Tartikoff: Thriving in an Unsurvivable Job : Programming chief will soon enter his second decade at No. 1 NBC
While the audience is watching television, Brandon Tartikoff is watching the audience.
He says he knows why people watch TV--not just the medium, but specific programs. The president of NBC’s entertainment division can create a mental picture of a broadcast’s audience--in detail, as vivid as the image on a screen.
Take CBS’ “60 Minutes,” for example.
“I know what the viewers’ attitude is when they watch ’60 Minutes,’ ” Tartikoff asserted in a recent conversation at NBC’s Burbank headquarters. “There is probably a healthy population of people who watch ’60 Minutes’ because they had all these ambitious ideas about what they were going to do over the weekend. They were going to read the book that has been sitting on their nightstand. They were going to exercise. They were going to take their wife out to lunch. They probably didn’t accomplish all of the things they set out to do this weekend. But if they watch ’60 Minutes,’ at least they can say: ‘Here’s an hour I set aside to do something worthwhile.’
“I know there are these sociological phenomena, and you can tap into them. It’s almost like I have an intravenous (tube) into the People Meter system. It’s more of a sickness than a talent.”
Even after 9 1/2 years as NBC’s programming czar, Tartikoff is not eager for a cure (although he says his passion for seeing his instincts reflected in the Nielsens may someday force him to undergo deprogramming at the “Betty Ford Center for Ratings Withdrawal.”)
If anyone is in the position to predict the fickle tastes of the American TV viewer, it is Tartikoff--if only because of his longevity. Next January will mark Tartikoff’s 10th anniversary as president of NBC Entertainment--a period that has taken the executive from his 31st to his 40th birthday, as well as bringing NBC from a distant last place in 1980 to an almost embarrassingly wide lead as TV’s No. 1 network for four seasons running. Measured by a more tangible standard, NBC’s profits during that time have soared from $48 million to an estimated $600 million.
So dominant has NBC become that it has now finished first in the prime-time ratings for 53 weeks in a row--surpassing the previous record of 46 weeks that CBS set in 1962-63.
Tartikoff’s power within the network has grown with his success. Already president of NBC Entertainment and, since 1984, president of NBC Productions, the unit that produces TV programs and theatrical motion pictures, Tartikoff acquired his third title last October: chairman of the NBC Program Development Group, a committee established to encourage cross-pollination of program ideas among executives from the news, sports, entertainment, business affairs and TV stations divisions.
Perhaps the only bitter taste in Tartikoff’s otherwise sweet success has been the press criticism heaped on him and the network last season for lax broadcast standards that allowed some questionable programming to tarnish NBC’s golden reputation for taste and class. The most blatant example was a Geraldo Rivera special on Satanic cults last November that featured detailed accounts of cultists’ bloody rituals. The New York Times later condemned the program in an editorial as pornography.
It had been years since Tartikoff or NBC had been criticized for much of anything--and the knife cut deeply. Months later, Tartikoff remains defensive. He admits that if he were a TV critic he would have had to slam himself to the mat just as hard as his detractors did. But, in the same breath, he protests that NBC did not receive enough credit for launching a season of original programming on schedule despite the difficulties imposed by the Writers Guild of America strike. He attributes NBC’s lapses of taste to the rush to get programs on the air.
“I’m sort of hoping there is a statute of limitations on these supposed crimes,” Tartikoff said wearily. “I’m hoping that as we go into the 1989-'90 season, not only does the ratings slate get wiped clean but the holdover effects of the blemishes of last season will be equally forgotten.”
And Tartikoff is determined not to let the pain interfere with the pleasure of NBC’s recent triumphs. “We have, in the aggregate, done nothing to be really ashamed of for the past season, and a lot of things to be proud of--not the least of which is this kind of statistical winning streak that we’re on,” he said.
“It’s a kind of meaningless statistic, I guess, in the real world,” he added. “But from a competitive standpoint, as a competitor--which I am--the fact that we achieved something that nobody had achieved in modern-day television, it’s something that you can put in your book of memories or your scrapbook and say: ‘It was there, and we did it.’ We were able to put together this streak in the most competitive time that’s ever existed for network television.”
In this most competitive time, Tartikoff still shows no signs of job burnout--even though others who have held the high-pressure position have either been forced out or fled for their sanity in recent years. Brandon Stoddard, who was doing a handy job of launching sophisticated, critically acclaimed and demographically desirable programming for ABC, jumped ship last March, saying that being entertainment president just “wasn’t fun anymore.” CBS’ Kim LeMasters has predicted his own meltdown will occur after about three years.
