A Writer’s Kind of Executive

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

For being the guiding light behind such series as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Lou Grant” and for his tenure as the chairman of NBC from 1981 to 1986, a period in which the company flourished and the network went from last place to its golden age, the Peabody organization is honoring Grant Tinker this year with an Individual Peabody Award.

“We do not give what we call a ‘personal Peabody’ every year,” said Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards program. “We gave one last year to Bill Moyers, but none the two years before that.

“In the case of Grant Tinker,” he said, “we’re honoring him not just because of the MTM and NBC years, but also because when you look at the people who are revered for their TV work, you find many of them worked under Mr. Tinker. His was a world in which TV’s best was accomplished.”

Television is considered a producer’s medium, but Mr. Tinker did not see it that way. In the 1970s, when he ran MTM Enterprises, he used his executive role to nurture writers. From that philosophy came programming that has become the touchstone to which many of today’s creators still aspire.

“He’s such a genuinely modest guy I’ll bet he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is,” said Steven Bochco, the writer-producer whose “Hill Street Blues,” produced by MTM, was honored with a Peabody Award in 1982.

“With my own company I’ve tried to emulate Grant,” Mr. Bochco said. “MTM, when he ran it, had an open-door policy. You could stop by his office without an appointment. He saw his role as running interference with the networks so you could do your job. There was never anyone finer.”

“I’m trying to appreciate this,” Mr. Tinker said. “They tell me it’s special, and I’ll be there to accept it. But what I don’t ever want to be is some old guy telling everyone how we used to do it better.”

Grant Almerin Tinker began his broadcasting career in 1949 as the first person hired for NBC’s inaugural executive training program. After spending the 1950s in advertising, he returned to NBC in 1961, moving to Los Angeles to head West Coast programming. He became VP of TV programming for both Universal TV and 20th Century Fox before he formed MTM in 1970 with his second wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

The series spawned by that company that are considered classics also include “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Rhoda,” “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “St. Elsewhere.” Mr. Bochco, James Brooks, Allan Burns, Ed Weinberger and Gary David Goldberg were among the writers who achieved prominence at MTM in the ’70s.

In 1981 Mr. Tinker was asked to meet with Thornton Bradshaw, the new chair of RCA, then NBC’s parent company, for a general conversation about the state of TV. At their lunch, Mr. Tinker did not hold back from telling Mr. Bradshaw what was wrong with NBC and with network television in general. Three weeks later he was offered the job of chairman of NBC.

These days, Mr. Tinker said, he watches “The West Wing” and “Boston Legal” regularly and has “great respect” for the “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises, but he expressed dismay over today’s TV writing: “The plethora of reality shows has reduced the number of opportunities for writers.”

Mr. Tinker, 79, described himself as retired and said he follows the news of the TV industry sometimes only in passing. Though his fire to run a great company has dimmed, his creative interest was piqued by last year’s merger of NBC and Universal.

“Suddenly, to have both a great broadcaster and a great distributor and studio-it would be a lot of fun to run both of them together,” he said.