Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC programming wunderkind whose scheduling savvy transformed the Peacock web from a primetime cellar-dweller to the top of the Nielsen charts in the mid-1980s with such revolutionary shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “The Cosby Show” and “Miami Vice,” died Wednesday of Hodgkin’s disease.
He was 48.
Tartikoff died at UCLA Medical Center, where he had been undergoing chemotherapy for his latest of several bouts with Hodgkin’s. Despite the illness, he had continued working as an indie producer, even meeting as recently as last week with Sony execs about a pilot project in development there.
The indomitable Tartikoff had the rare distinction of being chairman at both a TV network and a film studio. At age 31 he became the youngest entertainment chief in network TV history.
During the 1980s, he and network president Grant Tinker revived the fortunes of the ailing web, striking gold with the likes of “Cheers,” “The Golden Girls,” “L.A. Law,” “Family Ties” and particularly “The Cosby Show.” NBC slowly climbed to the top and by the end of the decade had an unparalleled Nielsen year, bringing in profits of $500 million. NBC had a five-year run as the No. 1 network under Tartikoff’s leadership.
After almost a decade at the network, Tartikoff left to be president of Paramount Pictures, after having been courted by other film studios. His tenure there was not especially memorable and lasted only 15 months; he resigned in October 1992, citing family obligations. On New Year’s Day 1991, he and his 8-year-old daughter Calla were in a serious auto accident near Lake Tahoe, and Tartikoff said he wanted time to spend with Calla and his wife Lilly.
In his most recent high-profile position, he ran New World Entertainment as chairman, working on projects for local television, syndication, the Internet and cable until the company was sold to News Corp. in January.
Born in New York on Jan. 13, 1949, Tartikoff studied at Lawrenceville, a New Jersey boarding school, and Yale. His first job was right out of school at a local station in New Haven, followed by a job at ABC affiliate WLS Chicago.
During his tenure at WLS, Tartikoff was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and underwent chemotherapy, losing 50 pounds in the process but never missing work. The cancer went into remission, but returned more than once during his life.
At WLS, station ratings were boosted by his promotional packages of old movies (for example, “Not for the Weak Week,” a collection of horror movies). He was also a writer and produced a comedy-variety series “Graffiti.”
His successful gimmicks came to the attention of ABC network head Fred Silverman, who hired him in 1976 as manager of dramatic development and mentored him, promoting him several months later to program executive of current dramatic programming. But by fall 1977 Tartikoff departed for a better job: director of comedy programs at NBC.
Silverman moved over to be president of NBC and promoted Tartikoff to head of West Coast programming. Then in 1980, Silverman named him president of programming. At 31, Tartikoff was the youngest division president in the network’s history.
Silverman had exhibited a golden touch at ABC, but at NBC he and Tartikoff made one mistake after another, such as “Manimal” and “The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.” A year later Silverman was fired and MTM producer Grant Tinker replaced him.
Tinker gave Tartikoff greater rein, and in fall 1982 the NBC lineup introduced such shows as “Cheers,” “Family Ties” and “St. Elsewhere.” All were critically well received, but none performed well in the ratings. So far in the basement was the network that affiliates were in rebellion. Rather than spend the money for new shows, Tartikoff let some of the current crop run. And slowly, they caught on.
He would continue to champion quality programs that had a hard time finding an audience, such as “Hill Street Blues.” Given time and Emmys, all these shows turned into ratings hits and syndication goldmines (though not for the network).
There were also hits like “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider,” which was more to Silverman’s taste than Tinker’s and fairly traditional. But other shows like “Miami Vice” were mini-revolutions in network hourlong programming. Just when the media was pronouncing sitcoms a dead genre, “The Cosby Show” led to a renaissance in the field.
As with all creative decisions, there was much debate over who was “responsible” for thinking up shows like “The Golden Girls.” Certainly the writers, such as Susan Harris and production company Witt-Thomas-Harris, deserve a major portion of the credit, as do NBC execs such as Tinker, Warren Littlefield and Jeff Sagansky. But it was Tartikoff who gave the greenlight.
NBC had hit a low point in 1981, when the web saw $48 million in profits. By 1984, that had increased to $218 million, and profit was as high as $605 million by 1989. Under Tartikoff and Tinker, NBC’s profits soared and the network was sold for $6.4 billion to General Electric in 1986.
The network had an unprecedented streak at the top of the heap from June 1988 until October 1989 — 68 straight weeks.
Tartikoff was also one of the highest-paid network executives, reportedly earning $2.5 million a year, plus bonuses and stock options, at the top of his tenure. By 1990, after Tinker departed as chairman, Tartikoff was named president of NBC Entertainment and president of NBC Prods., moving Littlefield into his old position. By then the hit machine had started to slow, and with it, the profits.
Still, his legacy continued in TV. His kinder, gentler style of running a network and his narrowcasting of an affluent, middle-class viewer would continue to be practiced by his hand-picked successor, Littlefield, and would shape programming at all the major networks and even cable outlets.
Tartikoff also became a highly visible on-air personality, appearing on talkshows and the network’s “Saturday Night Live.” (As an in joke, the dog on one sitcom, “Punky Brewster,” was named Brandon.)
Shifting to pics
Tartikoff finally moved to a motion picture studio, a position he’d eyed for many years, and come close to taking at least once.
As chairman of Paramount Pictures, Tartikoff was given the mandate by Martin Davis to cut costs at the movie division. He raised eyebrows by greenlighting the quickly filmed, low-budget “All I Want for Christmas,” with doubters saying that he was bringing TV production sensibility into the incompatible area of filming.
However, Tartikoff continued to champion low-budget, modest titles, and purchased the rights to the profitable “The Addams Family” and greenlit “Wayne’s World,” based on a “Saturday Night Live” series of sketches.
His critics felt that the vision that had served him so well at the network was too small and restricted for films. Other films initiated during his tenure included “Leap of Faith,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Beverly Hills Cop 3.” In October 1992 he resigned.
At the time of his exit, Tartikoff denied to Daily Variety that he was leaving over frequent reported clashes with Paramount chieftains Davis and Stanley Jaffe. Tartikoff said, “Whatever differences we had got worked out very early on. The problems were there initially because it was a case of not knowing each other’s styles.”
As his reason for leaving he cited his daughter Calla’s need for him in her concussion recuperation effort in a special hospital in New Orleans. Though Tartikoff had suffered broken ribs and been out of work for a couple of months, his young daughter’s brain trauma injuries were far more serious.
In 1992, Tartikoff published an account of his NBC years, “The Last Great Ride.” Tartikoff relocated to New Orleans and started his own production company. Returning to L.A. in 1994, he signed a deal with E! Entertainment and then became chairman of New World Entertainment. In March of this year, he was named chairman of America Online’s new interactive unit, to develop programming especially for the Internet.
Tartikoff is survived by his wife Lilly; daughters Calla, 14, and Elisabeth , 3; his father, Jordan, of San Francisco; and a sister, Lisa Rosenthal of Burlingame.
Funeral services will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.
In lieu of flowers, the Tartikoff family requests that contributions be made to the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program, c/o Dennis Slamon, UCLA School of Medicine, 11-934 Factor Building, 10833 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90095-1678.
With reports from Timothy M. Gray, Jenny Hontz and Ray Richmond.