WarnerMedia’s head honcho Jeff Zucker had nothing else going on last Wednesday night, or so he claimed, even as CNN continued its wall-to-wall coverage of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Yet Zucker took time out from breaking news to fly to Miami, his hometown, for what would be a very special evening.
It was a night of fond remembrances and several standing ovations at the 17th Annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards, which also honored ABC Entertainment chief Karey Burke; Marcos Santana, president of NBCUniversal’s Telemundo Global Studios; writer and producer Courtney A. Kemp; and actor and producer Christine Baranski.
The quintet of achievers was feted during a gala held Jan. 22 at the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach during the 2020 NATPE Market & Conference, in ceremonies hosted by Kevin Frazier.
All of the honorees follow the path blazed by the legendary Tartikoff, who died at the age of 48 from Hodgkin’s disease in 1997. As the visionary president of NBC for more than a decade (1980-1991), he turned the network’s fortunes around by championing groundbreaking shows including ”Hill Street Blues,” ”The Cosby Show,” ”Miami Vice,” ”Cheers,” “Family Ties,” “L.A. Law” and “Seinfeld.”
Zucker’s career and personal life intersect with Tartikoff’s in many ways as he explained to the audience, which included Lilly Tartikoff Karatz.
Like Tartikoff, Zucker was thrust into a leadership position at a very young age, just 26 years old when he became the executive producer of NBC’s “Today.” At 31, he had his own brush with cancer.
After rising through the ranks to become head of the entire Peacock network, Zucker jumped ship to CNN in 2013 and now serves as both president of CNN Worldwide and chairman of WarnerMedia news and sports.
He was introduced onto the stage by Meredith Vieira, who shared anecdotes of Zucker bringing her to “Today” from “The View” in 2005. “Not that I really wanted to wake up at 2 a.m. every day, but I trusted him,” she said. “He’s never once let me down.”
Zucker said Tartikoff was instrumental to his success. “I grew up at NBC for 25 years and he gave me tips on managing an organization at a young age. He counseled me when I had cancer and gave me pep talks. And a year later he died,” Zucker said. “This is the highest honor I’ve ever received in 35 years. Nothing is as important, especially now, as journalism itself is under assault. We must hold those in power accountable to preserve our democracy.”
“Power,” the hit show on Starz, has cemented Kemp’s reputation as one of TV’s top writers and producers. She reflected on the beginning of her career, writing for the Fox sitcom “The Bernie Mac Show.” She soon shifted from comedy into drama and joined several writers rooms before breaking out on the CBS political drama “The Good Wife.” That in turn led to the green light in 2013 for “Power,” which she called the biggest small screen smash next to “Game of Thrones.”
“Brandon’s shows shaped my world, showing African American men who were smart and at the top of their game. You can see that DNA in many things since,” said Kemp, who concluded her remarks by saying that respect, humility and hard work never go out of style.
Warren Littlefield, who was mentored by Tartikoff and later succeeded him as president of NBC Entertainment, gave a glowing introduction to Burke, who also had a personal connection with the late executive. Burke began her TV career as an intern at NBC, ultimately becoming a junior drama development executive and working with Tartikoff on shows like “L.A. Law” and “Quantum Leap.”
“She always gravitated toward the creative community and showed strength, courage and competitiveness underneath the smile. She embodied fighting for what she believed in,” said Littlefield, who also touted Burke’s achievements at Freeform and at ABC, were she has scored significant successes during her first year at the Disney-owned broadcast network.
As Burke tried to fit into the male-dominated corporate world of the late 1980s in her first job after college, she talked about learning from Tartikoff that she should be herself, that she didn’t have to be like anyone else. “He helped me believe in my value. He was a combination of a Pied Piper and PT Barnum with his showmanship and passion, proving how broadcast television can change hearts and minds,” she said. “How lucky we are to be able to share joy in telling stories that entertain millions of people.”
Baranski has played a key role in a number of such programs, most recently as the well-respected litigator Diane Lockhart in “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” She was introduced by the co-creator of both of those hit shows, Michelle King, who also lauded her work on Broadway and on film.
“At age 42, I broke out and entered a decade-long collaboration with the Kings,” Baranski said. “The character of Diane has moved perceptions beyond stereotypes. She’s feminine yet comfortable in a conference room. She’s surfed political and professional waves. Who knew I was playing Nancy Pelosi?”
The Venezuela-born Santana was credited as someone who has transformed Spanish-language media into a global force in the television industry over his 30-year career. His vision to combine telenovelas with premium drama series has resulted in programs that are now a key part of OTT platforms.
His studio produces original content for Netflix and its shows will also be featured on NBCU’s upcoming SVoD service, Peacock, when it launches in April.
Santana reflected on the early years of his career when he was a salesman running around with VHS tapes. “I was broke but I was convinced that there was a market for Spanish-language programming,” he said. “This is a recognition of how far we’ve come and how we’ve redefined it. Brandon reinvented television in his day and taught that ‘first, be best — then, be first.’”