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NBC's Grant Tinker: the view from the top after 16 months

By Arthur Unger / January 7, 1983

New York

The man from MTM who took over NBC around 16 months ago says he knows why network television is losing some of its audience share. ''I think we've turned off a lot of the audience - causing them to turn us off - by doing relatively uninteresting, witless stuff for just too many years, '' says Grant Tinker, former head of MTM Productions (Mary Tyler Moore).

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He is perched on the edge of a chair in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, to which he commutes weekly from his West Coast office. His day has been a series of staff meetings, and there is one scheduled right now. But this polite, unobtrusively witty, silver-haired, Ivy League-cum-Malibu broadcaster has promised an interview, so he delivers an interview, albeit on the run.

To many industry observers Tinker represents commercial television's last chance for literate, high-grade programming. Yes, he heads up a moneymaking company, answerable to stockholders, so there is just so much unprofitable-though-high-quality programming he would be permitted to do. If he compromises too much with mass-appeal programs, however, whether or not he succeeds in bringing NBC out of its last-place position, American television will be a great loser.

''It's encouraging to me, as opposed to discouraging,'' he says, ''that a lot of people prefer to watch reruns on independent stations of programming that was on the networks five or six years ago, rather than the kind of original stuff we are doing now.

''What that says to me is that we should be doing programming at least as good as some of the stuff that was being done then - 'Mary Tyler Moore,' 'Barney Miller,' 'Newhart,' 'All in the Family,' or whatever. The programs we are doing now obviously just aren't attractive enough.''

But isn't it discouraging that the high-quality programs NBC is now offering have been getting low ratings?

He nods his head and sighs, then the eyes light up with the familiar Tinker twinkle indicating that here is a man who knows what life's priorities are and who doesn't really believe sitcoms rank at the top of the list.

''I don't think our programming is innovative - unless it's innovative to put on a slightly more literate kind of a show. But you're correct, those shows have not prospered. I am a little frustrated because they are not working in the Nielsens as well as we'd hoped.''

But what does he as head of NBC do until his shows begin to pick up a bigger audience? Does TV's ''quality maven'' lower his sights and go for more lowest-common-denominator shows?

''You wait,'' he answers. ''And we rearrange our schedule a bit, as we are doing on Thursday nights. The yardstick we are applying this year is: 'Is it a good show? Are the producers delivering what we bought?' In other words, are they executing it as well as we wanted them to. If the answer to that is, 'Yes, the potential has not been realized but the product is satisfactory or better,' then we are staying with that show.''

But isn't there pressure from [parent company] RCA Corporation, from advertisers, from stockholders, to go for more mass appeal, without regard to quality?

''Most of the pressure is self-imposed. You do get a little impatient as you look across the street and see the other guys putting out what are obviously more popular programs, maybe not as literate as ours. So you are tempted to do some other things to win audiences. But we just feel we want to do things that don't embarrass us by their presence in our schedule. And we are doing that.

''We're not programming just for ourselves, but by the same token, we aren't going to entirely abdicate that privilege, either. We would just as soon have some shows that we will openly acknowledge we selected because we enjoy them and maybe even view them at home.

''But we are talking as if NBC is doing something precious and awfully elevated. Truthfully, we are not. What I call good TV is TV that does not leave you, like a Chinese meal or whatever that joke is, feeling hungry an hour later. Hopefully, it will leave you with a little something, a feeling of not having totally wasted your time watching it. And that's about as far as I would go. That's not a very ambitious target. I just don't want to do junk television.''