Critical favorites face firing line

Tinker's 'first be best' approach takes a hit

Grant Tinker’s ears must be ringing.

The legendary producer and network president won over TV critics during his tenure atop NBC by promoting the mantra “First be best, then be first,” a philosophy adopted in recent years by Peacock entertainment topper Kevin Reilly.

Instead, the philosophy morphed into “First be best, then be fired,” as Reilly wound up on the unemployment line (though not for long, as Fox swooped in and named him prexy earlier this month).

NBC’s patience with its “quality first” strategy — particularly if its overall primetime numbers fail to budge — could run out by the end of the coming TV season, again demonstrating the tightrope networks tiptoe in trying to attract the broadest audience possible while still amassing buzz, critical acclaim and Emmys.

“The hope always is that they’re not mutually exclusive,” says Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth. “Quality is something that you can apply to each and every TV show no matter the conceit. But we’re in the business of broadcasting still, even though the slice of the pie is diminishing. You have to appeal to the greatest number of people around the world.”

Roth is encouraged by the recent spate of hit shows that have also been critical darlings, such as “Lost,” “Ugly Betty” and “Heroes.”

“The most successful shows of the past five years qualitatively have been outstanding and well-crafted fare,” he says. “And on the other hand, niche narrowcasting doesn’t necessarily mean well crafted. It just simply means a more narrow base.”

It was a vastly different TV landscape when Tinker made his famous pledge in 1982. The NBC topper had left a successful run as the head of production powerhouse MTM, which was known for its critically acclaimed crowdpleasers — including “Hill Street Blues,” which had just launched on the struggling Peacock.

Tinker and his top entertainment lieutenant, Brandon Tartikoff, stood by low-rated but acclaimed shows like “Cheers” and “St. Elsewhere” long enough for NBC to climb out of last place — and into TV lore.

It worked so well that Reilly used it for inspiration as he tried to turn around NBC — once again mired in the cellar. During his run at the Peacock, Reilly, like Tinker, earned the respect of critics (and the industry) by championing creatively strong shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock.”

Neither should have earned a sophomore year pickup based on ratings alone. Still, while they performed terribly with Nielsen, the shows’ critical praise was indicative of what viewers in a perfect world would be watching.

But fickle viewers can’t always be counted on to champion top-quality fare.

“That happens from time to time, and it’s the luck of the draw,” Roth says. “Sometimes incredibly well-crafted shows just don’t resonate with the public.”

As a result, even though several building blocks began to emerge — “Heroes” and “My Name Is Earl,” in addition to “The Office” — the ratings turnaround didn’t happen fast enough this time at NBC. Reilly was sent packing and replaced by Ben Silverman, who may be behind several creative gems (including “Office” and “Ugly Betty”) but remains better known for his knack at dealmaking and importing populist shows.

Still, there is hope that other networks are looking to strike a better balance. Execs at CBS, which is humming along smoothly after hitting No. 1 on the strength of mainstream popcorn fare like the “CSI” franchise, decided that now was the time to push the envelope and try to add a little more buzz and critical acclaim (not to mention awards) to its stable with such unusual shows this upcoming season as the semi-musical “Viva Laughlin” and the sexy “Swingtown.”

And others besides NBC are showing signs of patience when it comes to their quality offerings. Fox, for example, spent three years trying to make low-rated comedic gem “Arrested Development” a hit — and now has hired Reilly, which could imply a new commitment to quality fare.

CBS truly believes in “How I Met Your Mother” and is still optimistic the well-crafted show will break out — even though its numbers so far haven’t. The Eye is also taking a risk by reversing its position on “Jericho” and bringing that show back — while ABC will attempt to give “Men in Trees” another go-round.

None of those moves would have probably happened 10 years ago — but ironically, as the networks continue to erode, execs can actually live with smaller Nielsen results for a longer period of time — to a point.

“If it’s scheduled in the right place and marketed the right way and no matter what you can’t bring an audience to it, even if the critics like it and the network likes it, I don’t know if there’s room for it,” says TLC prexy Angela Shapiro-Mathes (who until recently ran Fox TV Studios). “Your job is to make a show that the audience loves.”

And sometimes, she notes, what the critics and industry folk fall in love with just doesn’t resonate with the rest of the country.

“I always think it’s less about the critics and more about the audience,” Shapiro-Mathes says. “When you make a show for you, or something that speaks to you, then unless you are a clear reflection of your audience, that’s not good enough. … Working in L.A. and New York, we tend to forget who that audience is sometimes.”

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