Saturday, October 20, 2012
(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.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM