Coming Up From Nowhere

  • The lead-off batter is Brandon Tartikoff, a sharp-fielding spray hitter in his sixth season as president of NBC Entertainment and third baseman on the company softball team. As Tartikoff steps to the plate against the Warner Bros. squad, a giant radio in the bleachers begins to blast out the driving theme song from Miami Vice. Inspired, Tartikoff slaps a double, leading NBC to a four-run inning. The team's "music manager" puckishly announces that all who have not hit safely must henceforth bat to the somewhat less blood- quickening theme from Punky Brewster.

    At their weekend softball games in Burbank, Calif., as in their offices nearby, Tartikoff and his NBC crew radiate the highly competitive, slightly giddy elan of a Cinderella team, up from nowhere to challenge the league leader. They have every reason to feel peacocky. After running dead last in ) prime-time audience ratings for nine years, NBC since September '84 has scrambled to within a tenth of a rating point of the dominant network, CBS, in that arcane but widely accepted Nielsen yardstick of "television homes." For those who count heads rather than houses, NBC leads in the number of viewers: 24.9 million to CBS's 23.2 million and ABC's 22.3 million, according to Nielsen. NBC also delivers more of Madison Avenue's prized target audience, the 18-49 age group; here ABC is second and CBS last. Says Joel Segal, executive vice president for broadcasting at Ted Bates Advertising: "By the standards of practically any advertiser NBC is No. 1."

    The networks make money by selling viewers, in bulk and by demographics, to advertisers; NBC has done this so successfully that, since Grant Tinker was named chairman of the network in 1981, an estimated $5 million of red ink has been alchemized into a projected $200 million profit for 1985. But what has NBC sold viewers on? Mostly a feast of slick weekly series in three broad categories: the traditional situation comedy, led by last season's phenom The Cosby Show (2nd in the yearlong Nielsen ratings to CBS's Dallas) and including Family Ties (3rd), Cheers (9th), Night Court (19th) and The Facts of Life (24th); a quartet of red-meat adventure shows, from The A-Team (6th) and Riptide (12th) to Miami Vice (33rd, with a bullet); and three Emmy-laden hours from Tinker's old production company, MTM Enterprises. Hill Street Blues (31st), St. Elsewhere (52nd) and Remington Steele (21st) may not woo the Nielsen families, but they wow the yup-scale viewers every advertiser covets. They have helped establish NBC's reputation as a Bloomingdale's among networks, the class act of mass-market TV.

    This summer the former doormat network found itself in a record hot streak: 14 consecutive weeks as No. 1. But Tinker cautions, "That's not to be confused with winning in the fall, when the new season starts, but it's a lot better to win 14 than to lose 14. It suggests that nothing has come off our fastball lately. To fall back in the new season, we'd have to have another of our historic collapses. And I just don't see it." If momentum means as much to a network's success as it does to a baseball team's, then NBC is wellfixed for the prime-time pennant race. This summer viewers got steamed up over Miami Vice, which found a regular perch among the top ten shows. Moviegoers made a bimedia star of Family Ties' Michael J. Fox, whose Back to the Future and Teen Wolf were the biggest box-office winners of the past two weeks. Fox could be the first teen throb since John Travolta to commute between a sitcom and movie stardom. Just another lightning stroke of NBC luck.

    To add muscle and luster to the new season's prime-time competition, which promises to be the tightest in years, NBC has lured the executive producer of Back to the Future, Steven Spielberg, to mastermind a suspense anthology series called Amazing Stories. With Hollywood's alltime hitmaker anchoring the Sunday night lineup, and with a flock of summer comers, Tinker figures that "this fall may be the time when NBC blows right by everybody." Tartikoff seems energized by the thrill of the chase. "In the past," he says, "every time a show bit the dust, you figured you'd be joining it. This kind of pressure is easier."

    One pressure valve is self-mocking humor, long an NBC staple. On his Late Night hour, David Letterman has provoked "feuds" with NBC stars Mr. T and Today's Bryant Gumbel. Among Letterman's supporting comedy cast is a silver- haired gent who purports to be one "Grant Tinker"; he recently celebrated NBC's No. 1 status by offering lunch money to habitues of the network commissary. The real Brandon Tartikoff, who has been host on Saturday Night Live, will play himself next week on a comedy special called Bob Hope Buys NBC?--a needling joke in itself, since NBC was the only network that did not have to concern itself with a serious takeover threat in 1985. Tartikoff can even joke about the "downside" of the Miami Vice whirlwind: "It has encouraged a lot of middle-aged men with potbellies to start wearing pastel Armani jackets over T shirts, and for that I'm eternally sorry."

