The May ratings "sweeps" are under way, bringing with them the usual programming frenzy as networks and local stations scramble to produce big numbers that in turn will generate big advertising revenue. For NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, however, the pressure is off.
Under his leadership, NBC already has won the official prime-time television season. The win was NBC's second in a row, and an easy victory. NBC's audience levels were up 2% over the previous season, while ABC's and CBS' were down 5% each.
Sweetest of all for Tartikoff, he did it without Grant Tinker.
After five years as chairman, Tinker left last June to return to independent TV production. He was replaced by Robert C. Wright, a 43-year-old executive in NBC's parent company, General Electric, which took over NBC in 1986.
The departure broke up a winning team: Grant Tinker, 61, and Brandon Tartikoff, 38, president of NBC Entertainment--the duo responsible for bringing NBC, a dismal third in the prime-time ratings in 1981, out of the doldrums and into the lead.
Tinker was more than just an employer to Tartikoff. Tartikoff had begun his career at NBC in 1978, becoming the boy-wonder president of the entertainment division in 1981. Six months later, Tinker was installed at the network helm in place of Fred Silverman. Tartikoff, known then as Silverman's protege, became Tinker's disciple.
As NBC climbed in the ratings with such critically acclaimed shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers," "Family Ties" and the No. 1 hit "The Cosby Show," the names Tinker and Tartikoff became synonymous with quality television. Moreover, they made a charming pair who were always at their witty best before the press--the only executive comedy team in town.
Now Tartikoff finally has center stage to himself.
"I was Fred Silverman's protege, and then I was Grant Tinker's boy. My parents were very jealous: They thought I was their boy," he said. "It is gratifying to stand in the spotlight alone. It has been gratifying to try to fill the vacuum or void left by Grant, and it's a very big void."
Tartikoff still plays tennis with Tinker--even though Tinker has agreed to launch the first shows produced by his new production company on CBS, not NBC. "I miss him, as anyone who has ever worked with him would miss him," Tartikoff said. "But I think he's proud of what we've done. And I think the spirit of that regime, that led NBC from third to first, has been maintained."
Indeed, speculation ran high that the network could lose its image as the home of quality programming when Wright, a hard-line businessman, took the reins from Tinker. Tinker, noted for his hands-off relationship with program producers, was willing to allow quality shows with initially
low ratings time to develop. Would Wright do the same?
Tartikoff said that, so far, despite rumors to the contrary, it's business as usual at Bob Wright's NBC.
"Basically, it has been pretty smooth sailing," Tartikoff said. "The mandate from GE has been: 'We bought NBC because it has been a winner, and what can we do to help you do the job?' There hasn't been a lot of interference.
"What he (Wright) has done is brought a healthy perspective . . . (about) how we can keep this business vital, and more economical if possible. I think any budget can be cut, as long as you're just trimming the fat and not cutting into the muscle."
NBC plans to concentrate on trimming the fat from daytime programming, the only area in which it is not a ratings winner, Tartikoff said.
He has lots of ideas. As an alternative to game shows and soaps, the network is considering five-day-a-week comedy programming. It is also considering mixing daytime programming with "bursts of information," in what Tartikoff describes as a "radio-like format."
"In daytime, we're looking at going for the best writers and producers almost at all costs, just like we did in prime time," he said. Nor are NBC's daytime plans restricted to weekdays. The network will launch a Sunday installment of the "Today" show in September and is boosting the amount of programming done for children on Saturday mornings.
And Tartikoff does not write off broadening the Saturday-morning audience: "Moses did not come down from the mount and say, 'Thou shalt program children's cartoons on Saturday morning," he said.
In prime time, Tartikoff believes a balance between high- and low-budget programming can be maintained without sacrificing quality. Although he contends that expensive shows such as "Miami Vice" pay for themselves in the long run, he said it is important to make sure that not all new dramatic series become "high-priced, high-ticket items."
One new fall show probably will be a high-ticket item, however: a new 1950s detective series from "Miami Vice" creator Tony Yerkovich, tentatively titled "Private Eye" and designed in part to attract the same audience as NBC's recently cancelled "Hill Street Blues." The network will be announcing its fall lineup Wednesday.