- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Gene Walsh, who spent three decades as a publicity executive for NBC in New York and then Burbank, has died. He was 87.
Walsh died Sept. 1 of natural causes at his home in Burbank, publicist Charles Barrett announced.
The only staffer to head NBC press and publicity departments on both coasts, Walsh worked closely with Johnny Carson and Bob Hope and with top execs including Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff during his career.
Walsh joined NBC in 1961 in its magazine, trade and program publicity units. He was promoted to head the 50-member press and publicity department in 1973 and named a vice president in 1975. Two years later, he was transferred to Burbank to lead the 45-member press and publicity division there. He retired in 1991.
In New York, Walsh was the architect of the publicity campaign behind the ground-breaking Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975.
In their 1986 book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad credited Walsh for recognizing that NBC’s new late night program was “the only new show the network had that it could point to with any pride.”
Under Walsh, the superiority of NBC’s publicity operation was singled out by TCA president David Williams of the Arizona Daily Star in 1983. “No network does as well as NBC in attending to the myriad of details that make a press tour succeed.… Everyone at NBC is relaxed, friendly and to an astonishing degree, willing to tell you the truth.”
At his retirement ceremony, Walsh noted that Carson agreed to do a “wide range of audience-building publicity, some which could be classified as frivolous,” when he took over for Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show in 1962.
“However, in a few years, with superstar status achieved and his ratings solidified, Johnny knew his best publicity was what he did every night on his show. He neither needed nor wanted any more audience-building publicity. Our primary job was to publicize what he did on his show and fend off the hundreds of interview requests from the press.”
Walsh also credited Tinker and Tartikoff from taking NBC from last in the ratings to No. 1. “Grant and Brandon attracted to NBC the best writers, producers and actors by giving them virtually free rein,” he said.
Born in 1933, Walsh won letters in football, basketball, baseball and track at Saranac Lake High School in New York, graduating in 1952.
After attending Paul Smith’s College and St. Lawrence University and serving in the U.S. Army, Walsh worked in Saranac Lake as a reporter and sports columnist for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and as a play-by-play announcer for radio station WNBZ before being hired by NBC.
As a department manager, Walsh convinced his union-represented photographers in New York and his union-represented publicists and photographers in Burbank to decertify, allowing the entire NBC publicity operation to be nonunion so that an individual’s salary was determined by his or her performance.
He also started the first NBC press cost-recovery program, selling publicity materials like storylines, pictures and features to the syndication companies distributing NBC programs to stations. Billings averaged $80,000 annually.
A longtime member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Walsh spent many years on the board of directors and as the treasurer of the Southern California Sports Broadcasters organization.
Survivors include his three children.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day