NBC's Grant Tinker

''The best thing to happen to commercial television in the last decade'' looks and sounds like an Ivy League professor but acts like a cautious, hard-bitten veteran of the network wars.

Grant Tinker, new chairman and chief executive officer of the National Broadcasting Company, was, in fact, an English major at Dartmouth where he got his BA before joining NBC in 1949. There he began his move up the NBC executive ladder, interrupted by a sojourn at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency and 11 years as head of MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises. At MTM he supervised the creation of such quality shows as his then-wife's ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' as well as ''The Bob Newhart Show,'' ''Rhoda,'' ''Phyllis,'' ''The White Shadow, '' ''Lou Grant,'' and most recently, the multi-Emmy winning ''Hill Street Blues.''

So, when former competitor and independent producer Norman Lear says Tinker's appointment to his present position at NBC is ''the best thing to happen to commercial television in the last decade,'' he is verbalizing a feeling widely held in the industry. ''I think it heralds,'' Lear says, ''the return of series control to the creative people in production companies, away from network statisticians and frightened executives. That can't help but mean better television for the American public.''

Although Grant Tinker has been chairman of NBC since July 1, he is just now emerging from the low-profile position he chose for himself in order to get some perspective on his new job. This is one of the first full-blown newspaper interviews he has granted since.

The large, multiwindowed, lushly carpeted room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza seemed the same as when I had interviewed his predecessor, Fred Silverman, there a few short months ago. Only a bowl of fresh flowers on the table indicated a different style occupant. But Grant Tinker himself is a lithe, tennis-playing, soft-spoken New Englander-cum--Californian with a kind of relaxed but restrained flair, very different from the stocky, nervous, distracted Brooklyn-cum-New York look and sound of Fred Silverman.

Tinker chooses his words carefully, recognizing the fact that he has crossed over the railroad tracks to another part of town, that his current responsibilities as chief executive officer of a division of a corporation with accountability to stockholders are very different from those of the head of an independent production company.

In a Monitor interview six years ago, when Tinker was still at MTM Enterprises, he had said that he had only minimal creative control at MTM, that his job was ''to attract creative people, make it as comfortable as I can for them, then get out of the way and deal with the networks.'' What does he say to that now?

''Those were my very words, back to haunt me'' he agrees with a grin. ''And that is, to some extent, my role at NBC. Not quite to get out of the way, though. I never confused myself with those people who made Mary's show, or 'Hill Street Blues' or any of the shows in between. They were the creative people, one of whom I was not, although I did enjoy associating with them.

''Now, if you will permit me a neat segue, I find the situation here much like that at MTM. The difference is that I had to build MTM, I had to go out and find writers and directors like Jim Brooks and Alan Burns and convince them to come over to do Mary's show. And, as in the cases of all those who followed, I had to attract and solicit the interest of the talent. Here, I have come to a company which has all those people already present. It has been a happy surprise to me to find so much creative talent already in place. That has been one great stroke of good fortune above all others.

Depite NBC's current last-place position in the three--network struggle for audiences, will Grant Tinker continue to give the creative people freedom?

He hesitates a moment, aware that his words will be evaluated by a huge, jittery NBC staff, awaiting possible Tinker tinkering. So, he chooses his words as carefully as a a Mideast shuttle diplomat: ''Yes, but I think the people within the network are creative in a different way than the guys who sit down and write comedy shows.

''I hope we are all creative a little bit. For instance, certain people in the news department are creative in the way they cover and present the news. I think of us more as creative executives, managers, administering things. . . . But (we're) not out-and-out creative in the same way that people who make television shows out in Hollywood are.''

Tinker stops for a moment, aware that perhaps he has started up the wrong path and tries to retrace his steps like a lost mountain climber. ''Let me explain: I wasn't comparing the people I have found here at NBC with the people at a company like MTM except in terms of the superior, high level of talent.''

Will he predict when NBC will be in first place in the network race as did his predecessor, Fred Silverman who was haunted by his ''Christmas 1981'' prediction?

Tinker grins and shakes his head. ''No, I won't. I'm very careful about that.''

He is careful never to make negative references to Silverman. In fact, he goes out of his way to make it clear that he has great respect for the man who was once renowned as the Wunderkind of commercial TV, at one time or another holding top positions at all three networks. Now it has just been announced that Mr. Silverman will be making theatrical and TV films in partnership with MGM-United Artists. Does Tinker have any reservations about dealing with his predecessor?

''On the contrary. I have told him that I hope that we will be the first place he goes with new shows. I told him, with some amusement, that I'd love NBC to be his first customer.

"I think Fred Silverman is as catalytic as anyone I've ever known in terms of getting television programs going. I think he'll be a real contributor in the future, too.''

