Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to fix television

WARNING: This is another rant from one of those old school cranky comedy writers.

Networks today are more hands-on. Showrunners need approval for everything, from story notions to day players to set dressing. My question is: what was wrong with the Grant Tinker template?

Grant Tinker, along with his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore, started MTM Enterprises in 1970. Beginning with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Tinker built a dynasty of top notch, high rated, quality shows. How did he do it?

By hiring the best creative people (from writers to wardrobe) and then staying out of the way to let them do their jobs. I was at MTM for a short while and it was truly Camelot.

The best writers in town wanted to work at MTM. Grant Tinker let you do your thing. He ran interference with the networks. He surrounded you with great talent. He encouraged you to strive for excellence, not commercial pandering. He never gave script notes. He never saw outlines. He was never in casting sessions for waiters who had two lines. He never dictated who you had to hire.

And for the most part, his shows turned out great. From THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to THE BOB NEWHART SHOW to HILLSTREET BLUES, and six or seven in between, MTM was not only a beacon of quality, it was churning out ratings winners.

The truth is we MTM writers didn’t need network notes to keep us all staying late. We were tougher on ourselves than they would have been. We all took great pride in the product and worked tirelessly. And at the end of the day when the result was something we were proud of and the network was proud to air, everybody won. Advertisers were happy, viewers were happy.

Grant Tinker left MTM in the early ‘80s to run NBC and instituted the same game plan. As a result, shows like CHEERS, FAMILY TIES, HILLSTREET BLUES, and COSBY turned the peacock around from last to first in only a few short years.

Why can’t a network employ this policy today? I mean, it’s not like the current model is working. Network sitcoms are drawing miniscule numbers. The only ones that have drawn decent ratings the last few years are shows by Chuck Lorre, Larry David, Chris Lloyd & Steve Levitan, and Phil Rosenthal – producers who have earned a certain amount of autonomy. Are networks so panicked that they feel they can’t relinquish control of anything? Are showrunners no longer to be trusted with selecting actors who only have one line? Do seven people have to approve every outline?

Television comedy was in a golden age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, primarily due to upper management types like Grant Tinker. I’m quite sure there’s a current crop of writers who are every bit as talented and original and dedicated as we were in that age. Let them fly. Give them room. See what they could do. You have nothing to lose. Sitcoms are getting a 1 share. You’re never going to get chicken salad out of chicken Suburgatory.

Don’t tinker. Think Grant Tinker.

49 comments:

C. Warren Dale said...

Sadly, the best advice is usually obvious, proven, and widely ignored.

Ken, my friend and I are going to be entering the Comedy Playground and I was wondering if you had any advice about how to structure the pitch video? We have ideas for show-running as well as the premise of the series -- is that something we should mention to demonstrate that we're the "full package", so to speak, or is it presumptuous and a waste of time that should be left to discussing the show? Any advice you have would be great, thanks!

Cheers,
Dale

Mike Barer said...

I don't know if you can put the "genie" back into the bottle.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Please read "Creativity Inc." by Ed Catmull to see how Pixar did it and still does it.

This situation had its roots in the "CEO as celebrity" phase in the '80s, which led to layers of middle management organizational matrixes in the '90s -- entire departments devoted to it.

When Catmull, Lasseter and their team joined with Disney, they had to get rid of such a department: the "overseers," who were brought in to control costs but made it their business to question every creative detail, no matter how small.

The overseers were seen to the door, or to HR for reassignment.

This level of change is most effective when it comes from the top -- folks like Tinker. But if the people at the top today would listen to the front line people, they might consider another way to get things done, in a more efficient and higher quality manner.

It just takes time, but there's always hope. Many of these people are not dumb, they just get locked into the "we've always done it this way" mode and are wary of change that might upset what seems to work for them and their management (some of them know it does not, but can't find a way to solve it).

I've worked for execs who deliberately broke what needed fixing in order to make it their own, even when nothing was really broken. In the case of TV, it's time to fix what's broken as technology comes like a snowball toward the status quo.

Scooter Schechtman said...

What a gyp. I came here for a rant and instead find a bunch of well-reasoned, impassioned blah blah blah.
What I wanted to see was "The Cosby Show sucked! It was stilted, stuffy and condescending!"

Andy P. said...

But how much of the miniscule ratings can be attributed to vastly increased competition? More cable channels, more streaming options... Hell, there are homemade shows on Youtube that I'd pit against a lot of sitcoms I'm seeing these days. (Which may further your argument to stay out of the creatives' way, granted.)

I don't disagree with you. Top notch creative people with minimal to no interference from number crunchers will always produce an infinitly superior product. I'm just saying that poor ratings aren't always an indicator of quality (as you know, given the ratings of CHEERS in its first year). Today, I feel poor ratings are more a sign of too many other project vying for the public's attention. We need to re-imagine what "good" ratings are. (Actually, we need to make EVERY house a Nielsen house. The technology exists. I would really love to see how those numbers compare with the traditional sampling.)

Jeannie said...

I wrote a press kit for "Cheers" one season and interviewed Grant Tinker. I believe he answered his own phone when I called, and couldn't have been more gracious or professional. Not a whiff of "I am a TV legend" attitude. Just a guy who wanted to make great television.

Aaron Sheckley said...

This is why, at least at the moment, internet and cable are going to be the only refuge for any sort of originality and quality. After all, no-talent management types are making obscene amounts of money for doing the job exactly as they are doing right now....so what would be the motivation to change? As long as creative people are viewed as sheep, (and worse yet, are still willing to continue contributing to an industry that values them less than they do the craft services people), there will be no reason to change. I'd like to see a mass strike on the part of the writers' union to wrest creative control away from the management types, but that's certainly not going to happen. That would merely result in even more nauseating reality TV.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "Television comedy was in a golden age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, primarily due to upper management types like Grant Tinker."

And, as it happens (and, of course, Ken, as you know), during that era there was also an ichthyological manifestation know as FinSyn.

Without FinSyn, Grant Tinker still would have been who he was as a person and as a visionary, but (for starters) would he have been at NBC?

This is a terribly-mixed-metaphor (unless you're a network), but my hunch is that Smallpox is more likely to make a return in the next 100 years than is FinSyn.

In any event, Ken, I don't know enough about the business to know if it's possible to create a situation comparable to the one in the 70s and 80s that you rightly praise - without the dynamic that was generated by FinSyn.

OTOH, even if FinSyn did return, the other end of the TV - where the eyeballs reside (or don't) - is a very different place, too. And it would be tough to say if the 70s and 80s environment of TV viewers could ever be recreated. Whether it's "build it and they will come" or some version of ex post hoc ergo propter hoc (i.e., as to how/why TV sitcoms are now where they are), it's tough to say that "a Grant Tinker" at a network today would give us something comparable to what the real Grant Tinker did.

All that said, I agree with your rant. Though, its tone is a little-less ranty than usual. You might want to check with your doctor, to see if you may be suffering from a condition known as "Low R".

Igor said...


Ken wrote: "Don’t tinker. Think Grant Tinker."

Sounds like a reelection campaign slogan. From the 50s or 60s.

I think our 18th President's reelection slogan was:

"Don't take a chance and evers tinker with Grant."

Tim W. said...

Wow. For some reason I had never before heard of Grant Tinker. Thanks for filling people like myself in.

Igor said...

And, of course, back in the late 1800s, reelecting someone to public office was called "a double play."

Anonymous said...

It isn't just in television. Hyper-managing, super controlling, micromanaging, what ever you want to call it...it is everywhere. I have a boss who has no broad knowledge of the database we use trying to tell me how to do my job that I've had for 10 years. I work in a college bookstore and I see helicopter parents taking over for their kids. I actually had one mother take her finger, put it to my chin and turn my face to talk to her instead of her 18 year old son...the STUDENT. We are quickly becoming a society of non-thinkers because no one will be able to use critical thinking skills on their own.

Sorry, lol. One of my hot button, I guess.

Pam aka sisterzip

emily said...

"Fortunately I keep my feathers numbered for, for just such an emergency"

Donald said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: I never much cared for Jean Kasem as Loretta on "Cheers," but did she seem to you like someone who would allegedly spirit her gravely ill husband out of the country?

peterg said...

Tinker, the best there ever was. What a pleasure it was and is to know him.

MikeBo said...

Ken, it's not just television. This bureaucratic mindset now permeates most of the American business model. Over the years I've worked in a variety of business models. Fortunately, on a few occasions I've worked for people like Grant Tinker. The theory there is to hire the very best people you can find, pay them well and then get the hell out of their way and let them do their jobs. On the other end of the scale is the corporation or bureaucratic mindset, where there are endless meetings and individuals are drones who can make only collective decisions. The very worst of these for me was the state government job that I had. My title was Assistant Director, but, I could never take any action without the buy in of the other 11 members of our management team. It's the most important reason people hate government workers and why the Tea Party wants to dismantle government. Savor those times at MTM, my friend. We shall never pass that way again.

VP81955 said...

