The Burbank office of Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, is decorated in soothing shades of oatmeal and cream, perhaps as an antidote to some of the lurid proposals unfolding within. Patiently, Tartikoff is hearing out a producer with an idea for a remake of Mr. Ed, the never-to-be-forgotten talking-horse sitcom. "Here's the great thing," bubbles the producer. "This time Mr. Ed will speak Italian." Whoa.
With an annual budget of nearly $1 billion, Tartikoff oversees the development and scheduling of 69 hours of TV programming each week. Producers are well aware that he needs them. "Television has been called the monster that never stops eating," he says. "It chews things up and constantly needs replenishing." Ever the captive audience, Tartikoff has had ideas pitched at him in a dentist's chair, at his grandfather's funeral and after rear-ending a star-struck fellow motorist. Concepts have come his way from an NBC guard, who suggested a show on the life of an NBC guard; Ronald Reagan, who proposed a series commemorating Congressional Medal of Honor winners; and members of an Indian tribe pushing a sitcom called Life on the Res. After 13 years in television Tartikoff has a finely tuned instinct for what will and won't play, which is not to suggest he's infallible. After all, he was the guy who scheduled Two Guys From Muck.
Tartikoff has risen remarkably fast within the NBC ranks—from director of comedy programming to the job he holds now. At 35, he is the youngest division president in NBC history, uniquely a child of the television age. As his wife, Lilly, puts it, "Brandon is Beaver Cleaver. He grew up with that little guy." In fact, says Tartikoff, "I felt extremely young when I got the job. I was learning on NBC's time; now I'm paying back dividends. Of course, if I had totally mastered this thing we'd be in first place, but I do think I know every facet of my job. My mistakes have more to do with being too ambitious or betting on the wrong person."
Tartikoff, who survived Hodgkin's disease and a year of chemotherapy almost before his career had begun, has showed the same kind of gritty persistence in an industry that doesn't usually put up with misjudgments. For nine consecutive years NBC has remained mired in the ratings subbasement and Tartikoff is only beginning to pull the network up by its bootstraps. "I hate to lose and I lose a lot," he says. "But it just makes me more determined to win."
This year he may just be doing it. In the first four weeks of the new season, NBC has inched ahead of ABC and once even pulled past CBS into the ratings lead. The Cosby Show is already a certified hit and the TV movie The Burning Bed outdrew even the network's World Series telecasts. "This is the year for NBC," says programming guru Fred Silverman, Tartikoff's predecessor and mentor, who is now an independent producer. "There is a moment when you stop doubting yourself and say this is real. Brandon worked almost five years for this, with people second-guessing and saying he would get fired next week. He should feel like a million dollars."
A year ago Tartikoff's currency was severely devalued after all nine of his new shows were canceled. "Internally we refer to last season as the September train wreck," he says. "We thought we put on better shows than the competition, but the audience never watched. We aired too many high-risk shows—Bay City Blues, Boone, Buffalo Bill—in the face of evidence that there was no great appetite for them. This season we have not programmed a lot of shows that need 25 minutes to explain the concept."
As a proponent of the balanced-diet theory of scheduling, Tartikoff is serving a little meat loaf with this season's pate. "If we put on 22 hours with only the critics' darlings, such as Cheers and St. Elsewhere, we wouldn't be any further ahead in the ratings," he explains. "The ideal schedule is diverse." Viewers are now seeing shows like Highway to Heaven (known around NBC as "Jesus of Malibu"), in which Michael Landon appears as an angel, as well as hard-nosed shoot-and-splatter dramas such as Miami Vice and Hunter. "Nobody at NBC called up a producer and said, 'Listen, we need a violent show on Friday night,' " says Tartikoff, "but we did want something distinctive. It's the toughest night in television opposite Dallas and Falcon Crest on CBS, and we can't program Pollyanna."
