Saturday, October 20, 2012

Brandon Tartikoff

I was honored to attend the reception at USC for Brandon Tartikoff last Thursday night. His wife, Lilly donated all of his papers and memorabilia to the university. It was a very cool night. George Lucas was even there. Then I arrived home to find this Friday Question from Bill, so I thought what better time to address it?

(This is) about Brandon Tartikoff, who so many producers/writers/even actors from the 80s seem to recall as a true champion of high-quality television. Did you ever have any dealings with Brandon Tartikoff, and what in your view made him such a "good" network executive, as opposed to the kind that are constantly the butt of jokes today? Did he really have a sixth sense for excellent television, or was he just lucky? And has the industry changed too much for similar execs like him ever to appear again?

I did have personal dealings with Brandon. He even shot hoops in my driveway with me and my son. But to answer your bigger question – what made him so extraordinary was that he hired the best creative people and gave them the freedom to do their thing. And if he believed in you he protected you. He had enough confidence in his own judgment that if a new show was not getting the numbers he stuck with it, reaonsing that the audience would eventually find it. This was true with CHEERS, HILL STREET BLUES, FAMILY TIES, LAW & ORDER and others.

He was so respectful of talent (in front or behind the camera) that even when he passed on your project or cancelled your show, he did it in such a humane way you couldn’t wait to bring your next thing to him.

He never pepper-sprayed you with notes. He never made decisions based solely on research. He never tried to clone other hit shows from competing networks.

He was also accessible. If you had a problem you could call him. In all ways, he made you feel like you were a partner.

Is it possible to have another executive like that in today’s television world? Absolutely. All it takes is someone at the top adopting Brandon’s philosophy. Networks are not obligated to micro-manage every show. And as is ALWAYS the case, the best shows come from the networks that interfere the least. Then it was NBC. Now it’s HBO, SHOWTIME, and AMC.

But it takes someone with courage and a genuine passion for television (not just a passion for financial success).

Was Brandon infallible? No. There were plenty of MAINIMALS along the way. But that’s the price you pay for taking chances.

Certainly luck plays into any programmer’s success, but if the best writers, producers, and directors want to come to you first, the odds of getting the best shows are greatly increased.

I dealt with Brandon on several occasions. My writing partner, David Isaacs and I had a pilot at NBC in 1979. I talked about this in a previous post, but by telling us not to do the notes that other NBC execs had given us, he turned the entire project around.

We had terrible clashes with NBC over casting on that pilot. For the lead we wanted Andrea Martin (then on SCTV) and the NBC casting queen would not approve her. She was lobbying for Toni Tennille. The part was modeled after Gilda Radner.

The series never got on and three years later I’m walking to the stage for the very first CHEERS table reading. Brandon takes me aside and says, “You were right. We should’ve gone with Andrea Martin.”

We then dealt with Brandon all through the run of CHEERS. I remember once him telling all of us not to change things in our show because the ratings were low. Just stay the course. We wanted to kiss him.

I played softball with him a few Sundays. You could strike him out and not fear your show would be cancelled on Monday. And like I said, he was in my neighborhood one day, saw that my son and I were shooting baskets, walked up the driveway, and asked if he could join us.

When people say they’ll always remember someone it’s usually lip service. But a day doesn’t go by when I don’t walk out of my house, see that backboard above the garage, and think of Brandon Tartikoff… and how lucky I was to have known him and worked for him.

26 comments:

VincentS said...

Thanks for that tribute, Ken. And thank you, Mr. Tartikoff - wherever you are - for providing us with such great TV shows.

Http://allfookedup.com said...

Wow...just listening to you talk about the extreme meddling is enough to turn anyone off writing. I wonder if it's possible for the bean counters to take a back seat. We can all count and read graphs but not too many people can be creative.

wackiland said...

Thank you, Ken, for putting words to some of the great things Brandon T. brought to those of us lucky enough to work with him. The donation of his papers to USC has brought up a lot of conversations, reminding me once again of what a wonderful experience it truly was. When I read your blog, it is easy to remember how much more fun and creative it used to be to make TV. Thank you.

Mike Schryver said...

I'd love to see more quality shows, but Ken's remarks remind me of a piece at the end of Bill Carter's book about the Conan kerfuffle.

Lorne Michaels is talking to an NBC exec about quitting in the late '70s, and complaining that NBC is standing in the way of his making a good show. The exec points out that Lorne's contract calls for a certain number of shows at a certain budget, and nowhere does it say they have to be good.

It looks like that attitude might be typical, and Tartikoff was the wonderful exception.

John said...

Was Brandon infallible? No. There were plenty of MAINIMALS along the way. But that’s the price you pay for taking chances.

Even here, Tartikoff was able to make fun of himself, going on Saturday Night Live to do a skit showing him on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan handing out fliers to people urging them to watch MANIMAL (this was also pre-Cosby, so it wasn't as if Brandon's position as programming head of NBC was carved in stone -- the network was still the butt of jokes over being last in the ratings in the wake of the Fred Silverman debacle, so Tartikoff could have simply taken the easy way out and hidden upstairs at Rockefeller Center until the ratings finally turned around).

HCarvalho said...

Ken you should write a post about the book the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.

Kristina said...

Ken, Im sorry this is an off-topic comment about your post, but I felt compelled to tell you I've finish reading your entire blog (on my 19th birthday, no less) and I've learned so much about the television process. I cannot thank you enough.

