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

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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).

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.

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''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.''

Just how far can we expect Tinker to go to win audiences?

He smiles wryly. ''What you're asking is how low will I sink. Well, I wouldn't pander. If I personally found that the only way to attract an audience to NBC were to get to that lowest common denominator seven nights a week, all night long, then I would go to something else. I would feel, 'Anybody can do this job and some might do it more happily or better than I.'

''But first of all we are a business and I can no longer live by the same rules that I did at MTM Enterprises, where we didn't offer to produce anything which we didn't feel had some real quality. And we concentrated on only a few shows. I dropped that way of living 20 minutes after I got here, because this has to be a more flexible schedule. I don't have any problems with programming for mass audiences, whatever the show is, even a lowest-common-denominator show. I just don't want to have 'em every night of the week.

''Look, 'Dallas' [CBS] is not my favorite show, and I think watching it is a waste of an hour. But it would be the height of arrogance for me to suggest that it not be there, since 40 percent of the audience seems to disagree with me.''

The first ''Grant Tinker Year'' at NBC is up. What happens now?

''If there's one thing I've learned here it is that the job we are trying to do is going to take longer than I had thought it would. I am trying to deal with my own impatience about that. I am frustrated by the time it takes.

''Our business is a business of lead times. A show is an idea and then it begins to develop and a lot of things have to happen between the idea and the air. That's true of a show and it's true of turning a network around.''

''I think I would have been much less interested in this job if Mr. Bradshaw [Thornton Bradshaw, board chairman of RCA] had come to me with NBC as the leading network and said, 'Would you like to come over and be the steward while it goes on being No. 1? What's interesting to me at NBC is the improvement potential . . . the challenge. That's why I am here.'' National Geographic special

National Geographic is launching its 1983 TV season with one of the most poetic wildlife films it has ever brought to television screens. Rain Forest ( PBS, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 8-9 p.m., check local listingsm) is a quiet slow-motion ramble through the Costa Rican tropical rain forests.

According to award-winning writers-producers-cinematographers David and Carol Hughes, the world's rain forests now occur in only a narrow belt around the equator, some 3 million square miles of the tropics. In these areas, lush foliage and exotic creatures thrive.

But at the present rate of destruction, most countries that have rain forests will lose or seriously deplete them during our generation, unless the world agrees to conserve them as unique natural resources. Costa Rica is already doing so - a fourth of its rain forests are given some government protection, half of these in national parks.

This film is a plea to halt the worldwide destruction of rain forests. ''Rain Forest,'' co-produced by WQED/Pittsburgh and narrated by Richard Kiley, boasts a superb score by Mike Trim and Helen Hurden which reflects in music the weird and wonderful sounds of the rain forest. The Hughes's cameras manage to zoom in on some of the world's most unusual life forms, some of the world's most exotic flora. There is a captivating intimacy that will have viewers watching in awe, perhaps commenting in hushed tones.

Although the WNET/New York ''Nature'' series has also done a fine Costa Rican film recently, ''Rain Forest'' is clearly an instant classic of wildlife reportage. Viewers will feel that they have become part of the silent sensuous movement of the invisible creatures of the jungle as they roam among the giant foliage.

This National Geographic journey is probably more exciting - and certainly more comfortable - than making your own safari into the Costa Rican rain forests. Sign on for it.

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