letterman during the pivotal early days of "Late Night" on NBC in the '80s.

As for Macdonald, he is expected to remain with the show even though he told Letterman he's not good at sketch comedy. He is good at satirical impressions, however, one of his best being Letterman. He also does Burt Reynolds beautifully and a superb Larry King.

Michaels, meanwhile, must deal with speculation that the basic autonomy he has enjoyed with "SNL" since he founded the show in 1975 (with a few years spent on other ventures from 1980 to 1985) has been severely and very publicly compromised. In its various earlier heydays, "SNL" was pretty much left alone, as were Johnny Carson on "Tonight" (network executives were terrified of him, which is the way it should be) and Letterman, once his show became a hit.

"Have I lost some autonomy? Yes," Michaels says, "but I lost it two years ago when I was told to let lots of people in the cast go and had to bring a lot of new people in." Farley was among those ousted in that purge. Also Adam Sandler, who went on to make some funny and fairly successful movies, "Happy Gilmore" being perhaps the best.

But apparently Ohlmeyer, the king of comedy, just didn't like them. Ohlmeyer will face the press Friday morning in Los Angeles to give his side of the story.

Michaels's contract has another four years to go. But he could get out of it. Does he have any doubts now about staying with the show? "No, I don't have any doubts. I love the show. I would have preferred a different time for the change and it not coming down the way it did, that's all."

Told that Letterman mocked him as essentially spineless on his show last week, Michaels said removing Macdonald from the "Update" anchor chair was "a direct order" from the network and added, "I don't seem to remember Letterman protecting Bonnie Hunt." Hunt starred in two different Letterman-produced sitcoms that were bounced without so much as a tiny tear from the CBS eye.

Of course, network executives aren't known for their warm hearts and disarming manners. But NBC's are probably the most ruthless in TV. They're setting new standards in obnoxiousness.

The rather amazing thing is that the NBC executives think they're the brilliant geniuses, not the people who write and produce and perform in "SNL," "Seinfeld," "Frasier" or any of the network's other good shows. Littlefield wouldn't know a good joke if it fell on his head from a three-story window. He was depicted in the HBO movie "Late Shift," about the Leno-Letterman wars, as something of a dithery wimp.

Downey says the complaints from Ohlmeyer and other executives about "Update" weren't limited to Macdonald and his jokes. They insisted, for instance, that the segment include more news videotape and fewer still photos of newsmakers. But, says Downey, the point of "Update" is to be funny, not visually glitzy. And many times moving images would detract from jokes rather than enhance them. NBC executives couldn't grasp the subtlety that this was a "stylized" satirical newscast.

Complicating the issue for Michaels and Downey is the fact that comic Quinn did a first-rate and hilarious job on his first night as "Update" anchor, a challenging and difficult moment for him. "I love Colin," says Downey. "It sure complicates my feelings. I wish they'd brought in someone from outside that I loathed. It would make it so much easier to hope they'd fail."

Downey and Michaels both sound fearful that "Update" will lose the daring, dark and cynical tone that kept it outrageous during the Macdonald years, a tone NBC executives would like to see removed from the show. They want more safe, bland material and more wacky continuing characters. You know, the kind of garbage they serve up in most of their prime-time sitcoms.

"They have a set of tastes which is completely opposite ours," says Downey, "and it turned out there was absolutely no middle ground. What they most hated was the stuff we liked most." And yet he doesn't hate Ohlmeyer, Downey says: "You can say a lot of bad things about Don Ohlmeyer, but he is not a weasel. From day one, it was an honest difference of opinion. In the old days, of course, executives stayed out of the creative stuff."

The worst thing about the whole mess may be the symbolism: executives cavalierly marching in to make creative changes in a program that's running smoothly and earning plaudits from the public and the critics alike – plaudits and profits. "The big change within NBC is that they have a new sense of self-esteem and they now feel entitled to interfere openly," Downey says with regret.

Everybody should regret it, especially if they love good TV.

© 1998 The Washington Post. All rights reserved.