1949 - 1997
"Imagine, if you will, a seven-year-old boy sitting nose-to-screen in front of a seven-inch DuMont television set, mesmerized by everything he sees. To him, this television set is pure magic. He begins to fantasize that if he tried hard he could shrink to a tiny size and crawl inside the set. Then he could live and breathe television from the inside, all day. That boy got his wish." - Brandon Tartikoff, in his autobiography "The Last Great Ride".
More than a decade ago, the television industry was shocked and saddened by the death of Brandon Tartikoff. But his name rang a bell with many American viewers as well–for good reason. Tartikoff was the man who stood behind some of US television’s finest series of the 1980's, nurtured them, and impatiently waited for audiences to find them. When viewers finally discovered those programmes, they made Tartikoff a hero and helped save a floundering network in the process. From 1980 through 1991, Tartikoff was the head programmer at NBC (official title: President of NBC Entertainment). And he was one of the most successful in the history of the medium–both in capturing viewing audiences, and in presenting shows that won critical and industry acclaim.
He was not perfect: Tartikoff was sometimes egotistical, and had a habit of not sharing credit with some of his key programmers. But the good far outweighed the bad, and that was due in part to Tartikoff’s age.
In his 30's when he began his NBC career, Tartikoff was a baby boomer (born after World War Two) and shared with many fellow boomers a love of television. He also cared about the shows his audiences embraced... Tartikoff either championed or helped spearhead such notable dramatic series as 'Hill Street Blues', 'St. Elsewhere' and 'Law & Order'. His real success came from comedies–'Family Ties', 'Cheers', 'The Cosby Show', 'Night Court', and 'The Golden Girls'–all audience favourites with distinct voices.
Not all critics liked such Tartikoff-helmed series such as 'The A-Team', 'Knight Rider', 'Hunter', 'Gimme A Break', 'The Facts of Life' and 'Punky Brewster', but they became popular with viewers. His embrace of both highbrow series and lowbrow but popular programmes was criticized by some; the “Washington Post” television critic Tom Shales once nicknamed the programmer “Random Tartikoff”. But few other schedulers did their jobs as well, and fewer still enjoyed the game as much.
Brandon Tartikoff was born January 13th, 1949, in Freeport, New York. He became interested in television as a youngster; one Sunday night in 1959, he watched the premiere episode of 'Dennis the Menace' on CBS (with young Jay North as Dennis). Tartikoff later recalled after the show, "I turned to my parents and said, 'They could have made that show much better.' " He later graduated from Yale University, working in various TV-related jobs, and eventually became a promotions director at WTNH-TV in New Haven, Connecticut (an ABC affiliate) while searching for a job at one of the major networks.
A few years later, he was hired at ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago as an assistant promotions manager. His greatest success was a theme he cooked up for the station’s afternoon movie slot–'Gorilla My Dreams Week', complete with cheesy promotions for well-known films about apes such as 'King Kong'. The stunt drew so many viewers, it caught the attention of ABC’s new head of programming, Fred Silverman (who had just left CBS after years of success in prime time). In 1976, Tartikoff was hired by Silverman as the network’s “manager of dramatic development.” But a year later, Tartikoff went to NBC as a director of comedy programmes. By that time, NBC was a distant third in the ratings, and its few comedies were soon-to-be-axed shadows of former hits–'The Sanford Arms', which was 'Sanford & Son' without its former stars Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson; and 'Chico & The Man', whose star Freddie Prinze committed suicide.
In 1978, Silverman jumped to NBC as the network’s new president and took the young Tartikoff under his wing. During the Silverman years, Tartikoff managed to come up with a pair of moderate comedy hits–'Diff’rent Strokes' and its spin-off 'The Facts Of Life'. But they weren’t enough to rescue NBC. In 1980, Silverman promoted Tartikoff to president of NBC Entertainment as the network’s head programmer. But there was no secret Silverman was still calling the shots on the NBC schedule. (When asked if he had to clear his decisions with Silverman, Tartikoff wryly told a reporter, “Can I get back to you on that?”) Still at age 30, he was the youngest television programmer in American history. But when NBC ended yet another third-rated season (along with falling profits) in the spring of 1981, it was Silverman who was shown the door. His departure came soon after Thorton Bradshaw became the new chairman of RCA, the parent company of NBC at that time.
Bradshaw hired successful television producer Grant Tinker (a former NBC programmer and then-husband to Mary Tyler Moore) as Silverman’s replacement. Tinker was the head of MTM Productions, responsible for such critical and commercial favourites as 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'The Bob Newhart Show'. Tinker also had a reputation of giving his employees breathing room and leaving them alone to do their jobs. Tinker could have fired Tartikoff but didn’t; it was clear Silverman was the dominant scheduler. So Tinker announced that Tartikoff would remain as entertainment chief. ("I think he is the best guy to do that job — it's that simple,") But the pressure was on to come up with hits for NBC–and fast.