Indeed, Tartikoff holds the record for longest tenure of a programming chief at one network. Only his one-time mentor, Fred Silverman, has spent more time in control of prime-time schedules--five years at CBS, three at ABC and three at NBC, where, as network president, he elevated the 29-year-old Tartikoff from a mid-level programming job to vice president of programs on the West Coast and then, 18 months later, to his current post.
“I’m probably closer to the end of this run than I am to the beginning,” Tartikoff mused over lunch in the sunny NBC commissary, “and I look at this job a little differently today than I did when I went into it in 1980.
“If somebody told me in 1980 any number of facts (about today), I would have thought they were out of their minds. One is that, when I took this job, I’d still be doing it 10 years later--because my two predecessors (Mike Weinblatt and Paul Klein) lasted a grand total of 18 months together.
“The second thing is that NBC would be No. 1. I thought that there was something chemical about NBC, that this was something that the network can’t do.”
But the network did it--and Brandon Tartikoff is still doing it. Although he admits his NBC duties will never duplicate the high of taking a last-place network to the top, Tartikoff still sees network TV as “the biggest toy store in the world.”
One of Tartikoff’s favorite games in the TV toy store is something he calls “This Is Them, and This Is Us,” a mental exercise in which he tries to guess what the TV viewer will watch when faced with competing attractive choices on two networks.
“It’s a game I play with my wife (Lilly)--or let’s say, I play it and she tolerates it,” Tartikoff said. “And I generally like to play it when the match-ups are almost surrealistic.
“This past May, we had ‘The Trial of the Incredible Hulk’ on, and ABC had ‘War and Remembrance,’ either the opening or the closing chapter. And I’d cut to, like, the Hulk hulking out, and then I’d cut to John Gielgud and Jane Seymour in a train station about to go off to wherever it is they were going off to. I’d sit there, and I’d say: ‘They’re loving this,’ or ‘This is too long. Their fingers are getting itchy. OK, they’re looking at the clock, now they’re going to (change channels), they’re going to start grazing at this point. . . .”
Along with personal instinct, Tartikoff has come to take network research fairly seriously. “When I first got to NBC, I had a certain attitude toward research--it was a dirty word,” Tartikoff said. “It was the people who sat back while I worked impossible hours to do all these pilots, and they would come in the last week and tell me why the American public didn’t like any of them.
“But what I’ve developed over the years is not a reliance on research, but an ability to decipher from the research what the audience is really telling you. Not just about one show, but things you can apply to other shows. If somebody slaps his wife to make a point in one pilot and it tests badly, and six months later you find another writer doing the same thing in another pilot, you can say, ‘No, don’t do it.’ ”
Unlike more reticent executives, such as ABC’s Stoddard, Tartikoff also makes a game of his title and his position, relishing his public appearances and even making occasional appearances on NBC shows, including “Night Court,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Hollywood Squares.”
Tartikoff’s demeanor on the job is equally informal. As he wanders the halls of NBC, the people he runs into--from noted producers working on new series to the guys on his Saturday softball team--treat him less like a network president than a favorite counselor at Camp NBC. And, although the backlash following the Geraldo special still hurts like a broken nose, Tartikoff regained his sense of humor enough to appear as “The Satanic Messenger,” an NBC promotional spot shown to representatives of the network’s affiliated stations at their annual convention in May. “How do we do it (stay in first place)? We have no standards,” says the dark stranger with the bandage on his nose.
And Tartikoff recently made an appearance in his first promotional spot for an NBC series, for the so-called “Lost Episodes of Miami Vice.” The network had scheduled the finale of “Miami Vice” to air during the important May ratings sweeps, even though there were four earlier episodes that hadn’t aired yet. An NBC accountant told Tartikoff that those episodes, produced at a cost of $5 million, could not simply be dumped.
So rather than just put them on after the finale and risk the same low ratings that “Vice” had suffered throughout the season, Tartikoff, who began his career as a promotion writer, decided to promote the episodes as “The Lost Episodes of Miami Vice.” The producers of the spot persuaded him to portray the network executive who steals the idea of presenting the lost episodes from his secretary.