Tartikoff began his network career at ABC in 1976 under Silverman's tutelage. A year later Dick Ebersol, now executive producer of Saturday Night Live, lured him to NBC as a comedy programmer. Within the year Silverman too switched to NBC and promoted his protégé to West Coast programming chief. Tartikoff served him loyally during Silverman's tumultuous three-year reign, but when Grant Tinker replaced Silverman in 1981 Tartikoff's future was by no means assured. "Nobody would have blinked if Grant had said 'I want my own team and we'll give you a nice severance,' " says Tartikoff, "but I was hoping he would give me a chance." Tinker did, and invested Tartikoff with nearly total powers, inspiring an industry joke that Tartikoff had replaced Lee Majors as the Fall Guy and would be Tinker's scapegoat if he couldn't deliver. Tinker didn't see it that way. "Brandon has a lot of programming and scheduling smarts," he says. "I thought he was the best man available to inherit a very difficult job. Even in the best of times—and we haven't had the best of times—there are enormous pressures, and he handles them very evenly."
During Tartikoff's nearly five-year tenure at NBC he has brought comedy, innovative programming and a more youthful audience—not to mention a record number of Emmys—to a network that had virtually lost its identity. But even after introducing 1983's blockbuster hit The A Team, NBC was still not perceived as a winner. "It's been like building back a football team that traded away its draft picks," says Tartikoff. "To do this job you have to be patient and really have a mind-set that you're going to win. There are nights when we cream CBS, so I know I can do it. I simply have to do it more often."
So casual in manner and dress that he doesn't even own a watch, Tartikoff relishes the game of business as well as the goal. "This is like running a big toy store," he says. "I get to play in the broadest field of entertainment. I have a lot of freedom and a large purse. If I create a hit, it pays back for all the failed experiments fivefold." It was Tartikoff who conceived The A Team. "The most popular characters on Hill Street Blues are the crazies," he says, "I thought a show featuring just those off-center types could be a hit. When I first saw Mr. T, I knew he should be the one to drive the car." Producer Stephen Cannell did the rest. "It's very easy to have an idea," says Tartikoff. "It's another thing to spend the next five years writing episode after episode. For every good idea I've had there is a morgue of horrible scripts and embarrassing pilots that come from the same loins."
Where Tartikoff comes from is Free-port, Long Island, where his first ideas were borderline diabolical. "He was unmerciful," says his younger sister, Lisa. "He would lock me out of my room and throw my dolls out the window. My mother would chase him around the dining-room table with a leather belt, and Brandon would back up saying, 'I'll be good, I'll be good.' " Recalls Tartikoff, "They didn't have the term hyperactive then, but I was very energetic. I had to be doing 10 different things." Invariably, TV was one of them. "I don't remember life without television," he says. "I learned the facts of life on Playhouse 90 and used to pretend I was sick just to watch daytime reruns like My Little Margie, I Married Joan and Burns and Allen."
At 13, Brandon, the son of a clothing manufacturer, was sent off to Lawrenceville and then on to Yale, where his tutorial adviser, Robert Penn Warren, may or may not remember Brandon's 60-page novella chronicling the adventures of Saliva Schwartz. Before graduating with honors Tartikoff wrote a Mary Hartman-like soap-opera parody and tried to get Sunday night airtime on WTNH, ABC's New Haven affiliate. The director rejected Brandon's idea but taught him a useful lesson: never to program according to his own tastes. "He said, Take your camera to the New York bus terminal, photograph the first 100 people arriving, and whenever you make a decision think of those faces and say, "Now I like it, but will they like it?" ' I never did that," says Tartikoff, "but I do think about it when I make decisions."
After graduation Brandon landed a job in the WTNH promotion department and played semipro baseball for the New Haven Braves before transferring to ABC's Chicago affiliate, WLS, in 1973. For five years he spent every vacation in Los Angeles, looking for an entry into network TV. "It was so clear to me that I had all this talent and that anybody who had a job I wanted should step aside and invite me to help them clean out their desks," he says. "I kept setting goals and was constantly frustrated that at 23 I was still stuck in local television."