    As recently as 1981, only outsiders (and Johnny Carson) were cracking jokes about NBC. An air of frantic desperation hung over the place as then Chairman Fred Silverman threw onto his schedule, and then pulled off, one expensive flop after another. To the savviest TV producers, "it was as if NBC didn't exist," recalls Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties). "We didn't go there with an idea, because we knew it would be crucified." Silverman, who had earned a reputation as a programming wunderkind at CBS and then ABC earlier in the '70s, was also scalded by the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, which left him with $34 million worth of dead summer air. Moreover, there was turmoil at the top of NBC's parent corporation, RCA: three presidents and four chairmen within a decade. It was not until the fifth chairman, Thornton Bradshaw, hired Tinker to run NBC in July 1981 that hope and trust were restored to the network. Says Steven Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues had been spawned by Silverman and produced by Tinker: "The day Grant went to NBC, the industry's attitude toward that network changed profoundly, overnight."

    In the week of his accession, Tinker outlined his master plan: "Try to attract to NBC the best creative people, make them comfortable, give them whatever help they need, and then get the hell out of the way." It surprised no one that Tinker, who would be cast as a noble Senator if Hollywood still made movies about noble Senators, proved to be a man of his word. But two funny things happened: his plan worked, to NBC's profit as well as its honor, and it was implemented by Brandon Tartikoff. At the time, Tartikoff was thought to be Silverman's Silverman: a hard-driving guy with a passion for the lowest common denominator. But as Tinker and Tartikoff discussed the multidimensional chessboard of prime-time scheduling, they realized they saw eye to eye on many things, especially the need to lure the handful of producers who could set NBC on the high road to success. In the process, according to Goldberg, "Grant brought out the best in Brandon, as an executive and as a man." Now 36, Tartikoff has become Tinker's tinkerer.

    Tartikoff is both a master and a child of the medium. Son of a Long Island clothing manufacturer, young Brandon split his spare time between playing baseball and critiquing TV shows. At Yale, where he was graduated with a B.A. in English, he took tutorials with Novelist Robert Penn Warren. Called upon one day to analyze a D.H. Lawrence story, Tartikoff suggested, "Wouldn't it be better if the girl had first seen the guy over here in his other setting, and then met the other person over there?" As Tartikoff recalls the incident, "He stared at me for a moment and said, 'Have you ever thought of going into television?' He was serious."

    So was Tartikoff. He took a job at a New Haven TV station, while playing semipro baseball for the New Haven Braves. Soon he was at Chicago's WLS-TV, run by Lew Erlicht, who introduced him to Fred Silverman. From Erlicht (now president of ABC Entertainment), Tartikoff picked up programming smarts; from Silverman, he learned the importance of loving TV. Even today Tartikoff can rhapsodize about his job as if he were a kid who has just been deeded the - candy store. "In movies," he says, "unless you make E.T., you reach maybe as many people as watched a TV show that got canceled last week. With television there's something wonderful in knowing that, if you hit, 50 million people are watching and enjoying what you've done. Wherever you go--on the street, in a restaurant, at a party--you hear about it. And that shared experience is so exciting."

    Four years ago, Tartikoff had few viewers with whom to share the experience. Hill Street Blues may be the finest dramatic series American TV has produced, but in 1981 it was a glorious anomaly on NBC's schedule. "It was also the very first show whose demographics were young, urban and upscale," Tartikoff says. "Consequently, nobody saw it, because the other 21 hours of NBC's prime time had mostly rural appeal and skewed older. Its lead-in shows were utterly incompatible; first Walking Tall, then B.J. and the Bear. If you can find one person in America who actually watched all three shows, we should give him a Hill Street jacket or something."

    Tartikoff set about devising a compatible, competitive schedule from the rubble of Silverman's legacy. It was no simple task. As Media Analyst Anthony Hoffman points out, "The producer of a TV series wants to get on the air, get a hit, keep it on long enough to have 120 episodes" that can be lucratively syndicated to local stations. But a new show is unlikely to become a hit on a network in shambles. Further, as Tartikoff notes, "a producer coming to NBC knew he might have to run against Dallas or The Love Boat. That's part of the problem of being last--you don't get to bat against your own pitching. There was one thing we could offer good producers, though: that they could make the show they wanted to make." That promise applied to Steven Bochco in 1981 even as it does today to Steven Spielberg. "I started my career directing TV," Spielberg says, "and my shows were often changed by the networks in ways I didn't like. When I returned to TV, I wanted the same freedom I have in feature films. NBC gave me those assurances, and they've been true to their word."

