Grant Tinker: Let Quality Shows Find Their Audiences

The story of Grant Tinker is one of television's greatest success sagas as well as a cautionary tale about the current state of sitcom and drama production.

The only person ever to manage both a TV production company (MTM Enterprises) and a major network (NBC), Mr. Tinker spotted and nurtured such top writers and producers as Steven Bochco (''NYPD Blue''), James Brooks (''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ''The Simpsons''), and Gary David Goldberg (''Family Ties''). MTM's ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ''Lou Grant,'' and ''Hill St. Blues'' in the '70s broke a longstanding notion that high ratings and critical acclaim were mutually exclusive.

In 1981, Tinker left MTM to head NBC, which had seriously slipped in ratings (it was No. 3), profits, and company morale. By the time he left in 1986, NBC profits had increased 10-fold and programs like ''Cheers,'' ''St. Elsewhere,'' and ''The Cosby Show'' were winning more Emmys than the other networks combined.

''Grant Tinker is one of the most undercredited and unfairly forgotten figures in television history,'' says Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for the Los Angeles Times. Many give former NBC entertainment head Brandon Tartikoff the credit for NBC's success, he says, ''but it was Grant Tinker.... He had enormous influence.''

Tinker now works out of an office alongside his Bel-Air, Calif., home, where he wrote his memoirs (''Tinker in Television,'' Simon & Schuster) last year and is looking for new projects. In today's TV environment, he says, he couldn't do what he did with MTM. ''With the huge cost of entering the business and suffering huge deficits up front, I would need some backer with deep pockets,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''That means bureaucracy, levels of management, money people to please, and 'thinking by committee,' where nothing ever gets done well.''

A typical one-hour drama like today's ''NYPD Blue'' or ''ER'' costs up to $1.4 million per episode. Because networks now have only two-thirds of the audience they had in the late 1970s, that affects the rates they can charge advertisers and the price they pay for programs. The flat rates that networks pay for shows stopped covering the costs of production years ago, Tinker points out. Producers must recoup their costs primarily by reselling the series after its first network run in prime time. But unless a show is strong enough to air for five seasons or 100 episodes (the number required for syndication), producers will lose money.

''I thought that my experience at NBC taught the networks at least one lesson, and that was to leave good shows on and let them find their audiences,'' Tinker says. He notes that three shows -- ''Hill St. Blues,'' ''St. Elsewhere,'' and ''Cheers'' -- were all slow ratings achievers whose equivalent numbers today would bring them early cancellation.

In the 1950s, networks typically requested 39 episodes of a show. In the summer, instead of reruns, the networks would try new ideas and personalities. A typical sitcom had the better part of a year to win respectable ratings. But the number of episodes began dropping in the late 1960s when executives found they could get by with 26 new shows and as many repeats. They also began dropping innovative summer formats, where performers and writers could get exposure while honing their craft.

By the late '70s, network programmers began to insist a show succeed after 13 episodes; by the late '80s, it was eight. Today, networks order six shows at a time, and sometimes only three.

Tinker compares TV to baseball. ''There never were enough heavy hitters to go around, even when there were only three networks,'' he says. ''Now with three more networks and cable, the batting average, by analogy, is lower,'' he says. ''And a .300-hitter wins the game.''

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