Exec’s love of the game showed in the shows

LAS VEGAS — BRANDON TARTIKOFF wasn’t an especially big guy, which is why it’s hard not to marvel at the length and breadth of his shadow and the continuing resonance of his words.

Awards were presented in his name at the NATPE confab here, but even barring that reminder, not a day goes by, in trying to make sense of the TV world, without a Tartikoff line coming to mind — perhaps because of his unusually long tenure at NBC and the number of executives whom he influenced.

Once a rollicking party in search of a convention, NATPE is now an industry gathering and forum laboring to survive the not-so-benign neglect of the studios that nourished and supported it. No wonder the event’s purpose feels slightly confused, like a child caught between feuding parents.

Against that backdrop, it’s appropriate to contemplate the legacy of Tartikoff, whose passion for the medium and sheer exuberance stand in stark contrast to the clouds that now almost perpetually hover over the TV business.

Perhaps foremost, Tartikoff reveled in the inevitable roller coaster that is the programming game, laughing at his lows as well as embracing his highs. It’s no accident that he titled his autobiography “The Last Great Ride.”

At a time when tolerance of setbacks has ebbed while the odds against success have risen, Tartikoff “celebrated his failures,” noted Caryn Mandabach, a principal in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach. Tellingly, when Mandabach said at a panel here Sunday, “Creatively, you can learn from your failures,” an exec at ad agency MindShare, Irwin Gottlieb, scoffed at her.

(Note to Gottlieb: “MindShare” sounds like one of the evil corporations in a Schwarzenegger movie. Might want to work on that.)

Tartikoff died in 1997, but even when his Hodgkin’s disease recurred he couldn’t resist ruminating about the TV biz — thoughts that frequently echo today when execs like NBC’s Kevin Reilly or the WB’s Garth Ancier discuss strategy.

THOSE INSIGHTS ARE ESPECIALLY timely as networks head into the thick of the primetime development season, following the by-now customary recitation of “The business must change” mantra during sessions with TV critics earlier this month.

“Every show should be somebody’s favorite show,” Tartikoff said, presaging the niche mentality that has pervaded the business and served channels such as HBO very well.

“Don’t get hung up on the concept,” he wrote several months before his death, concluding, “Viewers make friends with the characters, not the concept. Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, ‘I wish somebody would put on a good fire-station comedy.’ ”

Compare that with the prevailing state of development, particularly since the ascendance of so-called reality programming, where concept is everything — with each new show seemingly determined to trump its big fat obnoxious predecessors.

“Put on what’s not on,” Tartikoff said, suggesting programmers often spend too much time “chasing trends instead of starting them.”

Most of the ratings breakthroughs in recent years indeed reflect instances where networks simply zigged where everyone else was zagging — from quizshows to talent contests to grotesque bug-eating twists on gameshows.

Tartikoff endured at NBC for more than a decade — a reign akin to FDR’s, especially given that a handful of execs have occupied the same chair in the dozen years since he left. Small wonder that his path crossed those of so many wrestling with the state of TV circa 2004.

“The list of people that he nurtured is just extraordinary,” Fred Silverman, who played a similar mentoring role with Tartikoff, observed at the NATPE ceremony Monday night.

MUCH VERBIAGE has been devoted to TV this month, with a parade of terms flying by such as “52-week development” and “monetize” and “brand integration.” Yet the phrase that most stuck with me was uttered by a network exec who died more than six years ago, in an interview clip shown at the awards ceremony named for him.

“If you don’t love television,” Tartikoff said, “you will never function effectively in this job.”

As the industry’s elite grapples with such thorny matters as redoing TV’s cost structure, the sense of elan that Tartikoff brought to one of the most storied runs in its history is worth remembering. And if execs are right that they can’t just keep singing the same old songs, I’d argue that a few oldies but goodies still apply, such as the one that asks, “Where is the love?”

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