A year later he learned he had Hodgkin's disease, a form of lymphatic cancer that now has a 70 percent cure rate. "When I got cancer and was faced with at least an understanding of mortality, nothing was a given anymore," he says. "It helped me channel my energies. A lot of my cockiness disappeared. I hadn't been really arrogant, but I had always felt I was owed something, and then just getting better was such a gift. After my treatments, when I was considered cured and had finally been hired at ABC in Los Angeles, I didn't really push anymore. I was just so happy to be there."
Tartikoff's passage out of Chicago was precipitated by an inspired bit of programming—"Gorilla My Dreams Week"—five days of ape films that kicked off a ratings-boosting theme-movie series. WLS general manager Lew Erlicht, now Brandon's counterpart at ABC, was impressed and eventually introduced him to Fred Silverman. "Brandon reminded me of myself. His gorilla idea was just the kind of dopey stuff I used to do," says Silverman. "He was creative and had a passion for programming, which is rare. Most young people want to be film directors, not network bureaucrats." In fact, Tartikoff planned on being a comedy writer. "When I moved to NBC at 28, I had no aspirations beyond directing comedy programming, then going out on my own after a couple of years," he says. "I was flabbergasted when I got promoted again."
Tartikoff met his wife, Lilly Samuels, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, in 1979. They married in 1982. "Brandon can't believe I think he got where he did because he's so cute," says Lilly, 31. "But why not? It happens to other people in this business." Yet make no mistake: She knows how he got where he is. "There are people who would do his job because they like being exposed to celebrities or for the grandness or the competitiveness," she says. "Brandon does it for the TV. He loves it. At work he is so serious it's possible he frightens people. He doesn't politick, he just works. But at home he has a sweet, silly side."
The tough-minded executive who can ax a show when the numbers require it, and whose fuse is short enough to turn the air violet, is also a respectful son who never yells at his parents, who likes to race with his young nieces—and win—and who is at every moment a madcap competitor. (He once urged his wife to memorize the first 500 answers to Trivial Pursuit so they could invite friends over for a game and demolish them.)
The Tartikoffs' life-style, like their three-bedroom Coldwater Canyon home, is unpretentious. Their choice of friends hasn't changed since Brandon's ascension, and on the weekends they haunt nearby Westwood, buying T-shirts (Honk If You Love TV) and lunching on hamburgers.
During the week Tartikoffs day begins with a 7 a.m. call to New York for the overnight ratings, which he analyzes on the half-hour drive to his office. "Everything I do is directed toward moving NBC into first place," he says. "The better parts of my game are working in the realm of ideas, directing the writing of a script, casting a pilot. To do this job well you have to be patient and deal with a multitude of egos." He doesn't always deal with them gingerly. Last summer when a star of one of his series refused to show up for filming until his salary demands were met, Brandon thanked him for his years of hard work and had him replaced on a Friday. The humbled star was back on the job the following Monday.
During one recent week Tartikoff signed a two-year deal with Steven Spielberg, returned to his office for a game-show run-through, negotiated a Christmas movie with Robert Blake, discussed a mid-season replacement series with A Team producer Stephen Cannell, had lunch with Bob Hope (who will do six NBC specials next season) and listened to a pitch for a low-budget documentary from filmmaker Frederic Wiseman. "It's ideas that excite me the most," says Brandon, "not the money (just over $300,000 a year) or the power. When I look at the TV landscape and see the sameness of the product, it gets pretty dismal. I suppose we contribute to that, but our heart is in the right place. Grant is always asking where the next series is that will make us proud of what we do. Sometimes I'd like to take television where it's never been before."
Certainly he would like to take NBC where it hasn't been for nearly a decade—out from under the two other networks. To that end he spends his weeknights at home, channel hopping like a man possessed, then watching a cassette of a future NBC show—either one that is in trouble or one that might be held for a sweeps week. He has but one cardinal rule. "I never prescreen St. Elsewhere or any show on the Thursday-night lineup—beginning with Cosby and ending with Hill Street—so I can watch them like any other viewer," says Brandon. "I don't want to know what's happening. That's one night I'm very proud of."
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