Brandon Tartikoff, beloved exec behind such TV classics as “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show” and “Seinfeld,” lives on as an artistic legend in suit’s clothing.
Back in the early ’80s, when GroupM CEO Irwin Gotlieb — one of four Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award honorees at this year’s NATPE, along with NBC U TV chair Jeff Gaspin, showrunner David E. Kelley and syndicated judge Judy Sheindlin — was senior VP and head of national broadcast programming for Benton and Bowles, he sat down with Tartikoff regularly to discuss strategy. Gotlieb was blown away by Tartikoff’s ability to sked programming more effectively than any competing network rep.
Brandon had a very precise way of looking at schedules,” Gotlieb explains. “He’d have the shows lined up almost prescriptively to attack a specific (competish) problem. You either outdo them, or you construct a lead-in they can’t overcome.”
Gotlieb theorizes that Tartikoff, who passed away in 1997, would probably schedule every bit as effectively in the current environment of fragmentation and proliferation by simply following the same approach.
Brandon would have come at it from the standpoint that fragmentation and proliferation are secondary issues,” Gotlieb says. “You have to be aware of them, but the prerequisite to any media is attracting an audience — and you attract an audience by creative content that is sufficiently compelling to get them to turn up. Great television performs today, perhaps not quite at the scale that it did many years ago, but when an ‘American Idol’ comes along, it does huge numbers.”
In 1984, a meeting with Tartikoff influenced a young Gaspin to consider switching from finance to development. Gaspin soon left his NBC News finance post in Manhattan to shadow Tartikoff in Burbank. For several months, Gaspin served as a liaison between East and West Coast offices, facilitating the detailed communication necessary to bring to air a primetime newsmagazine. That show became “Dateline,” the longest-running newsmag in NBC’s history.
I was a fly on the wall,” Gaspin says. “Brandon took me to a ton of his meetings and introduced me to all of the creative executives who were working here, which included Jamie Tarses and Kevin Reilly, and I learned from the inside what being a creative executive is all about.
Brandon loved competition,” Gaspin adds. “He would just fight hard. I think Brandon would be excited about digital; I think he would be all over new media.”
Kelley, prolific showrunner behind “Picket Fences,” “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice,” recalls the day in 1989 when Tartikoff boldly agreed to name the newbie Kelley exec producer on “L.A. Law.”
(Tartikoff) was appropriately wary of turning over the keys to this precious car to this kid who had only been in the business three years. It wasn’t a long meeting. Not a lot of schmoozing,” Kelley recounts. “Brandon just said, ‘So tell me your plans.’ And I did. And he was satisfied I knew what I was doing, and the show would not circle down the drain.” Kelley adds he wishes more TV execs would make brave, idiosyncratic choices based on passion and instinct.
Brandon had a mantra: Every show should be somebody’s favorite show. I don’t think executives really think that way anymore. I think what they’re aiming for is a show that will reach a broad constituency.”
Sheindlin, the wisecracking, gavel-knocking, CBS-syndicated powerhouse, met Tartikoff casually in the ’90s through her early producer Larry Lyttle and remembers him as a man with a strong-as-steel reputation and a strong personal brand, one with which she can identify. “I care about my name, because the program carries my name,” Sheindlin says. “Brandon Tartikoff has been gone for a decade, and yet when you speak of Brandon Tartikoff, people generally smile and say, ‘You know, he was a great guy.’ His reputation is as a person of vision.”
Sheindlin also identifies with Tartikoff’s commitment to consistent originality; she intends viewers to recognize her Judge Judy brand as consistent with her own strict and practical principles as a long-standing jurist.
You may like my style or not like my style. That’s your prerogative. But it’s my style, and I have to live or die with it,” she says.
Sheindlin says she experiences pressure now and then to alter her long-running program to rev ratings, but she refuses. Tartikoff wouldn’t attempt to alter a quality show he believed in either, she reasons: “I’m not going to dress up in a clown costume to make it interesting. (Viewers) have so many choices. What you have to do is make something so special people want to spend an hour of their day or a half-hour in your business. Brandon’s shows were that: quality, smart, interesting. They’ll be here forever.”