The '70s and '80s TV environment increasingly reminds me of that for '30s and '40s movies -- truly mass entertainment, yet produced on as high a level as possible, for the most part run by executives who knew to leave well enough alone. The micro-managers and suits hadn't yet come on the scene.

Alas, both TV and movies today are run by the equivalents of Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder (or the '80s George Steinbrenner) -- know-it-alls with plenty of bombast whose meddling always proves their undoing.

Vincent said...

He never gave script notes? That ALONE earns this man a place in Aritsts' Heavan!

Aaron Hazouri said...

I've been teaching elementary school art lately, and the micromanagement bureaucracy mindset has extended to the world of education (and this after spending a decade in the corporate world where that mindset seems to have originated). Was it Frank Zappa who talked about the cigar-chomping old guys who would just give anything a shot, versus the newer record label guys who thought they "understood music" and started making lousy decisions?

Scooter Schechtman said...

Aaron Hazouri: You're on Facebook and must be well aware of teachers getting busted for...well, anything the bureacratic mindset finds objectionable. "Who are the Brain Police?"

mmryan314 said...

@Aaron Hazouri- I'm glad you brought up education. I was a classroom teacher for many years.I was quite successful in drawing out less motivated students too with my antics. A few years before I retired I began to have to attend seminars and inservices presented by 24 year old administrators who had never been in front of a classroom. I hung up the gradebook after one seminar entitled " Managing Classroom Behavior" was presented by an administrator who couldn't even manage his audience. Ridiculousness crosses many lines.

Cunningham said...

The problem with TV today is the incestuous relationship between networks and production co.'s. Networks used to not own production co's so there was a wall of separation -- now networks think because they own the company making the program they have a greater say in what goes on, even though what they say isn't helpful.

thomas tucker said...

Interesting to read these comments about micromanaging, which I also see increasingly in the worold of medicine. Perhaps it's because micromanaging makes things safer. But what you gain in safety, you lose in creativity.

DBenson said...

I recall something by Frank Zappa, saying the great days in rock were when record company execs were all geezers who knew they were geezers, asking the kids in the mailroom what they liked and going with that. Zappa felt the trouble began with the arrival of Young Turks in expensive suits who felt THEY were the now generation, and consequently the authorities.

RockGolf said...

KEN: I hope you've seen that Salon article asking why the 10th anniversary of Frasier hasn't received as much attention as the same anniversary of Mean Girls and Friends.
The article itself is pompous dog vomit, but the top comments will make your day.
I've set a link to the article in my signature.

Johnny Walker said...

Sounds like great advice. Is the problem that a lot of executives are too afraid for their jobs? Or is it that their frustrated creative types? I'm sure there's plenty who read this blog (or at least this post), so come on... tell us!

To be a good executive (or manager at any level) I think you have to be able to genuinely recognize talent. I've no idea why this is so hard for people, but I think that's the first hurdle.

Then, convinced of their talent, you need to make sure you have the same vision (ie. they're not just out to destroy everything -- they want the same thing you do).

And then you let them be. Right?

It seems all the most successful things in the world come from a singular vision (or through underhanded business bullying, I guess).

I'd genuinely love to know why the Tinker philosophy isn't more prevalent. I wonder if Frank Zappa has it right: The young executives come in and think they know it all.

Pat Reeder said...

To Rockgolf: I read that article about "Frasier" and agree with your astute diagnosis of pompous dog vomit. One of our channels in Dallas was showing "Frasier" reruns several times a day and recently switched to "Friends." To me, there's no contest which one was funnier, better-written or holds up better over time. And as for the carping about "Frasier" staying on too long and losing creative steam...remind me, HOW many times did Ross and Rachel break up and get back together?

The Salon writer makes the same mistake many bloggers do: mistakenly assuming that just because something gets more chatter on Internet sites that attract smug, self-anoited hipsters, it's more important or popular than something that doesn't. These are the same egomaniacal pajama boys who seriously believe their Twitter hashtag campaign is going to intimidate a bunch of heavily-armed, mass-murdering, radical Islamic terrorists in Nigeria. #ArrogantHothouseFlowers

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

"I'd genuinely love to know why the Tinker philosophy isn't more prevalent. I wonder if Frank Zappa has it right: The young executives come in and think they know it all."

It's definitely the "young executives". They think they know what they're doing, and their ego leads them to the assumption that they're indispensable.

I know several of these people. Friendly, but a bit arrogant. They think they hold the answers to every problem, and force the creative folk to become more "professional", as if they weren't already performing adequatly.

And they usually vote republican. They hate taxes, they hate big government, and they have a serious victim complex, to top it off.

Anonymous said...

