Brandon Tartikoff: TV’s Best Programmer Ever?

Barrooms are customarily the site of debates about who was the greatest pitcher or point guard or quarterback ever.

A university, I suppose, is as good a place as any to launch a similar discussion — however fruitless it might be — about TV executives.

The Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Collection was unveiled at the USC School of CInematic Arts on Thursday evening, and “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf — who was among the speakers paying tribute to the late NBC programming whiz — said without any equivocation that Tartikoff was “the single greatest television programming executive in the history of the medium.”

Was he? And how do you even outline the criteria for the argument?

This arises, interestingly enough, after someone (who, I should note, does not have a dog in the fight) recently contacted me, suggesting I write a piece in which I propose — or at least open a dialogue — as to whether CBS CEO Leslie Moonves qualifies as the most successful TV exec ever.

Like Tartikoff, Moonves has spent an awfully long time now at a single network (and just extended his CBS tenure by several years), and had the advantage of enjoying enormous success as a studio executive at Lorimar and Warner Bros. Television before he moved to CBS in the mid-1990s. That’s sort of like Phil Jackson winning titles with both the Lakers and the Bulls.

Then again, Tartikoff’s predecessor, Fred Silverman, held the top programming post at all three major networks, and also had successes as a producer after leaving them.

The hardest aspect in any of these discussions is the allocation of credit, especially since Tartikoff also spent part of his career working under Grant Tinker, who would be part of any such debate, given his run at MTM before NBC. Indeed, I’d also include another Brandon — Stoddard, who developed such staggering events as “Roots” and “The Day After,” as well as “Roseanne” — during a tenure at ABC that partially overlapped with Silverman. Turning to cable, Chris Albrecht also had a pretty spectacular stretch — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Sex and the City” — at HBO.

Frankly, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, if one virtually designed to muddy the waters — especially if you broaden the parameters of “programming” to include someone like Roone Arledge, whose career straddled news and sports; or pioneering figures like William Paley and Leonard Goldenson. Granted, they eclipse the definition of “programming executives,” per se, but these days so does Moonves.

For all that, I confess it’s difficult to argue with Tartikoff, given the length of his tenure and the mix of critical and commercial success NBC achieved in the 1980s. But I’m also open to suggestions.

And Wolf got it absolutely right in one respect, closing his remarks about the Tartikoff era by saying, “Just remember: It’s not coming around again.”


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