One question though - earlier this summer someone asked if you had read "Top of the Rock: The Rise and Fall of Must See TV." You said you hadn't had a chance but I was wondering if you've had time to look at it since then. If you have, what are you thoughts about what was said in the book, was an accurate representation of NBC over the last 30 years?

Ken Levine said...

Kristina,

Happy birthday and thanks for reading my blog. I did like Warren's book. And I'm having lunch with him this week to interview him about the book for the blog. So stay tuned for that.

And thanks again.

jcs said...

I read that Tartikoff admitted cancelling "Buffalo Bill" with the great Dabney Coleman was his biggest professional regret.

I am not familiar with the TV industry but I somehow doubt that many top execs freely concede defeat.

Jim McClain said...

Manimal was awesome. I don't care what the ratings said.

Fanimal said...

Jim, were you on Team Jonathan or Team Tyrone?

Mr. Hollywood said...

Tartikoff was the exception to the executive rule. A "mensch"! Just remember that one of those NBC executive geniuses had the first 10 years of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson erased because ..."we needed the space."

Breadbaker said...

Ken:

I started reading this blog when I was pointed to your Dave Niehaus tribute. While many people can do snark well (and you do snark well), there are few who can do compliments in ways that are refreshing and insightful and don't sound like ass-kissing. I think a lot of the humanity that we saw, particularly in M*A*S*H and Cheers comes out when you really want to say something nice about someone. It's interesting to contemplate a world where Brandon Tartikoff could have lived his entire span, and you make us miss him more.

mdv59 said...

Undoubtedly one of the best benefits of being nice to writers is that they are able to write great tributes in your honor once you're gone.

"And I'm having lunch with him this week to interview him about the book for the blog."

To bad you can't bring a long a camera or recorder. It would make a great interview.

Bill said...

Thanks, Ken, for answering my question -- and with an entire post, no less. Truly insightful words about a truly memorable person.

Norm said...

I worked at NBC from 1979-1982. My 2nd year there, I worked in Program Commitments and got to meet Brandon at an "employee" meet-and-greet with executives and talent. (Also met Ron Howard that night).

I could tell immediately that Brandon was one of those rare executives who never forgot he was working with people and not machines.

Brian Doan said...

There's a follow-up to the Bill Carter story you mention: 35 years after he fought for his own show, Lorne Michaels gives an interview at the end of that book, condescending to O'Brien, implicitly defending Leno, and smugly pointing out that O'Brien should have bent to the executives and played ball. Watching another mediocre SNL episode as I type this, the story (and this episode) is a reminder that complacency, numbers-crunching and decline of quality can affect producers as well as TV executives.

Nick said...

" During the last two seasons, when no one in the cast knew their lines, the audience was there for at least three hours because someone goofed up a line every ten seconds. Personally, that was hard to watch. "

FRIDAY QUESTION: What happened those last couple of seasons of Cheers that caused the actors to just give up? And how is it that the quality of the show was just as good right to the end despite this lack of effort on the part of the actors?

Johnny Walker said...

@Nick, from what I've read, I think they didn't try too hard because they didn't have to try too hard. The show was huge, they were all loved characters, very secure in their roles. Plus they'd been doing it for the best part of a decade.

MBunge said...

"And as is ALWAYS the case, the best shows come from the networks that interfere the least. Then it was NBC. Now it’s HBO, SHOWTIME, and AMC."


A downside, however, is the production of narrowly-drawn programs that strongly appeal to narrowly-drawn audiences. For example, the repeat of the season premiere of The Walking Dead got more viewers than that same night's episodes of Dexter and Homeland combined. Again, the repeat immediately following the premiere got more viewers than both Dexter and Homeland combined. And I don't think that's because AMC has got greater market penetration than Showtime.

Mike

Oliver said...

Really enjoyed this post, thanks. Can't wait to read your interview with Littlefield on Top of the Rock.

Sounds like the opposite of what I hear about NBC these days.

Miserable Dreamer said...

NBC sounds like most giant corporations nowadays - micromanaging everything to the nth degree. My last job, we couldn't get a form approved without a handful of different managers reviewing it, taking it to committees, and debating over every semicolon, capitalization, and line spacing.

croquemore said...

@mbunge. I'm not sure you can say the numbers aren't reflective of market penetration. AMC is available in 90 million homes. Showtime about 22 million. Television as a medium has become narrowly drawn to focus on specific audiences. The reason is there is a demand for it. Look at all the niche cable networks. One reason, in addition to less network interference is that most cable shows only have 10-12 episodes. That's half of a big 4 network series. But what I personally think it does is force writers producers actors etc to make the best damn 10 or 12 episodes they can. And because a series airs once for 3 months out of 12 those shows become appointment television I.e. must see tv etc. that we don't get from the networks now. To butcher a great line from steel magnolias. I'd rather have 12 episodes of wonderful than 24 of nothing special at all.

Robin Raven said...

Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing that with us. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Breadbaker! You do snark AND wonderful tributes so very well. Thank you for continuing to share with us. Julie

Bill said...

1GenipstWith regard to editing of films, I wish we had a "truth in labeling" rule. The standard "This film has been modified" disclaimer does not give me enough information to decide whether or not I want to watch this version. They should be required to state the exact number of minutes removed and for what reason.