“I would never do a straight spot where I come out and say: ‘We have a great show on at 9:30, it’s called ‘The Nutt House,’ and I think you’ll love it,” Tartikoff said. “But the director shot it in a way that it doesn’t look like I’m trying push myself onto center stage--I come off like kind of a jerk in the thing. It was fun, it cost $30,000--and it worked!”
Tartikoff said he turns down far more requests to appear on NBC shows than he accepts. He also recently turned down an offer from “a major studio” to appear in a feature film as a head of network programming named Fred Tartenstein.
“I do (guest appearances) if I think it’s going to be fun,” Tartikoff said. “I do it if it’s not going to be demeaning to the position, and in general I try to do something that makes me part of the joke.
“And besides,” he added sheepishly, “I know that, when I leave the job, I’m not going to be offered ‘Night Court’ or ‘Saturday Night Live’ or ‘Hollywood Squares,’ or Bob Hope specials.
“I wouldn’t recommend this for every person who’s in charge of programming, but I’ve always tried to take a personal responsibility for what goes on the air. . . . If I can attach a name, a face, a spokesperson to this network that has many faces, and let them know that somebody’s willing to stand up and defend what’s on, I want to do that. And to show that there’s a certain degree of fun to doing what we do here.”
TV has been fun in the last 10 years, but not as innovative as Tartikoff had hoped. Though NBC has grown during his tenure as entertainment president, Tartikoff notes with regret that TV really hasn’t. “It bothers me that television in general hasn’t undergone the kind of sea change that I hoped it would have by this time, just in terms of radically altering the way half-hour shows and hour shows are presented,” Tartikoff said. “ ‘Miami Vice’ was, I thought, the first big toe in the water. It was a whole radical way of storytelling that I thought could be followed up.”
That it hasn’t--at least not successfully--is in part the fault of network programmers such as himself, he conceded, but also of writers, producers, production companies and the audience. All three networks have experimented with blending comedy and drama in such half-hour programs as “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” “Hooperman” and “Frank’s Place,” he noted, but viewers did not embrace them in sufficient numbers to keep them alive. Instead they have shown a preference for such old-fashioned melodramas as CBS’ “Murder, She Wrote” and NBC’s own “Matlock” and “In the Heat of the Night.”
“It’s as if the audience wandered out to the edge with us for ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘Miami Vice,’ then turned around, came back and said, ‘We’re more comfortable 15 feet from the cliff as opposed to right on the edge,’ ” he said.
The networks’ conservative 1989-90 prime-time schedules don’t break much new ground either, Tartikoff acknowledged. “I think there’s a return to--I don’t know if it’s a kinder, gentler America like George Bush would like to believe it to be, but I think we are in very moral times,” he said.
Although he did not label any new NBC shows as such, Tartikoff called the 1988-89 season on the other networks--whose schedules are fraught with returning stars and almost gratuitously wholesome family dramas--"retro-television.”
“If the videocassettes of those pilots were put into a strongbox and sunk into the La Brea Tar Pits, and archeologists came along in the year 2050 and had to figure out the decade the shows were produced, who could guess? I mean, Richard Chamberlain as a doctor ?” Tartikoff scoffed, referring to CBS’ fall medical series “The Hawaiian,” in which the former star of “Dr. Kildare” again plays a physician. ABC, meanwhile, will be offering revivals of “Mission: Impossible,” “Columbo” and “Kojak.”
From a scheduling standpoint, however, Tartikoff sees the networks attempting a tentative experiment. Rather than creating traditional TV nights--family comedies from 8 to 9 p.m., followed by adult comedies from 9 to 10 and action-adventure dramas in the 10-11 p.m. slot, Tartikoff predicts the networks will strive to create whole nights of compatible programming that cater to one specific group of viewers.
“You may find nights that are constructed the way CBS’ Monday night is,” Tartikoff said, referring to that network’s decision to run six comedies on Monday, including newcomers “Major Dad,” “The People Next Door” and “The Famous Teddy Z.”
Tartikoff believes the CBS all-comedy night must have been inspired by a technique tried for one night by NBC during the February ratings sweeps. As counter-programming to CBS’ “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, NBC presented six popular comedies in what the network promoted as “The Night of 1,000 Laughs.”
“I keep opening my mail every Monday and looking for a royalty check from CBS,” Tartikoff joked.
Tartikoff also envisions the Big Three networks each seeking its own identity, similar to the distinct profiles of specialized cable channels, in order to lure the audience in the future.
