With Nbc Still Rated No. 3, Grant Tinker Ponders His Own Decisions—and the Audience's
When Grant Tinker became chairman and chief executive officer of NBC in 1981, he probably was not motivated by the job's big salary. Tinker already was one of the most successful TV producers in Hollywood. As head of MTM Enterprises, a company he had formed in 1970 with his then wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore, Tinker had produced a number of classy hit series, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant and the documentary-style drama Hill Street Blues. Today, three years after rejoining NBC (he started there as a management trainee in 1949), Tinker, 58, has yet to budge the third-ranked network from the broadcast ratings cellar. In the just completed 1983 season, NBC ranked third for the ninth season in a row, 3.2 points behind first-place CBS and 2.3 points behind ABC. (NBC trailed CBS by 3.1 points in the 1982 season. A 3-point difference is worth millions of dollars in advertising.) Still, there are compensations to being No. 3. Under Tinker's management, NBC has tripled its pre-tax company profit to $156 million in the last three years. And Tinker seems to be thriving in the job, living at a Manhattan hotel during the week and returning to his home in L.A. for weekends. (He and Moore divorced in 1981.) At his Rockefeller Center office, shortly before NBC announced its new fall schedule, Tinker discussed the high-pressure, high-reward life of a network chairman with Associate Editor Jane Hall.
How do you feel about the ratings for this season?
Believe it or not, I feel more bullish than I have since rejoining NBC. Those ratings are the nadir from which we will come back. We lost our momentum from the previous season, introducing nine new series last fall, with not a real winner among them.
You're referring to such flops as Manimal and Mr. Smith?
I wouldn't want to name shows, but it wouldn't take a brain surgeon to figure them out. In an effort to win a broad audience, we made the mistake of aiming too low with some shows.
What is your strategy for next season?
We'll have more shows returning from this year. We are renewing the mid-season hit Riptide plus such established shows as Hill Street Blues and Knight Rider. These series will give us the building blocks that are vital in scheduling. We also have a number of strong projects in development, particularly for Friday and Saturday night, where Dallas and Love Boat have been formidable. My goal is to achieve equal ranking with the other networks. I wouldn't want to predict a date, but I don't want to keep saying, "Next year."
A-Team has been maligned by critics, but it's your only show in the Top 10. Do you watch it?
Sure. Some people find it inconsistent that I enjoy A-Team and Hill Street Blues. But in this job, I have come to believe that a good TV show is one that reaches its target audience. A-Team hits its target audience dead center.
Is Mr. T a role model for kids?
I think kids realize that he's a cartoon character come to life. Off-camera, his persona is very positive.
Why have you renewed Cheers and St. Elsewhere, two shows that are nowhere near the top of the Nielsen ratings?
It seems to me that the better the show, the longer it takes to find its audience. Hill Street didn't become a hit until its second season.
How vital are the Nielsen ratings?
Ratings and ad dollars are connected, of course, but they're not in absolute lockstep. Cheers, for example, attracts an urban, upscale audience that is attractive to advertisers.
Would the Mary Tyler Moore Show be a hit today?
It might be a more modest success. You almost have to hit today's audience with a two-by-four to get their attention. On Mary's show you had to listen and react to the characters, as opposed to just witlessly watching.
Why has the audience changed?
Cable TV, videocassette recorders and other alternatives probably skim off some of the affluent part of the network audience. Also as time passes, the audience is composed of people who never knew an era before TV and may take it for granted.
Is the sitcom dying?
The writing may not be as good as it was. Variety shows were a training ground for many comedy writers. There are fewer places to learn.
What do you expect from Lawrence Grossman, the ex-PBS president you hired to head NBC's news division?
I don't expect any big changes on Nightly News. Tom Brokaw will continue as anchorman. The Today show is improving in the ratings against Good Morning America. In new programming, I'd like to see NBC News create a news show for prime time.
This season ABC achieved high ratings with two news-related TV movies, The Day After and Something About Amelia, the incest program. Is this a trend?
TV can handle factual topics in a way that theatrical films rarely do, because such topics may not be "box office." An example on NBC is Adam, the TV movie through which numerous abducted children were found.
There has been a spate of highly rated TV movies about prostitution. Is that a response to a social problem or is it pandering?
It's more likely networks going for audience, trying to get people into the tent.
How do you feel about the success of this season's potboiler miniseries?
It would be the height of arrogance to tell the audience what they should watch. If they want Lace or Master of the Game, somebody should give it to them. But I must confess I've been disappointed by some of the audience's choices lately—passing up interesting programming on our network and the others in favor of the most commercial fare. Ideally, we can have a mix of programming that has both quality and broad appeal. If the networks have so little respect for the audience that we grind out pap and junk, we literally devalue our viewers, and we can't expect them to keep coming back to our programs or to the products of our advertisers.
Is there any setting that doesn't lend itself to the realistic ensemble treatment you began with Hill Street?
There are some people who have trouble with St. Elsewhere. I happen to be one of those people. Viewers can feel like spectators at a police precinct, whereas we've all been in a hospital.
Do you ever sit around thinking about the values implied in your programming?
I don't literally sit around thinking about it. But I am pleased when we do show positive role models. Family Ties, for example, I believe, may have the only traditional nuclear family on TV today.
What do you watch on TV?
A lot of news: our early morning News at Sunrise program, Today, Nightly News and the local newscast. I watch entertainment programming selectively. One program I see frequently on another network is Three's Company, not because it's a great show but because John Ritter is a fine comedic actor.
Does it bug you to be labeled No. 3?
There are so many stories about ratings that are really non-news because the changes come slowly. Of course, I probably won't say that when we are No. 1....
On Newsstands Now
- The Little Couple: A New Mom's Fight to Live
- Remembering Nelson Mandela
- Princess Kate's Style Secret!
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine