DIED: August 27, 1997 • Los Angeles, California
American television executive
"Brandon wasn't impatient. If he believed in a show, he gave it time to find its audience. Brandon understood what viewers wanted. He loved making television because he loved watching television."
—PBS president Pat Mitchell
When Brandon Tartikoff was only thirty-one years old, he became the president of programming for the NBC television network. During the ten years that Tartikoff remained in this position, his choices helped make NBC the highest-rated network in the United States. The secret to the young businessman's success lay in his belief that American viewers wanted to see innovative, well-written shows. Instead of canceling critically praised series that received low ratings (measures of the number of viewers watching a particular program), Tartikoff waited for the television audience to discover the virtues of these shows. Some of the programs that he kept despite low ratings were Family Ties, Cheers, and St. Elsewhere. Tartikoff was also responsible for introducing viewers to such new programs as The Cosby Show, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld.
Building a career in television
Brandon Tartikoff was born on January 13, 1949, in the town of Freeport on Long Island, New York. His parents, Jordan and Enid Tartikoff, noticed early on that their son had a different relationship to television than most kids. Instead of just watching television shows, Tartikoff always viewed the entertainment critically. After watching the premiere of the situation comedy Dennis the Menace, according to The Last Great Ride, the young boy remarked, "They could have made that show much better."
After completing boarding school, Tartikoff went on to study broadcasting at Yale University. He graduated from Yale with honors in 1970 and then got a job as the director of advertising and promotion for WTNH, a television station in New Haven, Connecticut. Tartikoff had only been out of Yale three years when ABC affiliate WLS-TV in Chicago, Illinois, hired him as its executive in charge of dramatic programming. Tartikoff improved the station's ratings by writing a comedy-variety show and coming up with creative promotions. For example, Tartikoff originated programming stunts such as "Not for the Weak Week," when the station broadcast lots of horror films.
While working in Chicago, Tartikoff was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a type of cancer that affects the lymph nodes (part of the immune system). Although he underwent a difficult series of treatments that caused him to lose fifty pounds, Tartikoff did not take any sick leave. Once his cancer went into remission (stopped growing and became inactive), the young executive became determined to use the experience as motivation. "When I got cancer and was faced with at least an understanding of my mortality, nothing was a given anymore," he explained to People. "It helped me channel my energies."
Turning around a failing network
Tartikoff's career really started to take off in 1976, when the president of ABC, Fred Silverman (1937–; see entry), saw a WLS promotion called Gorilla My Dreams. When Silverman learned that Tartikoff had come up with the idea, he hired the young programmer to be the manager of dramatic development for ABC. Within a year, Tartikoff had earned a promotion to the position of program executive for current dramatic programming at the network.
In 1978, Silverman took a job as the president of rival network NBC. Tartikoff followed him to NBC and immediately began climbing through the executive ranks of the network. By 1980, at the age of thirty-one, Tartikoff had been named NBC's president of programming. At this time, NBC ranked a distant third among the three major broadcast networks in terms of overall audience. The network had a number of unpopular programs and faced financial difficulties. Many people in the television industry wondered whether the new management team could lead NBC out of its slump.
Unfortunately, NBC continued to struggle under Silverman, and he resigned as head of the network in 1981. But Tartikoff remained on as president of programming under new network president Grant Tinker, a former television producer with MTM Productions. Tinker gave Tartikoff a great deal of freedom to make programming choices, and the young executive soon found a formula for success. Tartikoff decided to support solidly written, critically well-received programs even if they failed to attract strong ratings at first. Some of the shows he saved from cancellation were Family Ties, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. All of these shows went on to find an enthusiastic audience and become hits.
Tartikoff also participated in the creation of several new shows as president of programming at NBC. In 1984, for instance, he saw the African American actor and comedian Bill Cosby (1937–; see entry) perform on The Tonight Show and decided to work with Cosby to develop a family comedy series. Tartikoff brought in producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey to help create The Cosby Show, which aired from 1984 to 1992 and reached the top spot in the annual TV ratings for four seasons. The success of The Cosby Show led to increased opportunities for African Americans on television and helped energize the sitcom format.
