Tough Times for an Innovator

With the networks' glory days over, master-producer Grant Tinker tries to find a formula for success. TELEVISION: INTERVIEW

LIP-LOCKED on a bottle of Evian water, Grant Tinker sprawls his blue-jeaned legs on the coffee table and arches his Reeboks skyward. The Culver Studios building here that houses his GTG Productions is known as ``The Mansion'' for its columns-and-all resemblance to ``Tara'' from ``Gone With the Wind.'' With four recent GTG productions ``gone with the ratings,'' the former CEO of NBC and founder of MTM Enterprises looks through horn-rimmed glasses at John Eisendrath, his hope for preventing a fifth.

``We'd like to show journalists as real people with humor in their lives, people who are not always bent on being so self-righteous,'' says Mr. Eisendrath, sitting to Tinker's right. He's the latest, hand-picked prot'eg'e Tinker thinks can help commercial TV out of its creative doldrums. A newcomer to Hollywood, Eisendrath is co-creator of this fall's ``WIOU,'' an irreverent hour drama about the eccentric world of local TV news.

``I'd have to quarrel with that word, self-righteous, John,'' interrupts Grant. ``It exaggerates what you mean. Taking themselves too seriously is what you mean ... isn't it?''

With this interjection and the many that are to follow over two hours, one senses the celebrated guiding-hand of one of the savviest collaborators in TV. Claiming no other ability but the talent to spot and nurture others, Tinker is the man who spotted the likes of Steven Bochco, Gary David Goldberg, Jim Brooks, Hugh Wilson, and Ed Weinberger - the names behind some of the hottest shows of the '70s: ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ``WKRP Cincinnati,'' ``Lou Grant,'' ``The Bob Newhart Show,'' ``St. Elsewhere,'' and ``Hill Street Blues.''

All prospered as young writers under the MTM umbrella, founded by Tinker in 1970. All were characterized as ``chance-taking,'' pushing some boundary of TV conventions.

But after that legacy, followed by guiding NBC from last place in ratings and income to first, Tinker has been stumbling of late. Since the inception of GTG Productions in 1986, three entertainment series offered through third-place CBS have bitten the dust with rare speed (``The Van Dyke Show,'' - six episodes; ``Raising Miranda,'' - seven; and ``TV 101''- 13). A fourth series, ``Baywatch,'' has not been renewed after a single season on NBC.

In the news department, a syndicated series, ``USA Today: The Television Show'' was abandoned by partner Gannett after just months on the air. With the Gannett pullout went financial backing for the five-year, 10-series deal Tinker has with CBS. (The second ``G'' in GTG now stands for ``group'' not Gannett.)

Shunned by critics and audiences, none of the four entertainment shows were considered ``chance-taking'' in the Tinker tradition. The ``Van Dyke Show'' utilized schtick that is working elsewhere but tried to resurrect a face from TV's too-distant past. ``Raising Miranda'' tried a theme (single parenting) that has been overdone in both TV and films. ``Baywatch,'' even according to Tinker, did not try to veil its blatant commercialism, trying to sell youth and bikini-clad bodies.

Does all this mean the bulbs in Tinker's creative attic have gone dim?

``Not at all,'' says Tinker, adding that ``91 in a 100 TV ideas fail.'' He says there were about 25 such failed projects while he was having his biggest successes at MTM. But he does say the odds against success are even greater these days. For instance, the luxury of waiting a whole season for a show to find its audience is past.

``Waiting for audiences is how we got NBC out of the cellar,'' he says. ``You'd think the networks would have learned this lesson even though the pressure is so great'' to cancel low-rated shows.

``Grant's talent was always that of matchmaker, getting the right people with the right people and leaving them alone,'' says a seven-year, former colleague at MTM who asked not to be identified. ``Either he can't find the right people out there anymore because they don't exist, or he's lost his tact for not getting involved.''

PART of the problem with Tinker's recent shows is the growing problem of ``sampling.''

``Unfortunately we took [the shows] to a network that nobody is watching at the moment, [CBS]'' he says. ``TV 101'' is a show ``I'll say forever was very, very good,'' says Tinker. ``But there was no way to get it seen. That's why [CBS entertainment division president] Jeff Sagansky's job is so hard. He doesn't have the building blocks behind which to put a new show, like [NBC] does with `Cheers,' `The Cosby Show,' and the rest.''