A major concern for all TV network programming heads is convincing independent producers that the creative climate of their own network makes it an attractive place to come to first with ideas for new shows. Although Tinker has already delegated programming authority to veteran NBC chief Robert Mulholland, in the long run Mr. Mulholland reports to chief executive officer Tinker. For the past year there has been a feeling among independent producers that NBC is not the place to go, that decisions were slow in coming through, that everything was subject to constant change.

Will Grant Tinker be able to change that?''I have a feeling we will be getting our share of guys who come to us first. I think it has been true, going back some time, that NBC has not often been getting first choice.'' Then he pulls in the reins once more:''

But I don't want to get too critical of the NBC of yesterday, although I know there have been people who have felt that answers from NBC were too hard to get. That is over. We have an open-door policy for new producers.''

Two hot potatoes already confront the new NBC chief: ''Love, Sidney,'' the new Tony Randall show in which he plays a man who happens to be a homosexual; and the award-winning ''Hill Street Blues,'' a series which Tinker's own MTM Enterprises originated, but which some observers believe to be too violent and too sexually explicit. The Moral Majority has already attacked both shows. How will Grant Tinker handle them?

He sits up tall in his chair, figuratively taking off the boxing gloves, and says, ''I'll say it right out - I don't think a show that has been attacked by the Moral Majority or is on the Rev. Wildmon's (head of the Coalition for Better Television) hit list is necessarily a hot potato.''

Then he relents and seems to resign himself to facing the reality of the ''problem.'' ''At best I would call it a lukewarm potato. As far as NBC is concerned, if we believe in 'Sidney' and 'Hill Street,' then we should continue to do those shows. . . .''

I certainly believe in them as we begin. We obviously live and die by audience reaction and if there is insufficient interest in either or both, then we will have to abandon them and go on to something else.''

You won't be surprised that I am an aficionado where 'Hill Street' is concerned. It is an MTM production. I really think it is superior television. But I can understand why people who take a narrow view of things like violence and sex will have a problem with it. But I think the show is very positive - the cops are not just coping; they are heroic. You can't do a show about a police precinct like Hill Street without being realistic about it. People come to it, knowing that.''

I've never had so much approbation about a show - people on airplanes and on the street seek me out to tell me how much they love it. They appreciate that, despite a few relationships which may bother some people, it is a positive show about heroic people, with all their flaws and warts and whatever showing.''

Tinker agrees that ''Hill Street Blues'' has become one of TV's first middle-brow cult shows. ''We will be stabilizing its position in the schedule. It's going into the 10 p.m. Thursday slot so the viewer who wants to find it will know where it is from now on.''

And ''Love, Sidney''?

''Oh, there's been a lot of flak about it. The Reverend Wildmon has just sent out another of his communiques to all advertisers saying it is on his hit list again. But, I feel that, if played as a comedy as it will be when it goes to series, with little attention to Tony's sexuality, there will be no problem. Swoosie Kurtz plays the girl in the series and it will be a comedy rather than a tragedy . . . with Sidney's sexuality playing almost no part at all in the action.''

I think there is some excuse for occasionally being what some people consider offensive or in questionable taste. But there is no excuse for being bad. We can take the heat as long as we are doing good television, superior shows. When we do good work, we should be able to take the heat from those narrow complaints from wherever they come. But, when we do bad work, then we should get scalded - we deserve it.''

He indicates that he would rather avoid taking time out to battle such organizations as the Moral Majority. How?''

Make better television.''

When I first came to NBC, I got a letter from Jerry Falwell saying 'Good luck. We're expecting great things of you.' I wrote him back and thanked him for the letter, but I've never met him.''

Although Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore were divorced recently, the subject does not seem to be painful for him and her name comes up in the conversation several times.

May we see a new Mary Tyler Moore show at NBC?''

No. For two reasons. One is that CBS has her on an ongoing commitment which keeps being rolled over year after year. And secondly, Mary would rather pursue a film career than do another TV show. I think Mary feels she has done about as well in television as she can and I agree with her. I don't know how she can top 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'

''So, my guess is there is not a Mary Tyler Moore in NBC's future, sad to say. If she does any television, she has a moral and legal commitment to CBS.''

When will the public see the results of Grant Tinker's current work, when will his own programs be seen on the air?

Tinker repositions himself in his company-man role.''

If I accept the question as valid, because it will not be 'my' programming but 'our' programming, I would have to say not for at least a year. But remember there are a number of people here who have programming responsibilities - Brandon Tartikoff (president of entertainment), who reports to Bob Mulholland, (president of NBC). There are a number of people who are closer to programming than I am. I certainly want to be involved and I'm extremely interested, but I don't confuse myself with the people who are responsible for the programming that winds up on NBC.''