Tartikoff's programming choices, although sometimes risky, paid off for NBC by enhancing its reputation as a high-quality network. Of course, Tartikoff promoted some forgettable shows during his tenure at NBC, such as The Bay City Blues and Jennifer Slept Here, but he also helped develop some tremendously successful programs, such as Miami Vice, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld.
During his years at NBC, Tartikoff not only became one of the most powerful figures in television, but he also emerged as a sort of celebrity. He made several guest appearances on TV programs, gave interviews on talk shows, and even hosted Saturday Night Live. "So much of what NBC is about today is due to Brandon," Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, told People. "He was the most competitive person I ever knew, and for the first time in history NBC cared about winning. He always won with style, grace, and most of all humor." By the time Tartikoff left NBC in 1991, the network had been ranked number one for six seasons in a row.
Taking over Paramount Pictures and AOL Entertainment
After leaving NBC, Tartikoff spent one year as the chairman of a major motion picture studio, Paramount Pictures. Despite facing budget limitations, he managed to turn out several box-office successes, including The Addams Family, Wayne's World, and Indecent Proposal. Tartikoff also wrote a memoir, The Last Great Ride, about his years at NBC.
In 1992, Tartikoff and one of his two daughters were involved in a serious car accident. His daughter suffered a traumatic head injury, and Tartikoff resigned from his job at Paramount in order to help out during her recovery. Afterward he became head of New World Entertainment, but he left a short time later when it was purchased by another company. Then Tartikoff started his own production company, which he called H. Beale after a character in the movie Network. In 1997, Tartikoff took a job with the Internet services company America Online (AOL) to help develop online entertainment programs.
Tartikoff's cancer returned shortly after he embarked on this new venture. Once again, he continued to work while he underwent treatment, frustrating his doctors by ignoring their orders to rest. On August 27, 1997, Tartikoff finally lost his twenty-five-year battle against Hodg-kin's disease and died at the UCLA Medical Center. His funeral was attended by hundreds of notable figures from the world of television, including Ted Danson, Jerry Seinfeld, Fred Silverman, Grant Tinker, and Danny De Vito.
In 2004, the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) honored Tartikoff by presenting the first annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards. "In the spirit of Tartikoff's generosity of spirit and creative leadership, the awards will celebrate a select group of television professionals who exhibit extraordinary passion, leadership, independence, and vision in the process of creating television programming," the organization explained in a press release quoted by PR Newswire.
Upon winning one of the awards, PBS president Pat Mitchell provided her recollections of Tartikoff to Variety: "Brandon Tartikoff's legacy can be seen in some of television's biggest hits of the moment, whether it's Desperate Housewives, Lost, The Sopranos, or The Shield. They're examples of his legacy because he showed quality programming can succeed in commercial television. Brandon wasn't impatient. If he believed in a show, he gave it time to find its audience. Brandon understood what viewers wanted. He loved making television because he loved watching television."
For More Information
Tartikoff, Brandon, with Charles Leerhsen. The Last Great Ride. New York: Random House, 1992.
Aucoin, Don. "Tartikoff Never Muted His Own Audio." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 27, 1997.
Gliatto, Tom. "Televisionary." People, September 15, 1997.
Levine, Stuart. "Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards." Variety, January 22, 2003.
Goodman, Tim. "Brandon Tartikoff Dead of Cancer." SFGate.com, August 28, 1997. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/e/a/1997/08/28/STY-LE1231.dtl&hw=brandon+tartikoff&sn=002&sc=796 (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Hatton, Steve. "NBC Celebrates 75 Years of Broadcasting: The Brandon Tartikoff Era." Suite101.com, April 1, 2002. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/television_review/90650 (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"NATPE Unveils the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards." NATPE.org, October 22, 2003. http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/10-22-2003/0002041815&EDATE= (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"Tartikoff, Brandon." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/T/htmlT/tartikoffbr/tartikoffbr.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"The Two-Edged Legacy of Brandon Tartikoff." TeeVee.org, August 29, 1997. http://www.teevee.org/archive/1997/08/29/index.html (accessed on May 22, 2006).