Don Meier, who created “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and sparked nature-themed television and reality TV, died Saturday at age 104.
Meier was a television pioneer who produced or directed a variety of shows out of Chicago in the 1950s. One of those, “Zoo Parade,” provided the inspiration for “Wild Kingdom” in the early 1960s.
He envisioned “Wild Kingdom” taking television viewers around the world to see animals in their natural habitats.
UNL journalism professor Barney McCoy said Meier’s hunt for corporate sponsorship was met with a “no” 84 times before Mutual of Omaha executive V.J. Skutt gave the show a chance.
Mutual spokesman Jim Nolan said Monday that Meier “played an integral role in helping bring ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’ to living rooms across America, educating and inspiring generations of viewers.”
Meier, an Oshkosh, Nebraska, native, graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He and his late wife, Lorena, have supported 13 scholarships in the NU system that will live on through the couple’s foundation. Four additional scholarships will now come from the Meier Foundation, said Keith Miles, general counsel for the NU Foundation.
“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” debuted on NBC in January 1963 and remained on television for at least 25 years. The program received Emmy Awards and provided an early example of corporate branding through television. Former co-host Jim Fowler, who died in May, called “Wild Kingdom” one of the first reality shows.
“We actually went out and had the adventures and had the experiences that we showed on television,” Fowler told McCoy for one of McCoy’s pieces, which included a documentary about Meier and “Wild Kingdom.”
Numerous nature programs have followed, as well as networks devoted to wildlife and the natural world, including Animal Planet.
McCoy said Meier was a professional and a mentor to the UNL professor, who has done numerous documentaries. “I would talk with him about style and presentation-type things,” McCoy said. The professor said Meier continued driving a car at age 100.
Meier died at home in Winnetka, Illinois.
Bob Bennett, a nephew who lives in Wilmette, Illinois, said Meier was a friend and the family patriarch. He was fun to be with, Bennett said. “He was the cool one.”
Meier had people skills, business acumen and the ability to tell a good story, Bennett said.
Bennett said the memorial service is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 2 at Northfield Community Church in the Chicago suburb of Northfield.
McCoy said Meier was most proud of the way the show enhanced the public’s understanding of wildlife and nature. Meier once said to McCoy: “It doesn’t take much awareness to come to the conclusion that we better take care of the planet now rather than later.”