The graveyards are full of indispensable TV executives. Probably they are just frustrated (read: untalented) people. Like a referee inserting him or herself into the play thinking they are the star. Egos are a strange thing. Probably also has to do with nepotism or favoritism as well. In college there was a guy whose dad was a bigwig at a big studio -- and the kid was not very bright, interesting, or even remotely creative. To make matters worse he was so arrogant because he knew had a cushy job lined up. So of course when he graduated he found himself on the road to being an entertainment executive just like his daddy. And now he is someone's boss telling them how to make a show.

Eduardo's comment seems rather silly, considering that most of Hollywood is as liberal as they come. So maybe it is the opposite.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Except I wasn't really talking about Hollywood. And I did use the term "usually" before the voting part.

mdv1959 said...

Friday Question--

It seems to me that one of the main reasons most of the highly regarded shows (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc...) are on not on Network television are the FCC regulations protecting our easily corruptible minds from the evils of bad words and naked bodies. Why do you think the networks haven't pushed back to get the rules relaxed?

Klee said...

Grant was the Desi Arnaz of the 70s.

Johnny Walker said...

I might have to ask this again tomorrow if nobody sees it, but hopefully someone can help me.

I've worked my way through Frasier, Cheers (almost twice), Taxi, and now I'm planning on going back further into sitcoms I've only read about: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (actually I've seen a few episodes of the DVDS and I LOVED them).

I'm starting with MTM and I just wanted to know what I should do about the spin-off shows. Do Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant all warrant a watch? What about the reunion specials (I'm guessing not)?

Also, does The Bob Newhart Show still hold up?

Thanks!

Mike said...

Eduardo - your attempt to pull politics into this discussion is just silly. There are plenty of talentless, micromanaging execs on both sides of the aisle.

One other thing about Tinker's era: broadcast was still a growth industry with relatively low costs, less competition, and huge margins. These days, talent costs have gone way up, there's much more competition, and margins are smaller. That's when micromanagement comes in - true of any industry.

Ron Rettig said...

Ken, What do you write on? George R. R. Martin works on an outdated DOS machine using Eighties word processor WordStar 4.0.
Larry McMurty paid tribute to his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the suits at the network will NVER do this because they would be admitting that they are not needed. And they aren't. Since 9 out of 10 new sitcoms fail - with suits noting EVERYTHING, you think some desperate network WOULD just say "The hell with it - lets just hire talented creative writers and let them do their passion project." What do they have to lose? (except their job). They even interfere with who can be hired in the writers room. Back in the day if you were lucky enough to get a show on the air, you could hand in a list of writers and say Hire these people. Nowadays they tell YOU who you are going to hire. Comedy by committee sucks.

Brian O. said...

What kind of an executive was Brandon Tartikoff like for creatives?

Angry Tech Gamer said...

The song remains the same.

Andy Grove to the American Society of Newspaper Editors 1999
"You’re where Intel was three years before the roof fell in on us. You’re heading toward a strategic inflection point, and three years from now, maybe, it’s going to be obvious. "

Angry Tech Gamer
So... This is about the THIRD time in three industries where someone "oh so smart" suggests "let's do it like we did it in the old days! That'll work!"

In 1988 Digital Equipment Corporation RENTED the QE2 Luxury Liner to have their annual company meeting... 3 years later sales were sliding down by huge percentages. Businesses wanted these new fangled PC's running "Windows" on their desks linked by something called a Local Area Network... there were rumors of a company out of San Francisco that actually could link these networks together a company named CISCO... everyone thought they were named after The Cisco kid or some such.

Every "smart guy" back then said gee get a bunch of creative engineers AND DO IT AGAIN bring DEC to life.

What they failed to realize in the 1980s that creative inventive types ALWAYS find the hot new thing on their own. LIKE PIXAR, GOOGLE or NETFLIX (get it)
DUDE THAT'S HOW YOUR COMPETITION IS INVENTED... the CREATORS jumped to the NEXT big thing!

It's really funny to see this happening to Television. AND to see the same tired TROPES being bandied about. I mean really does anyone think that HOUSE OF CARDS on Netflix happened in a creative vacuum??? That Netflix somehow cloned a TV production outfit, writers, showrunners etc WITHOUT people who used to do this for NETWORKS?

Of course not the TALENT went to the New Hotness of Netflix... not the Old and Busted NBC. AND now that House of Cards is a success you CAN BET BIG MONEY that plenty of creative types are saying "ya know I think this Netflix distribution model might work for this new project..."

AND BAM Inflection Point has peaked and it's a fast roller coaster to consolidation, mergers and bankruptcy.... The roof caves in.