    From the beginning, Tinker made the equally enticing promise that NBC would give the audience time to find good new shows. That patience was frequently tested in Tinker's first two years. Before it won eight Emmys in September 1981, Hill Street regularly dwelled in the lowest-rating's precinct. During the fall of 1982, Cheers was dead last, and Co-Producer Les Charles wondered % if "maybe we should call NBC and tell them it'll get better. Instead we got calls from Brandon saying, 'Don't worry. We'll give it time.' " Soon after Family Ties made its debut, Tartikoff found himself slinking into Tinker's office: "I'd say, 'Family Ties just got a 16 share, and the renewal notice is up this week and we won't get to see another rating before we have to renew or cancel.' And he'd say, 'Brandon! Is the show still good? Do you think the ratings are going to improve? Then pick it up.' " Tinker insists there was no altruism in his strategy. "You're spending less money," he notes, "when you stick with the stuff you bought in the first place." As it happened, NBC's quality shows, however low-rated, were attracting what advertisers call a quality audience. Mad. Ave. ad mavens were discovering that a rule long applied to magazines--that 1,000 New Yorker readers are more valuable than 1,000 National Enquirer readers--made sense in prime time as well. Says Tartikoff: "When you pull a tab on the St. Elsewhere audience, you find that many of them don't watch any other entertainment show on network TV. They're well-educated, well-paid people whom certain advertisers are eager to reach because they can't be reached in these numbers anywhere else on TV. So we can make a very good living off St. Elsewhere even though it earns only a 24 share."

    Demographics pay off. Last season Hill Street's rating was about 13% lower than that of its CBS competition, Knots Landing, yet both sold a 30-sec. commercial slot for about $200,000. And while viewing of all network programming declined by 4% in 1984-85, NBC increased its share of the 18-to-49 group by 10%. NBC also benefited from the shrinking of the network audience --15% since 1980. The threshold for ratings success was shrinking, thus giving shows with more specialized appeal a fighting chance for survival.

    By 1982 NBC was revving up its Rolls-Royce schedule, but its financial graph was strictly De Lorean. A quick hit was in order, and Tartikoff lucked into it at the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney title bout in Las Vegas, where he saw Mr. T, fresh from Rocky III, monopolizing the crowd's attention. Back in Los Angeles, Tartikoff penned a legendary proposal to Producer Stephen Cannell: "Road Warrior, Magnificent Seven, Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible, all rolled into one, and Mr. T drives the car." Cannell cobbled up The A-Team, which won a 40 share in its first season and pulled hard-to-find adult male viewers back to prime time.

    In the 1983-84 season, NBC introduced nine series, all of which were canceled. Worse, most of the shows were about as sophisticated as a mud- trucking derby. "The saddest kind of failure," says Tartikoff, "is when you aim low and miss. At least when you aim higher and miss, you can hide behind your target and say, 'It's the audience's fault.' " Fortunately for Tartikoff, one night in the dead of that bleak winter his baby daughter was crying, and Dad decided to keep Mom company. He switched on The Tonight Show, where Dr. William H. Cosby, Ed.D. (U. Mass.) was telling a story about middle- aged parents trying to instruct their kids in the facts of life. Next morning, Tartikoff phoned Cosby's agent and floated yet another of his brainstorming haiku: "A black Family Ties." The following autumn The Cosby Show became the first sitcom smash since Mork & Mindy in 1978, cemented NBC's Thursday-night schedule, and propelled the network toward No. 1.

    Can NBC grab that laurel this season? Tinker and Tartikoff are pinning many of their hopes on Amazing Stories, which is slotted on Sundays at 8 p.m. against CBS's Top Ten sleuth game, Murder, She Wrote. Traditionally, notes Tinker, "people go to CBS for 60 Minutes, and many of them just sit there all night long, through some rather indifferent programming. With Amazing Stories we're asking them to get up and change that dial. And if we do hear the thunder of dials across the land, the whole face of Sunday night will change, because maybe they won't come back to CBS." NBC is spending about $800,000 per half hour--twice the budget of an ordinary show--and has committed to 44 episodes, or two years on the schedule. As Spielberg notes wryly, "Amazing Stories means a lot of money to NBC--a lot of money going out, so far." Says Tartikoff: "If it fails, it will be an expensive failure. But if we capture viewers at 8 o'clock, it will be a major and very profitable victory."

    Amazing Stories takes prime-time TV not so much back to the future as forward to the '50s, when series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone invited viewers on a different adventure of the imagination each week. Because Spielberg has enlisted such directors as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, Paul Bartel and Peter Hyams (Mr. E.T. will direct two of his own the first season), each of the Stories promises a distinctive style. Hyams' episode boasts sepulchral lighting and tension as taut as piano * wire; Bartel's is a slapstick black comedy; Spielberg's two shows are wistful parables about death as creative transcendence. Each offers a unique frisson, to be relived on Monday morning at the playground or around the water cooler.

