Conjectures on how TV legend would handle modern challenges

Brandon Tartikoff was the first member of the generation raised on TV to control what a network put on TV.

Named NBC’s program chief in 1981 at the age of 31, the wunderkind gave us modern classics like “Cheers” and “St. Elsewhere” — and was an effusive champion of the medium itself. He lived and breathed TV, having grown up in the glow of the cathode ray tube.

That depth of affection is behind NATPE’s Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, annually honoring “extraordinary passion, leadership, independence and vision in the process of creating television programming.”

But today’s recipients don’t live in Tartikoff’s broadcast TV universe — that fat and happy era of three networks and negligible competition. Tartikoff’s early death in 1997 came before cable’s “The Sopranos,” before the World Wide Web and digital delivery, even before the advent of DVD.

New media like these confront 2009 Legacy honorees Chuck Lorre, Tyler Perry, Anne Sweeney and the man sitting in Tartikoff’s NBC programming seat today, Ben Silverman. The latter-day execs also face an economic implosion. Under these crushing circumstances, what would Brandon do?

“I think his attitude around it all would be, be smarter and work harder,” says Silverman, who became NBC’s entertainment co-chairman in 2007, at 36, after running the busy Reveille production company (“The Office,” “Ugly Betty”).

Silverman actually worked under Tartikoff in the ’90s at New World and remembers pitching a show together about “rollerblading cops. He made me go out and buy a pair to use in the presentation,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t leave anything up to anyone’s imagination.’ ”

Silverman grasped the need to be clear and direct. He also learned to be “focused on passion meeting creativity meeting programming.”

Silverman thinks his early-career mentor would meet today’s business challenges “with a real optimism and an opportunistic approach.”

“He’d be applauding up and down” NBC’s audacious gambit of scheduling Jay Leno live at 10 in a primetime strip, Silverman says. “The show’s the thing. But we have to make sure we’re sustaining the capacity to make those shows.”

Showrunner Lorre describes himself as a “baby writer” on “My Two Dads” when that sitcom was in Tartikoff’s NBC lineup. “(Brandon) would sit in with the writers and pitch jokes. He jumped right into the pool,” says Lorre, who’d go on to work on “Roseanne,” create “Dharma & Greg,” and establish his own sitcom mini-empire with CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

“What I took away from it,” says Lorre, “was his unbridled enthusiasm for television. I loved that he loved the medium.” Lorre extended that love in “Dharma” by turning the prosaic production company end-credit into vanity card comedy, writing freeze-frame riffs on showbiz and pop culture (“I believe that the obsessive worship of movie, TV and sports figures is less likely to produce spiritual gain than praying to Thor”). He’s delivered more than 230 separate cards of guerrilla wit in the Tartikoff spirit.

“I think it’s just bent enough to appeal to him,” Lorre says. “He had a wicked sense of humor. But he was mostly driven to make great television.” Lorre’s own drive has him sticking with the shows he’s created throughout their run. “I’m not willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. It breaks my heart when we put something on TV that’s not right, because you can’t take it back.”

Where Lorre works a genre Tartikoff absolutely understood, Sweeney deals with delivery systems he possibly never imagined. As co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, Sweeney oversees global network and cable operations whose programs are also delivered via on-demand, online, mobile and downloadable platforms.

That wealth of viewing options would have tickled Tartikoff, Sweeney thinks. “He was someone who was never bound by one platform; he was excited by new ideas.”

Her intersection with Tartikoff came during his days at Paramount, when Sweeney was working kids’ franchises at Nickelodeon. He loved talking children’s films, she remembers, “because he saw a gap in the marketplace. He was so in tune with viewers and their likes and dislikes, what they get, what they hadn’t seen yet.”

Tartikoff understood the consumer, and Sweeney says that’s ultimately “what underlies everything global and multiplatform. It all ties back to finding new and inventive ways of reaching them with the greatest shows you can make.”

Disney-ABC broke ground under Sweeney as the first studio to sell content through iTunes, making TV truly portable. “It’s a very intimate experience when you think of TV shows and movies you watch on your laptop or on a video iPod. … I think Brandon would have been right there because it’s yet another way to connect with your audience.”

Audience connection is the foundation of Perry’s career. The grassroots writer-performer has flourished by speaking directly to a previously overlooked African-American constituency, first in his touring-theater crowdpleasers, then in sleeper movie blockbusters (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman”), and now in sitcoms like cable/syndication’s “House of Payne” and TBS’ “Meet the Browns.”

In expanding into TV, Perry says, “I had to find a way to do it where I could maintain creative control.” He rejected the idea of working with networks who “told me I couldn’t say Jesus on television and told me all the things I needed to change.”

The 39-year-old entrepreneur forged ahead to produce “Payne” himself, testing it on-air locally for two weeks to demonstrate its faith-and-family appeal at a time when sitcoms were being declared dead. “Payne” then launched on TBS to record ratings and went immediately into syndication, with Perry guaranteeing to make 100 episodes at his own Atlanta studio.

“The old model — producing six episodes, 12 episodes, one show a week — is broken,” Perry says. “The financial model has to be rethought.” So, too, he says, does the concept of “maintaining a very broad blanket of covering everyone.” In a media landscape of dozens of channels, “you have to be much more specific and much more targeted.”

Tartikoff “blazed his own path rather than follow the steps of others,” says an admiring Perry, whohe believes his own trajectory embodies that legacy.

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