Chalmers said...

A few times on "Murphy Brown" the title character mocked a network suit by snarking something like, "What do we know? All we do is find, investigate and report the stories. You brilliant network executives do the really important stuff like coming up with those catchy slogans for each season. What's this year's? 'Watch us! It's cheaper than cable!' "

Another time it was "You come up with those theme nights that cut across all the shows like 'No Bra Tuesday!' "

Joe said...

Johnny: I'd go straight through MTM and decide about the spin-offs later. Honestly, I don't think either RHODA or PHYLLIS is essential at all. LOU GRANT was solid, as I recall, but being a drama rather than a comedy, it's really a different thing.

RHODA and PHYLLIS both serve as examples of how difficult it is to turn great supporting characters into leads.

-bee said...

My feeling is that ratings are secondary considerations in today's broadcast television - after all the middle class is going bust - how much return on their investment can advertisers expect to make anymore by shelling out money to TV networks in order to sell products to people who can't afford them?

IMHO TV networks primarily exist to hold onto the real estate on the broadcast spectrum not so much to make money as to keep upstarts out.

If you think of the network heads as basically squatters not really expecting to be making huge profits anymore - it makes sense that it starts to all be about the personalities of the executives and political infighting and ones-upmanship.

Not to mention that since the days of MTM there has been a boom of film and TV classes in colleges - whereas in the old days a business major would have to take a few literature courses to fulfill their arts prerequisites, now they can take courses in the history of TV instead. Meaning that you've got all these young Princeton/Harvard graduates with a few 101 or 201 classes feeling like this gives them some kind of expertise in the creative process.

Long story short: it's less about profits now and more about the egos of the network executives and the conglomerates who own the networks.

Liggie said...

Moral of the story: Hire good people, then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. In all industries.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Joe! It's amazing how many spin-offs that show had... And a drama to boot. How weird!

Johnny Walker said...

I'm sure someone has already pointed this out, but it just struck me: Isn't this what NETFLIX, and other digital providers, are currently offering to their creators? Isn't that why they've become a growing serious force in programming?

gottacook said...

Lou Grant (of which I was a devoted fan from beginning to end, 1977-82) had the benefit of having at its center Gene Reynolds - who as much as Larry Gelbart was the reason that MASH established itself so well during its first four years. Also, in one episode Eileen Heckart reprised her role first introduced on MTM, but she may have been the only such guest star.

Rebecca said...

Johnny, yes, The Bob Newhart Show still holds up.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks everyone. Looking forward to enjoying this classic TV!

Anonymous said...

What makes it worse are half the shows are produced by the networks themselves, giving them total control over production and nobody to run interference for the talent.

What the networks are doing is truely not working. Their death spiral continues almost completely unabated. While it is nice they take turns claiming no more pilots or CBS saying no more seasons. No more interference.

I don't know this for fact but I suspect even with fewer shows the cable networks don't offer a fraction of the interference. If a network finds a talented creator and idea let them go with it. I do think pilot season has evolved into an awful mess where a whole industry literally exists just to make pilots that never air.

Focus on your best ideas and support your best talent. Also you can't get spooked if a show fails to blow the roof off week one. Sitcoms have it the worst because it can take a full season for a sitcom to figure out where it is. No sitcoms get that chance any longer. We are at the end of that road. They pull shows with loyal mediocre audiences to replace them with new shows with no audience at all.

Reruns are dying as a source of fill in guaranteed revenue for the networks which means they need more original programming than ever. Look at good wife. It was always on the verge of cancellation and was well below CBS standards for years in ratings. However it is, in my opinion, the best show on network tv. Its audience has been loyal. So while the world has crashed down around the networks and even CBS, the good wife stays nearly where it has always been, now making it a keeper.

There is nothing magical about the walking dead. It is a good enough show but it certainly could run on a network. Yet it blows away any network show in ratings. Other cable shows have grown audiences year to year. The last network show to seriously grow an audience was probably NCIS, which since has been shedding viewers like everyone else.

I am a bit dumbfounded they are able to charge the rates they are for these minuscule audiences. I suspect if adjusted for current day dollars the amount an advertiser paid for a 30 share in the 70s would be a tiny fraction of what a 3 share costs now.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of something else I read recently. The networks are having a crisis finding experienced Showrunners. The system stunts development of the skills to promote people and those qualified prefer opportunities I the land of cable with less interference.

I think Vince Gilligan has a new show slated on a network. I suspect he won't get much interference. However without Breaking Bad it would have been all interference and execs asking him what he had done.

Recognizing the talent first can pay big dividends down the road.