CBS, he said, could become known as the news and sports network. That network recently paid $1.06 billion for the right to telecast Major League Baseball, including the World Series and both the National League and American League championships, for four years beginning in 1990. CBS also continues to feature more prime-time news than its competitors with three informational hours--"48 Hours,” “West 57th” and “60 Minutes.”
ABC, Tartikoff noted, could also win points for news, with the continuing popularity of “20/20" and the fall debut of “Prime Time,” a news program that features the intriguing team of Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson. In both daytime and prime time, Tartikoff guessed that ABC, home of the Emmy-winning “Wonder Years” and “thirtysomething,” may choose to market its shows as “boutique” items, which are tantalizing to advertisers not for their high ratings but for their young-and-affluent demographics.
“Maybe NBC will continue to be a broad, all-service network--that may be my own myopic view of it,” Tartikoff said. “But I do believe that you’re not going to see any one of the networks up and disappear. It was prognosticated back in the late ‘70s in the New York Times that NBC could go out of business in one or two years.”
If Tartikoff’s predictions for network TV longevity are correct, he is in no danger of being out of a job any time soon. But after nearly 10 years, why does he want to keep going, when the lure of lucrative studio offers or the creative autonomy he might achieve as an independent producer grow stronger every year?
Tartikoff said that the challenge of expanding the fledgling NBC Productions, as well as the diversity of his job as a programmer and his continuing desire to push the boundaries and find “the next show that gets people excited,” will keep him happy for a long time. “As I find over time, what’s great about this job is (that) if you have a thousand ideas, there are a thousand different places to put them,” he said. “And when I looked at the logical next place to go, which is the production side of things, I always thought that would be frustrating, because you would have a thousand ideas and no place to put them.”
Tartikoff predicts, however, that he will become yet another entertainment president-turned-producer when he comes up with series idea so good he can’t stand to give it away.
“That will be the point when I say, ‘Yeah, this is the one idea--or these three or four ideas--that I just don’t want to give out,’ ” Tartikoff said. “These will be the ones that I really want to see if I could do myself.”
Through the Brandon Tartikoff Years at NBC 1980-81 Hits: “Hill Street Blues.” Misses: “Flamingo Road,” “The Gangster Chronicles,” “The Brady Brides,” “Marie,” “Number 96.” 1981-82 Hits: “Gimme a Break.” Misses: “Chicago Story,” “Love, Sidney,” “Bret Maverick,” “McClain’s Law,” “Billy Crystal Comedy Hour,” “The Flintstones,” “Television: Inside and Out.” 1982-83 Hits: “Cheers,” “Family Ties,” “Silver Spoons,” “Remington Steele,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Knight Rider,” “The A-Team.” Misses: “Gavilan,” “Casablanca,” “Bare Essence.” 1983-84 Hits: “Night Court.” Misses: “Bay City Blues,” “Manimal,” “Mr. Smith,” “We Got It Made,” “Buffalo Bill,” “The Yellow Rose.” 1984-85 Hits: “The Cosby Show,” “Hunter,” “Miami Vice,” “Highway to Heaven.” Misses: “Partners in Crime,” “Berrenger’s,” “V,” “Sara,” “Double Trouble,” “Hot Pursuit.” 1985-86 Hits: “The Golden Girls,” “227,” “Valerie” (now “The Hogan Family”). Misses: “Amazing Stories,” “Misfits of Science,” “Hell Town,” “All Is Forgiven,” “Blacke’s Magic,” “You Again?” 1986-87 Hits: “Matlock,” “L.A. Law,” “ALF,” “Amen.” Misses: “Crime Story,” “The Tortellis,” “Rags to Riches,” “Easy Street,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Nothing in Common.” 1987-88 Hits: “A Different World,” “In the Heat of the Night.” Misses: “A Year in the Life,” “Beverly Hills Buntz,” “Private Eye,” “Aaron’s Way,” “The Highwayman,” “Mama’s Boy,” “Sonny Spoon,” “Day by Day.” 1988-89 Hits: “Dear John,” “Empty Nest,” “Midnight Caller,” “Unsolved Mysteries.” Misses: “Tattingers,” “Something Is Out There,” “Baby Boom,” “Dream Street,” “The Jim Henson Hour” FO Brandon Tartikoff on assessing the viewers: ‘It’s almost like I have an intravenous (tube) into the People Meter system. It’s more of a sickness than a talent.”