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Remembering Grant Tinker: "I hope that television is, on balance, a force for good”
November 30, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

The late Grant Tinker is being remembered today as a man who brought out the best in television, and his legacy supports that almost mystical accolade.

It’s worth adding, however, that Tinker also lived in the real TV world, where your whole menu can’t be shiitake mushroom soufflés. Sometimes you also need burgers and fries or you won’t stay in business.

When Tinker died Monday at the age of 90, the gems of his career deserved everything that’s being said about them. 

As head of MTM Enterprises in the 1970s, Tinker and his team produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda and other programs that stand today as icons of enduring quality television.

After he took over NBC in 1981, a moment when the network was being given last rites, he brought in shows like Cheers, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and St. Elsewhere. He also nurtured a low-rated cop drama called Hill Street Blues, and by the time he left five years later, NBC was No. 1.

As an executive he placed great emphasis on making production and writing talent feel welcome. The likes of Stephen Bochco and James L. Brooks were given early creative latitude under Tinker and, equally important, he gave their shows time to find an audience.

We might mention also that he was married to 18 years to Mary Tyler Moore. By any standards, Grant Tinker led a rather good life.

In an interview 34 years ago Thursday, however, Tinker made it clear that he wasn’t some television Gandhi, sitting behind his desk at NBC striving for pure creative television enlightenment.

Yes, he said, quality shows were the long-term ticket to putting NBC back in the game.

In the meantime, he was happy that NBC had Knight Rider.

“I don’t watch every minute of it,” he said. “But it’s done well, and it’s blunting CBS.”

Behind all the praise Tinker received for rolling out The Cosby Show in the fall of 1984, the show that really sparked NBC’s 1980s revival wasn’t Cosby. It was The A Team, an unapologetically lowbrow action-adventure show whose literary aspirations ran toward the way Mr. T said, “I pity the fool.”

“When I was at MTM, I thought I knew everything about how to fix a network,” admitted Tinker. “I’m a little less critical now. It takes longer than I thought.

“You’re running a little production company, doing three or four or five shows you like. At a network, you’ve got seven varied nights. And some of them you like and some you don’t like.

“If you just program for yourself, you miss a lot of viewers that you need.”

That said, he talked about how he hoped to bring in shows that would “sneak up the level of programming” – by, among other things, gambling viewers wanted shows they had to really watch.

“Some people use TV like Muzak,” he said. “It’s just on. And that makes a show like Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere more difficult to sell, because you have to pay attention.

At the time he was saying this, in late 1982, cable was just beginning to rise and hadn’t yet changed the landscape of television.

Tinker was confident it would not throw broadcast television into the shade.

“Cable is plying a different route,” he said. “It’s more narrowcasting. Movies, all sports. I don’t watch much cable, which disqualifies me as an expert, but I think that if they emulate what we do, that would be a sure way to go down.

“If free TV couldn’t compete with cable, then in 20 years people would be watching exactly what they’re watching now, only they’d be paying for it.”

In fact, he said, cable wasn’t the biggest factor in the erosion of broadcast network audiences.

“The biggest factor is the independent stations that show syndicated reruns,” he said. “Which says to me that programs we were doing years ago are more attractive than what we’re doing today.

“If we do shows of that quality, like Cheers, we will win them back.”

Not that it was all easy to create enticing television. 

“At one time, in the 1960s and before, all you needed was a set,” he said. “People would look at anything. Now they’re more selective, and if they don’t like something the first time, they don’t give you second chances.”

As for the larger picture, the greater role and value of television in modern society, Tinker placed TV somewhere between a beacon and plain old entertainment.

“I think we can use the medium to say something positive,” he said. “That’s a good use of TV.

“There are ways to be good citizens, but we also can’t forget we are a business. I don’t mean to be glib, but we have no particular obligation to be good citizens in the way that, for instance, local policemen are.

“I think most people want to be good citizens, and I hope that television is, on balance, a force for good.”

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Mark Isenberg
MCA-Universal TV under Lew Wasserman is the only comparable production unit to MTM and their comedies were not so good compared to dramas like The Equalizer with Edward Woodward so Mr. Tinker deserves a legacy of better quality tv-not all great as he had no answer for Dallas. These days David E. Kelly is hit and miss and Dick Wolf is not doing better work with all the Chicago themed series compared to the old days at NYPD Blue and Law and Order. Sundance Channel has been airing MTM shows overnights lately if you need to be reminded why so many stayed home on Saturday nights....
Dec 1, 2016   |  Reply
>> "...Tinker also lived in the real TV world, where your whole menu can’t be shiitake mushroom soufflés." <<

The hell with soufflés, I'd settle for more shiitake and less shiit from the 500 channel universe. Especially the ones with the bloviating heads.
Dec 1, 2016   |  Reply
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