NBC's candid entertainment chief
The Ivy League Wunderkind of NBC is making a goal-line stand for his network. The president of NBC Entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff (Yale, '70), casually but meticulously outfitted in Hollywood Quadrangle style (loafers, chinos, and blue blazer), sits behind his desk in the luxurious Burbank office suite which he shares with NBC chairman Grant Tinker (Dartmouth, '49). He is explaining his strategy to pull NBC out of the big-league (commercial network) basement. NBC is introducing 6 new series this month and canceling 71/2 hours of shows introduced last fall. Front-runner CBS is premiering 5 new series; second-placer ABC, 4.
''I think we misjudged the marketplace,'' Mr. Tartikoff admits, a crumb from the breakfast muffin brought to him by his wife, former ballet dancer Lilly Samuels, falling on his tartan-checked shirt.
''We had the hot hand at the crap table (the success of ''The A-Team'') and we thought every time we threw the dice we were going to come up with a winner, so we got overly ambitious in terms of what we thought we could put out there. Not much worked.'' Mr. Tartikoff is referring to such dearly departed shows as ''Manimal'' and ''Mr. Smith.''
NBC's six new shows are ''Riptide'' (Tuesdays 9-10 p.m.), ''Night Court'' (Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.), ''The New Show'' (Fridays, 10-11 p.m.), ''TV's Bloopers, Commercials and Practical Jokes'' (Mondays, 8-9 p.m.), ''Legmen'' (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.), and ''The Masters'' (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.). ''Riptide,'' which premiered Jan. 3, proved to be the No. 12 show in the ratings, making it a probable success.
''The marketplace has changed,'' he continues. ''Although the cable factor is interesting, it is not a factor in the way you might think. We program against the other two networks, not against cable.
''What cable has done is made available in cable households at 8 p.m. heavy-action adventure pieces. So what used to be known as the family-hour kind of programming no longer exists. Five years ago what you see on the network at 8 p.m. would have been playing at 9 p.m. (''The A-Team'' airs at 8 p.m.).
''The other thing cable is doing which is very subtle is that by constantly reshowing programs, their exhibition pattern has raised the threshold of tolerance for repeats. No commercial network ever used to repeat specials. But now we are taking a hard look at that. Also, the turn-around period for our made-for-TV movies. There might even be a kind of sitcom that could play two times in a week.''
Under Tartikoff, NBC is going after a younger audience in the second season. ''It's a mixed bag, though,'' he says. ''We have some shows which will attract young, urban, slightly sophisticated audiences. Lorne Michaels's 'The New Show' and 'Night Court' will appeal to that audience.''
NBC heralded its programming last season as ''a balanced menu.'' Now, Tartikoff says that the plan was right in theory: ''We just picked the wrong shows; we missed the marketplace.''
What barometers does Brandon Tartikoff use in searching for new shows?
''There has to be a compelling reason to watch. If an audience says, 'Who cares?' then you're not going to get an audience.''
The other quotient he looks for is a personality who may ''break out.'' ''In 'The A-Team' we began with Mr. T. We had (put him in) a situation comedy as a guest star and we loved what he did.''
When Tartikoff talks of a ''balanced menu,'' is that for his own taste?
He shakes his head. ''It's for the viewer's taste.'' He believes that nobody wants ''well-crafted concept shows'' all the time, any more than people go to French restaurants every night. There's a whole different texture to how people watch television on different nights of the week and on weekends when they know they don't have to work the next day. I don't think people who are letting down their hair and relaxing on Friday and Saturday want to be reminded of the problems of the world.''
If Tartikoff were forced to choose two shows on the NBC schedule for his own viewing, what would they be?
'' 'Buffalo Bill' and 'St. Elsewhere.' A lot of the shows on NBC could serve me with paternity suits. 'Silver Spoons' came out of my head and got put together in three weeks. ''Knight Rider' and 'The A-Team' and 'Gimme A Break' - I was fortunate enough to give them to the absolute right people.''
Is there any show at NBC that Tartikoff wouldn't want his own children to watch?
''No. There are some I wouldn't want a young child to watch because of the adult subject concept, but there are certainly no shows that I would be embarrassed about. Well, there are times when 'Saturday Night Live' will do a sketch which is embarrassing. . . .''
What does Tartikoff foresee in the programming future for network television?
''Major movies will be an important staple but not the end-all. We're going to see more event television, more horizontal miniseries where we strip five nights of the week for an hour each night rather than five hours over two nights.
''There may be a series which takes a different approach every night of the week on a certain important subject. And somewhere down the line, somebody will be putting on a show once a month instead of once a week.''
Does Tartikoff feel that as entertainment programming chief of NBC he is making a positive contribution to American society?
''I think it is a contribution. I think it could be a lot more. I'm not happy with the level of innovation that we've been able to put forward. We must do more things that break the rules and stimulate the audiences.
''I would feel remiss if somebody came in here tomorrow and told me I couldn't do this job anymore. There are a lot of things left undone that I haven't yet gotten to try.''