Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards

Bochco, Cherry, Mitchell look at the state of TV

This year’s recipients of the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards — Emmy-winning producer Steven Bochco, “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry and PBS president-CEO Pat Mitchell — look at the state of TV, where it’s been, where it’s going and how Tartikoff, the NBC programming legend, made a difference.

STEVEN BOCHCO

Has TV programming changed for the better over the past 10 years?
“Not necessarily better. Great shows are always great shows and will reflect the sensibilities and filmmaking technology of the current culture. From ‘Hill Street’ to ‘Lost,’ you see a vastly different ability to access technology. TV remains a vibrant medium and continues to evolve.”

Who are network programmers today beholden to? Is it all about the bottom line?
“Yes, and people need to get over it. You need to make the adjustment because it ain’t going back, though I wish it were less so. I wish it were a friendlier environment. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back. There’s a very itchy finger on the trigger most of the time. It’s a bottom-line deal today.”

Which shows would’ve succeeded no matter the era or time period?
” ‘Hill Street,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Miami Vice.’ ‘L.A. Law’ was an instant hit. Brandon did an amazing thing. ‘L.A. Law’ started life as a two-hour Sunday movie and was a huge ratings grabber. Then it began as an hour series on Friday and was opposite ‘Falcon Crest.’ It was doing OK and then three weeks into the season Brandon pulled ‘Hill Street’ on Thursday at 10 and put on ‘L.A. Law.’ ”

What’s Brandon’s legacy?
“We were very close friends and contemporaries. We had common sensibilities and were raised in a network environment that doesn’t exist today. There’s a little less room for going with your gut and sticking with something besides ratings now.

“When I think about Brandon, what I’m always struck by is his trust and what he did and what we did. He understood the delegation of that chore and left it to us. When I was leaving MTM in 1985, I asked Brandon, ‘What do you want me to develop?’ He said, ‘Steven, that’s not what I do. That’s what you do.’ He was really a remarkable man.”

MARC CHERRY

Has TV programming changed for the better over the past 10 years?
“The addition of the cable networks has made it better. There’s now diversity in programming and more edgy fare. When I started we were in the four-network mode. Now networks like HBO, Showtime and FX are each doing amazing stuff. Viewers have more of a choice now. On the other hand, we’ve lost 3 minutes on each show, so that hurts.”

Who are network programmers today beholden to? Is it all about the bottom line?
“My experience at ABC has been lovely. I wrote a script at home, and they produced it as written, I got only three different notes on it. I can only speak about ABC, who I’ve worked with most recently. They do stuff that they believe in, and it feels corporate-free. Brandon would’ve liked Steve McPherson. There were some in Disney that didn’t get ‘Housewives.’ Steve said putting it on at 9 p.m. Sunday was the correct decision and not everyone agreed with him. He had to tell people high up in the corporation that’s what he wanted to do and he took a shot.”

Which shows would’ve succeeded no matter the era or time period?
“I don’t know if ‘Golden Girls’ would’ve worked now. The network’s focus on the 18-49 demo has gotten insane. I’m not sure it would’ve made it today. Timeslots make a huge difference. Different shows on different nights mean different things. I think part of the reason ‘Housewives’ succeeded is it being on Sunday and people talked about us on Monday. It became a watercooler show. It got people talking. If we were on Friday, that might’ve been bad.”

What’s Brandon’s legacy?
“His reputation for quality. There aren’t too many executives known for that. He’s the guy who got ‘Golden Girls’ on the air, which was the first spec script I wrote. All of the NBC comedies I was watching in my late teens and early 20s — ‘Family Ties,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Cosby’ — were all influential on me.”

PAT MITCHELL

Has TV programming changed for the better over the past 10 years?
“What has changed is the way we get content, as well as the way we view, use and fund it. This has driven change for the better in some cases and for the worse in others. More choices haven’t necessarily meant better choices; programs on demand haven’t necessarily resulted in more demand for quality. So for producers, programmers and executives, what hasn’t changed is trying to understand what the public wants and to some degree what the public needs.”

Who are network programmers today beholden to? Is it all about the bottom line?
“For commercial media businesses, it’s always been about the bottom line. But today’s bottom line is getting hit on one side by ownership consolidation and on the other by proliferation of choices. Both pressures, in addition to the changes of disruptive technologies, are inhibiting creative risk-taking and encouraging a race to the bottom in terms of tastes and quality.”

Which shows would’ve succeeded no matter the era or time period?
“News and information programs. No matter how distracted we are or how much our tastes may change for entertainment, we will always need to know what’s going on in our communities, our country and our world. Whether that world is connected by telegraph, cell phone, radio, television or the Internet, the ability of mass communications to deliver the information that makes it possible for citizens to self-govern is fundamental to its value.”

What’s Brandon’s legacy?
“Brandon Tartikoff’s legacy can be seen in some of television’s biggest hits of the moment, whether it’s ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Shield.’

“They’re examples of his legacy because he showed quality programming can succeed in commercial television. Brandon wasn’t impatient. If he believed in a show, he gave it time to find its audience.

“Brandon understood what viewers wanted. He loved making television because he loved watching television.”

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