Will he be seeing everything before it goes on air, as Fred Silverman was reputed to do?''

Yes, but, if I were in the lumber business I would walk around the lumber yard and touch the lumber, too. I'm in the business and, of course, I will look at shows, read scripts. Flying back and forth to California, I've been reading all the scripts. But I don't really do much about them. It's more for reasons for familiarizing myself with what we are doing. I just make occasional comments.''

But to be blunt about it, my predecessor in this office did involve himself very directly in the programming on a 24-hour basis. My style is a little more remote. I'd rather let the people who do programming on a full-time basis do it with me joining them when I can.''

Some industry observers, Norman Lear included, believe that the combination of RCA chairman Thornton Bradshaw (who, at ARCO, gained prominence in literary circles as the businessman who saved the London Observer) and Grant Tinker at NBC will prove to be an unbeatable one. Does he believe they are compatible personalities?''

I'll let Brad speak for himself, but I feel very comfortable with him. He is the reason I am here and I believe that RCA could not be more happily run than it will be by Thornton Bradshaw.''

He has already done several apparently new things here. He has connected RCA and NBC in an almost daily fashion. There used to be a feeling that NBC was an island within the RCA family but never the feeling of connection. He has made that connection already. I participate every week in a meeting where divisional heads come together upstairs and we talk out what we are all doing. . . .''

The thing I like most about Brad is that he is a hands-off, eyes-on supervisor, as far as NBC is concerned. You do not have the feeling that he is going to do your job or second guess you, but you know he is aware of the way you handle things all the time.''

I saw him yesterday and I had the feeling that he had read all the same things I had read. He is very tuned in to everything happening here.''

Does Grant Tinker believe that television has been a negative influence on the younger generations?''

I am not sociologist enough to be able to answer that in any useful way. But I do think that television can be faulted over the years for a certain kind of bloodless violence, a kind of deathless death. This kind of thing may give an impressionable child the feeling that a blow doesn't hurt, that blood isn't real , that bullets don't kill, etc. If that's true, I think it is one way in which we should clean up our act.''

However, I think television has already cleaned up its act in many ways. I think it is now much more aware and much more responsible than it was a few years ago. We have people who spend all their time trying to make sure that we don't overstep the bounds.''

If you are asking if TV is the genesis of violence, I would say it is more likely that television may be reflecting the reality out there, especially in inner cities.''

What would he consider a successful term in office for himself?

''A combination of two things - on the business side and on the programming side. I should not have been hired in the first place if I did not intend to recognize the business side of my job. High on my list of priorities is to make sure that NBC is viable in a way that it hasn't been in recent years. That's one of the two.

''The other is that I have a feeling that TV is a marvelous instrument we have in our hands right now and with it comes certain obligations. One of them is to be a service as well as an entertainment. Lately, in this intense competitive climate, the word 'service' has disappeared and only surfaces at certain times on the schedule. I want the viewer to be better informed, better educated, left with a little something when the entertainment is over. I would like to make that sort of contribution to television. And I do not believe my two goals are mutually exclusive.''

So, as the Grant Tinker-Thornton Bradshaw combination moves into position, the television optimists talk about a new era of quality television, perhaps even a new ''Golden Age.'' But some doubters praise both men even as they raise their eyebrows just a bit. There is a perception that RCA's restless stockholders may be expecting too much from Grant Tinker too soon.

Says Robert Wood, outspoken former head of CBS, now in independent production with Metromedia Inc.: ''If they expect an instant saviour, then they don't know the business. I hope they give him enough time. I think Grant needs three seasons. If anyone expects a dramatic upheaval at NBC in less time than that they are kidding themselves.'' NBC, last season's third-place network, finished in third place for the first week of the new season.

However, top-rated CBS, which is used to dealing with Grant Tinker when he was one of their chief suppliers of quality programming at MTM, looks toward NBC warily.

CBS entertainment head B. Donald (Bud) Grant says: ''Grant Tinker is a good friend and will be a tough competitor. His track record as a producer of literate and successful television entertainment will undoubtedly be reflected in NBC's future performance.''

That will be good for all of us.''

Meantime, Tinker quietly wings his way west and then wings his way back east, eyes focused on new scripts, memos on new series ideas, last year's unimpressive stockholders' report. Just a little bit nervous about RCA's - and the whole industry's - level of expectation for him, but still planning to move forward with what he considers ''literate, quality entertainment.''

American TV may not have found another Wunderkind. But it certainly looks as if, in Grant Tinker, they have found a Wundermensch.

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