Television icon Don Meier dies

Donald Meier, creator, producer and director of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, one of America’s most iconic television programs, has died.

Don Meier, creator of “Mutual ofDon Meier, creator of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” during filming of the program in the early 1960’s.
Photo: Meier family

A Meier family member said he died peacefully of natural causes last Saturday in his Winnetka, Illinois home. Meier passed away exactly one year after memorial services were held for Lorena Meier, his wife of 68-years. She died at age 100.

After serving as a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in World War II, Meier became an early television pioneer at WBKB, Chicago’s first commercial TV station. In the 1950s, he joined the NBC Network in The Windy City where he was a director of the Dave Garroway Show. Meier produced other popular TV programs such as Quiz Kids, Mr. Wizard and Zoo Parade.

In an interview before he died Meier said Zoo Parade became his inspiration for a pilot program in the early 60s that could take TV viewers around the world to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

Don Meier visited Africa to film several episodes of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” during the program’s 25 year run on television.

Meier called his program Wild Kingdom. Without Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company, the television program may have never materialized. The NBC television network agreed to broadcast Wild Kingdom if Meier could find a sponsor for his program. Meier was rejected 84 times by prospective sponsors before a chance conversation between St. Louis Zoo Director Marlin Perkins and officials at Mutual of Omaha who wanted to sponsor a new half-hour TV program around which to build a national image for their company.

That program, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, made its NBC debut in January 1963. Over the next 25 years almost 332 episodes of the largely popular program were filmed in 47 countries. Along the way, Wild Kingdom became a staple for family viewing while increasing ecological and environmental awareness. It won Emmy Awards for outstanding program achievement in 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969.

Don and Lorena Meier received several Emmy Awards for “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” program and have also underwritten several scholarships for students at the University of Nebraska.

Wally Podrazik, curator at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom one of the earliest examples of effective television branding. “Anyone who grew up in that era doesn’t immediately say ‘Wild Kingdom.’ First reference is ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,’” Podrazik said.

Hosted by Marlin Perkins and with co-hosts like Jim Fowler, Wild Kingdom gave audiences rough and tumble family entertainment. Even though the show was educational in nature, Don always reminded his staff that they were producing an entertainment show. “We always edited it so that the program looked as though you were looking over Marlin’s shoulder and participating with him in the action,” Meier later said.

In 1974, Wild Kingdom parted with NBC to become a successful syndicated program that ran through 1988. During its peak years, 34 million Americans watched Wild Kingdom each Sunday on 224 U.S. TV stations. Former co-host Jim Fowler called Wild Kingdom one of television’s first reality TV shows. “We actually went out and had the adventures and had the experiences that we showed on television,” Fowler said.

Meier’s program also became a precursor to modern wildlife programs on cable networks such as the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. In his late 90s, Meier reflected on Wild Kingdom’s success. He said the program’s greatest achievement was its reshaping of the way many viewers thought about wildlife and wild places. Meier took note of the changes he had seen in the world. “There were places I went when I was doing Wild Kingdom. I could see the changes happening all the time,” Meier said.  “It doesn’t take very much awareness to come to the conclusion that we better take care of the planet now rather than later.”

Meier, an Oshkosh, Nebraska native, was a graduate and scholarship benefactor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In the near future, Meier’s four Emmy awards will be on display at the UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Meier’s legacy of supporting students and higher education will continue through the Donald and Lorena Meier Foundation. Meier is survived by his many loving nieces, nephews, and their families.

To watch an award-winning documentary about Don Meier and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom click here or go to:

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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