Television is so deluged with Princess Diana tributes over the next few weeks, I felt compelled to double-check who won the Revolutionary War. As crass as it sounds, though, the 10-year anniversary of her death and more recent Hurricane Katrina landmark come at an ideal time for such lavish attention, feeding cable’s appetite for easy-to-promote fare during the relatively barren period before Labor Day.
Meanwhile, another decade-old event — one steeped in more than just nostalgia for those who earn a living in TV — is approaching with almost nary a mention: The death of Brandon Tartikoff, who succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease on Aug. 27, 1997, at age 48.
Pausing to reflect on Tartikoff’s legacy seems appropriate — not just because he was always great fun to write about (someone who “cast a bright light,” as former boss Grant Tinker eloquently put it), but also because the TV world in which he thrived has changed so dramatically in the mere geologic hiccup since he left us.
Given his larger-than-life personality and indefatigable passion for programming, Tartikoff represented his own kind of Hollywood royalty, guiding NBC Entertainment through a historic decade-long run in the 1980s. In a business where network presidents come and go like Oakland Raider coaches, he occupied the hot seat so long and enjoyed the perch so thoroughly he not surprisingly titled his autobiography “The Last Great Ride.”
The media business speeds along a more serpentine, confounding track these days, beginning with the oversized scheduling grids Tartikoff delighted in rearranging like a kid playing with blocks. While networks must be mindful of what the competition is up to each night, such considerations are complicated by exploding options and time-shifted viewing — a landscape where a made-for-TV Disney Channel musical can trounce the major networks, attracting an audience that’s never heard of “Gigi” or “West Side Story.”
More than anything, Tartikoff brought an infectious sense of joy to the job along with an unabashed love for the medium from its gems to its garbage (especially if that garbage delivered a 30 share). He also possessed a self-effacing sense of humor that allowed him to embrace his flops — no doubt partly due to regular brushes with mortality, having first been diagnosed with cancer in his 20s.
At NBC, he exhibited a rare theatrical flair, from his eagerness to tape cameo appearances (he even hosted “Saturday Night Live”) to kicking off a press conference flanked by an actor dressed as a priest, literally swearing on a stack of bibles to never order another special hosted by Geraldo Rivera.
Still, my memories of Tartikoff come not solely from the period when NBC was sitting pretty but also after his uneven stints at Paramount Pictures, New World and in independent production.
Even relegated to a hospital bed, Tartikoff worked the phones so feverishly that one call from him in 1997 was interrupted when his nurse yanked the receiver away. Around that time he wrote an article cleverly laying out his own simple rules for TV development, such as, “Don’t get hung up on the concept. 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.’”
He also suggested that “Every show should be somebody’s favorite show,” anticipating today’s increasingly pay-to-view environment, where the chasm between programs people clamor to see and easily sidestepped filler has grown steadily wider.
As an academic exercise, the interesting question is what Tartikoff might have done for a third act had he been granted one. Before his death, he became involved in a start-up venture to deliver entertainment online, and while most of those schemes fizzled, his insatiable curiosity and desire to stay in the thick of things surely would have kept him banging on new doors, or finding a position where people would bang on his.
Although we hardly need another sappy anniversary, there are fitting ways to commemorate Tartikoff’s ride: Revel in one of your failures; call the ratings hotline before dawn; obsess over what show will win a time-period showdown; and savor a TV program, whether great or goofy, strictly on its own terms.