One of Tartikoff’s earliest successes was a quirky police drama that premiered in January 1981, but suffered such low ratings, Silverman moved it around a number of times on the schedule. Critics raved about this new series about a beleaguered police precinct captain and his underlings in an unnamed inner city. Produced by Tinker’s MTM, Silverman renewed the show just before his firing-but it was on thin ice as the lowest-rated series ever at that time to win renewal. Tartikoff also believed in the series, and knew if it caught on, it would help rebuild NBC’s reputation for quality programming. His faith was well rewarded. The show, of course, was 'Hill Street Blues', which after winning a then-record number of Emmy awards, became for a time the network’s highest-rated series. But in the fall of 1981, Tartikoff had little else to work with. There were moderate hits such as 'Real People', 'Diff’rent Strokes', 'The Facts Of Life' and 'ChiPS', but new series such as 'Fitz And Bones' and 'Lewis & Clark' were quick failures; only the domestic comedy 'Gimme A Break' showed some life in its first season. And in early 1982, Tartikoff launched his first series in the Tinker era, a television version of the 1980 film 'Fame'. Tartikoff hoped the show would provide a boost, but low ratings led to its departure from NBC in 1983. ('Fame' later became a hit in syndication, with new episodes sold to local stations.)
In the fall of 1982, Tartikoff (with help from Tinker) launched an ambitious line-up of shows for prime time, with the theme “Just Watch Us Now!” Critics raved about such sophisticated new comedies as 'Family Ties' and 'Cheers' and had nice things to say about such dramas as 'Remington Steele' and 'St. Elsewhere'. But those newcomers–and most of NBC’s other new series–landed in the bottom half of the ratings. By early 1983, Tartikoff was under heavy pressure by NBC station owners to come up with some hits or step down and let someone else take charge of the schedule. In the midst of NBC’s ratings woes, Tartikoff was literally in a life-or-death situation–one he called his “year of living dangerously.”
Tartikoff was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (a cancer of the lymphatic system) in his mid-20's; he had undergone treatment and it went into remission. But the Hodgkins reoccurred in 1982, and in his autobiography “The Last Great Ride,” Tartikoff admitted was not too confident about his doctor, who was more interested in selling the NBC executive on a 'Hill Street Blues' script his son wrote than diagnosing what was wrong. A second doctor was far more alarmed, and a consultation with a specialist led to a very aggressive treatment pattern for Tartikoff. He was given heavy-duty chemotherapy every Friday, after he left work. As he remembered it,
“First, I would get a pill for nausea, then, a half hour later, a sleeping pill. After that, I would sit down in a hard plastic office chair, and the chemotherapy would start. After about an hour, it was over. The usual post-chemo routine was that I’d be driven home by (his wife) Lilly, and then I’d throw up and pass out.”
Tartikoff endured mood swings and weight loss from the chemo; his hair fell out and he had to wear a wig. But again, the Hodgkins went into remission and his mood brightened in January 1983, with the premiere of 'The A-Team'. An action-packed series from the mind of Stephen Cannell, it was NBC’s first top ten hit in years. But the fall of 1983 proved a disappointment. Despite a very catchy and well-done campaign (“Be There!”), EVERY one of NBC’s new fall series were either cancelled in their first few months or barely lasted the entire season. (Tartikoff himself called it the “September Train Wreck of 1983. The infamous nine, for the record, were 'Bay City Blues'; 'Boone'; 'For Love And Honor'; 'Jennifer Slept Here'; 'Manimal'; 'Mr. Smith'; 'The Rousters'; 'We Got It Made' and 'The Yellow Rose'.)
Even though NBC was still in third place behind CBS and ABC, there was one positive sign: Shows such as 'Hill Street', 'St. Elsewhere' and 'Cheers' were tops among high-income, younger viewers; the network could charge more for those shows based on the audience demographics. (And they were catnip to certain advertisers; Mercedes-Benz was a frequent sponsor of 'Hill Street' because its audience was more likely to consider the German luxury sedan.) But after the disastrous 1983-84 season, industry experts predicted Tartikoff had just one more year to come up with some new hits before he went the way of Fred Silverman.
Fortunately, the fall of 1984 proved to be the breakthrough both Tartikoff and Tinker had hoped for. And it started one night when Tartikoff–awakened by his young daughter–watched 'The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson'. One of the guests that night happened to be stand-up comic and former television star Bill Cosby, doing a monologue about his family. Tartikoff began negotiating for a domestic comedy with Cosby as the star; he won the rights after ABC passed on the show twice. 'The Cosby Show' made its debut in the fall of ‘84 and became an immediate top ten hit, pulling moderate hits 'Family Ties', 'Cheers' and 'Night Court' to high ratings as well. NBC also saw promising results for two newcomers: 'Miami Vice' (which was the germ of a Tartikoff idea called “MTV Cops;” a police drama that looked like a music video); and the sentimental family drama 'Highway To Heaven' with Michael Landon. NBC’s ratings went up and the network finally rose from third place, placing second to CBS for the 1984-85 season. The following season gave NBC yet another top ten smash, the ensemble comedy 'The Golden Girls'–and continued high ratings for “Cosby” and most other NBC series.