    Therein lies the daunting challenge that Amazing Stories faces. Prime-time series attract loyal viewers by their familiarity, not by offering a vagrant astonishment each week. The operative word-of-mouth phrase is "you ought to see," not "you should have seen." Amazing Stories has no continuing characters, tone or stars--not even a regular host, like Hitchcock or Rod Serling. Viewers may prefer to settle in with Angela Lansbury's rumpled caginess in Murder, She Wrote instead of taking a chance with the faceless brilliance of the Spielberg series.

    Harvey Shephard, the CBS programming chief who preferred to retool The Twilight Zone rather than take a chance on Spielberg's anthology of original stories, is convinced that Amazing Stories is actually his network's secret weapon. Shephard predicts "a high initial tune-in sample" of the NBC show, followed by a return to tele firma. And if that does not happen, all CBS has to do is contrive to let a Sunday-afternoon N.F.L. broadcast run overtime, thus pushing 60 Minutes back by ten or 15 minutes, and 60 Minutes loyalists will miss the first half of an Amazing story. That is precisely the tactic CBS used to shoot down ABC's Mork & Mindy when that hit show challenged the CBS Sunday lineup in 1979.

    NBC can hardly be faulted for encouraging Hollywood's top talent to put big visions onto the small screen. Nor can the NBC brass be accused of gambling everything on one show. The network's other new series, including Hell Town, starring Robert Blake as a vigilante priest, and the highly touted sitcom The Golden Girls, have decent shots at survival. So do any number of new entries on the competing networks' rosters. Tartikoff, one of whose ten TV commandments is the famous "All hits are flukes," is sanguine about the immediate future. "We won't be surprised," he says, "if CBS and ABC, even by sheer luck or by stepping in it, come up with a Cosby-size hit. In that case, we'll just have to regroup--and for the past three years we've been pretty good at scrambling."

    Because NBC's prime-time schedule is the most stable of the networks', Tartikoff has time to devote to the rest of the broadcast day. The Today show, the most bracing of the three sunrise coffee klatches, has mounted a strong assault on longtime ratings champ Good Morning America at ABC, while the CBS Morning News continues to flounder with the abrupt departures of Anchors Bill Kurtis and, last week, Phyllis George. The Saturday-morning kidvid schedule remains No. 1. Carson is still king of late-night, and Letterman the hippest of clown princes. Only daytime is a slum for profits when it could be a gold mine; ABC's supremacy with its afternoon soaps helps it lead NBC in total network profits, despite the tailspin ABC has taken in the evening. Recently, NBC's afternoon schedule has begun to mimic the NBC prime time of the early '80s: its ratings are still abysmal, but its share of women in the 18 to 49 age group now rivals CBS's. Each week Tartikoff hosts a "Santa Barbara lunch," in which he and his staff watch the network's newest soap and discuss how it and other daytime fare can be improved. Tinker knows habits die hard among the soap watchers. "It's like turning an ocean liner around," he says.

    One suspects that the two Mr. T's will accomplish this feat; they have worked miracles enough in prime time. The trust they lavished on producers has resulted in fruitful relationships. Tartikoff is especially well liked because he participates fully in a show's creation, unlike the committee that runs CBS. ABC has more severe problems. Lew Erlicht strikes the flagellant's pose when discussing last year's flop shows: "We had to ask ourselves in each case, 'Why did this show fail?' And usually the answer was: 'It stinks.' " As for ABC Broadcast Group President Tony Thomopoulos, Analyst Hoffman maintains that he "went Hollywood" when he took over. "That is a critical mistake," Hoffman says of Thomopoulos' style. "The production community in Hollywood likes to feel that they're the dazzlers. Tartikoff is smart enough not to compete. Compared to Thomopoulos, he's just an average slob who does his job and does it well."

    The "average slob" maintains a sense of humor about his good fortune. "Sure, it's different," he admits. "Where last year I'd have seats in the left-field stands, now I have seats in the center-field stands." And at his weekend softball games, almost everyone stops by for a "Hi, Brandon." Between innings on a recent Saturday, an NBC secretary brought her little Sarah to meet Tartikoff. "Sarah, this is Mr. Brandon," she said. "Do you know who he is? Do you remember the dog named Brandon on Punky Brewster? Well, this is the man he's named after." Unimpressed, Sarah stuffed the hem of her dress into her mouth and turned back toward the action on the field.