``The world of production changed so much in the five years between MTM and GTG that [Tinker] probably doesn't even recognize it,'' says Joe Turow, a professor of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been following Tinker's career since the '70s. ``Part of it is you just can't try the same old formulas. But also the costs of top writers are out of sight, and license fees are up,'' Mr. Turow says.

Producers also have to come up with a series idea that will last five seasons or 100 episodes, the number required to get syndicated in reruns. Without syndication, the production loses money, since networks pay only about 80 percent of a series' costs (say, $850,000 out of $1.2 million per episode for a one hour drama). ``That makes it hard for a small production company to compete,'' Turow adds.

Other producers say Tinker helped create the tough economic environment he has had to face. While head of NBC, he embraced series proposals that included a single writer/producer, his way of rewarding the creative talent behind projects. When other studios started following suit, top writers that were earning $100,000 in 1981, when Tinker went to NBC, were earning over $1 million by 1986, when he left the network.

Creatively, too, the medium has matured to the point where it is harder to break new ground. ``How many cop shows, spy shows, journalism shows have there been now?'' Tinker asks. Such shows as ``Hill Street Blues'' revolutionized the cop-show genre with overlapping plots, ensemble-casting, and hand-held film techniques. ``WIOU'' will employ some of those same innovations.

``I just think you have to do whatever it is you do well,'' Tinker says.

TINKER is once again going with youth, brilliance, and free-rein. In the old MTM mold, ``WIOU'' will be character-driven, inviting viewers in with the lure of good ol' human chemistry, no matter what the plot is.

``I think the problem with TV is at the front end, the contributors,'' says Tinker. ``There simply aren't enough John Eisendraths and [co-executive producer] Kathryn Pratts to feed this hungry machine ... when you think that there are 22 hours of prime time on each network each week ... yet they can't go dark, so what comes out the other end is a bunch of junk.

``Part of it is our own fault,'' he continues. ``We tend ... to wall off the same tired people inside and not let the newcomers over the wall. It's easier to go with a [writer] that is not an `A' or even an `A-minus,' but a `B' or `B-minus' because they were around last year.''

Hoping to capitalize on the old MTM formula, however, Tinker is gambling much on the inexperienced Eisendrath.

``Let the [writers] do what they want to do. Nothing good gets done by committee,'' says Tinker. ``The networks are filled with so-called decisionmakers who don't have quite the right spark to be writers themselves,'' he says. ``Yet they tend to tell people who know ... how. Network interference is something I specialize in.''

``Tinker won respect across the industry for cultivating young talent and letting them take risks,'' says Turow. ``MTM under Tinker was a scriptwriter's paradise,'' Steven Bochco, creator of ``Hill St. Blues'' told one interviewer. ``Tinker highly regarded writers both professionally and personally ... , and he wasn't at all threatened at an ego level at what they could do and he couldn't do. He protected writers from interference without them even knowing about it.''

News, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Tinker will admit ``USA Today: The Television Show'' was ``something not done well for people who didn't want it in the first place. I just don't think we did it well enough. It didn't stink; it was just a first-run syndication show there was no hunger for. He thinks the idea of having four anchors - introducing four separate segments to parallel those of the newspaper - in 22 minutes was absurd.

``Syndication is a carnival barker's world, where the content is far different than the classy kind [Tinker] has always been known for,'' posits Turow. Industry observers have wondered aloud about the collaboration between a news organization and an executive known for entertainment.

Trials and tribulations aside, Tinker is both pessimistic and optimistic about the future of television.

``I do feel the glory days of the networks are over, never to return,'' he says. ``Cable and syndication have done more than siphon off talent ...; they've taken energy and enthusiasm.''

``Since TV has gotten so bad,'' he adds, ``a lot of the best writers look down their nose at us and don't even want to touch us.'' In the beginning, ``That's not like the days when TV was brand new and ``everyone was blown away that you could have this fabulous entertainment device in your living room. When young people look at television now, it's just part of the furniture to them.''

The good news, he says, is more reality in television: Ted Koppel, ``48 Hours,'' the Cable News Network. ``These kinds of shows put a little bit of balance to offset all of TV's fantasy.''

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