By the end of the 1985-86 season, NBC was the top-rated television network in prime time, a position it last held in the early 1950's. Revenues grew as well, with NBC accounting for nearly half of RCA’s profits. Around the same time, Bradshaw approached General Electric chairman Jack Welch about a deal. That led to GE’s purchase of RCA–including NBC–for $6.4 billion in 1986. Tinker retired as head of NBC that year and was replaced with GE executive Bob Wright, a protégé of Welch. Tartikoff was given a larger salary and more responsibility to stay on and keep NBC’s hit machine going–and it did through the end of his tenure.
Brandon actually liked working with GE; he thought Welch and Wright were visionaries who realized broadcast television was changing and facing new challenges. But Tartikoff wasn’t perfect. One of his key lieutenants, Garth Ancier, was ready to bolt NBC for 20th Century Fox’s venture to create a new broadcast network. In the book “The Fourth Network,” Ancier recalled his doubts were
“(C)ertainly intensified by the fact that...Tartikoff said, ‘You know, Garth, all their stations are UHF stations?’ (Tartikoff would later tag Fox with the dismissive nickname “the coat-hanger network,” suggesting that people would have to attach wire hangers to their antennas just to be able to pick up the Fox signal.)”
The eventual success of Fox proved Tartikoff wrong.
And by some accounts, Tartikoff didn’t like to share the spotlight with his fellow programming staffers (including the man who would ultimately succeed him, Warren Littlefield). He also had a healthy ego; he appeared on 'Saturday Night Live' (toe-to-toe with Eddie Murphy) and on 'Night Court' (where he played himself and panicked when he realized he forgot to pick up Bill Cosby’s sandwiches). But he could laugh at himself as well: During that “SNL” show, Tartikoff was on the streets of New York City, passing flyers urging viewers to watch 'Manimal' (one of the above-mentioned members of the "Train Wreck of 1983" about a man who could change into various animals). In fact, for all of his successes, Tartikoff was able to joke about his scheduling failures--including 'Pink Lady and Jeff' (a variety show cantering on a Japanese female singing duo who couldn’t speak English) that was dumped after six weeks; and 'Misfits of Science' (a science fiction fantasy with a pre-'Friends' Courtney Cox). But he also had a hand in the creation of a 1984 sitcom about a young orphan girl who was taken in by a crusty older man. The name of the girl and the show, 'Punky Brewster', came from a girl Tartikoff once had a crush on. (And to add to the six degrees of separation, Punky’s dog on the series was named “Brandon.”)
By early 1991, Tartikoff had led NBC to its sixth straight season as the top-rated network. (In his final years, Tartikoff championed such key shows as 'Seinfeld'; 'Law & Order' and 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air'.) But the competition was gaining on NBC, as the other networks came up with their own new hits and the “coat hanger:” Fox network was building an audience with 'The Simpsons' and other innovative programmes. After more than a decade in charge of NBC’s schedule, Tartikoff was ready for a change–and in April 1991, he relinquished the job to Warren Littlefield and became president of Paramount Pictures. He oversaw several hits at Paramount, including 'Wayne’s World' and 'Patriot Games'. But a car accident in Lake Tahoe, Nevada left him and his eight-year-old daughter Calla injured. He resigned from Paramount in 1992 to care for Calla; her eventual recovery sparked him to complete his autobiography. Tartikoff later developed programmes for New World Entertainment, and produced a Showtime series based on the television industry called 'Beggars & Choosers'. (His production company was called H. Beale, after the fictional television news anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 film 'Network'.).
Sadly, while working to develop new Web-original programming for America Online, Brandon Tartikoff suffered a recurrence of Hodgkins disease, and died of treatment complications on August 27th, 1997. He was only 48 years old.
Years after his death, Brandon Tartikoff remains the gold standard of television programmers. CBS’ Les Moonves is arguably as successful as Tartikoff was during his NBC years, and has programmed a television network longer than anyone else. But with cable, satellite, the Internet, YouTube and the DVR, the days of one person dictating a television schedule are all but over.
When he wrote his autobiography in 1992, Tartikoff made that exact point–proof why NBC’s former wunderkind was one of a kind:
“What the future of television comes down to, ultimately, is a great power shift–away from the networks and toward the viewers. Instead of someone like me deciding what goes on the air–and when–you’ll be making the decision for yourself. You, too, can be your own television programmer, your own Ed Sullivan. You’ll be able to turn on whatever acts and wonders turn you on. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Go for it.”
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