It was the sort of not-so-hard news conference where NBC Board Chairman Grant Tinker was asked if he'd seen "Mary," the new CBS sitcom starring his ex-wife, Mary Tyler Moore. He had, he said, "and I think it's very good." One scribe persisted.
How would Tinker feel if "Mary" did what it has yet to do--beat NBC's "Highway to Heaven" in the first half-hour of the Wednesday-night time slot in which they do battle?
Tinker smiled gamely. "Well, I'd be very happy for her," he said Sunday. "But I'd say to Brandon, 'Do something about that.' "
(Brandon is NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, who was scheduled to meet the press on Monday and, no doubt, discussed why NBC, for the first time since the halcyon season of 1954, appears likely to emerge No. 1 in prime-time ratings this season.)
Although regarded in some quarters as sort of a modern-day Moses who has led the children of NBC out of the Nielsen desert, Tinker declined to take credit for NBC's improved fortunes, as befits his reputation as an executive of good taste and modesty.
"We're not that far ahead," he also cautioned during his session at the Century Plaza Hotel with out-of-town TV writers. All are here for the three networks' biannual displays of new programs, stars and executives.
There was the inevitable question of how General Electric's proposed $6.28-billion takeover of RCA will affect NBC, which the latter company owns. Tinker repeated what he said last month when the proposal was announced.
"I don't think anything will change," he said, asserting that GE will have the same hands-off policy that he said RCA has had with NBC. Tinker also reiterated that he doesn't think GE executives will involve themselves with NBC's entertainment and news divisions:
"I would be just struck dumb--or fired, as the case may be--if they were to get any closer to NBC than RCA (executives) have been."
On another front, Tinker again voiced his support of NBC News' new "American Almanac" newsmagazine series, which is joining the network's prime-time roster on a weekly basis on March 4 when it starts appearing in a Tuesday-night time slot.
Aware that a string of past NBC News series has flopped in prime time, he acknowledged that the ratings so far for "Almanac" as a monthly offering have been low, "but we didn't expect it to go through the roof, and I am very committed to it."
He conceded that if NBC had not enjoyed ratings success this season "it would be harder for us to take the depressing ratings effect of 'Almanac'--which is certain to happen as we begin."
However, he added, NBC "would measure it by a different yardstick" and, even if the program's ratings are low, would leave it on longer than it would an entertainment show with similarly low Nielsens.
His support seemed somewhat less solid for NBC's satirical "Saturday Night Live," which, now in its 11th season with producer Lorne Michaels back at the helm, has drawn fire from critics as a show whose time has come and gone.
Saying that he has only seen two "SNL" episodes this season, Tinker said of the show: "It's OK. It's a hard job to keep a show like that fresh and alive. . . . I'd like to give it the benefit of the doubt for a little while."
Several seasons ago, NBC still was struggling to escape from the Nielsen cellar whither it had plunged during the reign of Fred Silverman. At that time, Tinker, who took over from Silverman in July, 1981, brooded aloud then that perhaps he'd been too optimistic in thinking that audiences really wanted quality programs.
But now, with NBC enjoying both critical acclaim and good ratings for such shows as Bill Cosby's hit sitcom and the likes like of "Miami Vice," "Family Ties" and "St. Elsewhere," NBC's chief declared his depression a thing of the past.
"I think there's reason," he said, "to be encouraged that if you do something good and stay with it long enough . . . that you will succeed."