Brandon Stoddard is dead. And you probably have to be a certain age – at least, old enough to remember when it really was possible to have 40% of the U.S. simultaneously watch something other than the Super Bowl – to appreciate what a loss that represents.
As an executive at ABC, Stoddard presided over televised events whose resonance and influence speak to a different time. The term “epic” is overused, but the productions with which Stoddard was associated didn’t just merit the term; they practically defined it.
“Roots” famously emptied restaurants across America. “The Day After” soberly presented the threat of nuclear annihilation – and aired despite pressure from the White House to quash it.
In this age where “limited series” have become all the rage, Stoddard championed events like “The Thorn Birds,” “The Winds of War,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Masada,” which established the template and set the standard for the form.
In a 1999 interview, David L. Wolper, the producer responsible for “Roots” and “Thorn Birds,” lamented that executives at the time lacked the guts – although he used a more colorful term – to take those kinds of gambles.
“They won’t do it because they’re afraid,” he said. “You have to have balls. You have to say, ‘We think it’s going to work. Let’s go with it.’ Either you’re going to kill the world, or you’re going to fall on your rear end.”
Stoddard did indeed wind up on the seat of his pants from time to time, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Even “Roseanne,” which he commissioned while heading ABC Entertainment, tapped into a cultural nerve in a way few sitcoms had before, and even fewer since.
Still, the gee-whiz ratings accomplishments barely scratch the surface of what distinguished Stoddard. Witty, thoughtful and self-effacing, he wasn’t without ego – nobody reaches that level of success without some – but Stoddard could have taught a master class on how to behave in Hollywood as an executive and still leave people thinking well of you.
That included an unusual knack for dealing with the press, which I witnessed first-hand as a cub reporter while Stoddard was running ABC. So it came as a shock to hear him admit – and receive confirmation from associates – that he was a nervous wreck before those press conferences, to the point where it nearly made him ill.
A few years after he left ABC, I interviewed Stoddard for a piece about how it happened that most entertainment division presidents generally lasted no more than four years in the job. While the analogy to politics seemed obvious, Stoddard wryly compared the length of service to the average sentence for a white-collar criminal.
In that context, Stoddard expressed inordinate admiration for the other Brandon, with whom he competed at NBC, Tartikoff, and his longevity in the position, saying his counterpart was uniquely suited temperamentally to enduring the rigors of running a network.
As is so often the case, I got to know Stoddard better after he left ABC, and had the pleasure of conducting his interview for the Television Academy’s Archives of American Television. Listening to the executive spend hours reminiscing about his career and its various milestones was amusing, enlightening, and for someone who saw many of the signature productions as a youth, like watching one’s life flash before your eyes.
Stoddard occasionally joked about being the other Brandon – Tartikoff certainly cast a big and bright light – but he needn’t have worried. The business in the ’70s and ’80s was big enough to accommodate both of them, and in some respects, TV never felt bigger than when the two were plying their trade.
Stoddard’s productions loom large in the collective consciousness, assuring his legacy decades later. But more than anything, there’s reason to miss the guy who stood behind them.