Remembering Grant Tinker

grant_tinker_screenshot_3The television world is remembering Grant Tinker and the legacy he left as he passed away at the age of 90 on November 28 in his Los Angeles home.

While network executives were known for meddling into the creative process, Grant Tinker would be best known for his hands-off approach – which made sense given he headed one of the most successful studios in television history. Tinker not only supported writers, he nurtured them – focusing on strong plot and character development.  It was this environment that gave us ground-breaking programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hill Street Blues, The White Shadow, St. Elsewhere, and others.

Many writers who worked for Tinker – James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Steven Bochco and others – went on to create other hit TV series.

Tinker’s motto was “First, be best…then be first”. And he not only preached this quote… he practiced it.

Born in Stamford, Conn., Tinker served in the Air Force and graduated from Darmouth College. He started his career at NBC as a management trainee and then promoted as operations manager, then departed for an advertising career. as a He returned to NBC in 1961 and became West Coast President, developing series such as I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In 1963, he bought a script called The Lieutenant, developed by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Grant Tinker with then-wife mary Tyler moore. They formed MTM Enterprises in 1969. (Emmys.com)

Grant Tinker with then-wife Mary Tyler Moore. They formed MTM Enterprises in 1969. (Emmys.com)

Tinker married actress Mary Tyler Moore in 1962, and in 1969 both created television production company MTM Enterprises, using Ms. Moore’s initials and sold their first program (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to CBS in 1970 as the network was steering away from rural-themed comedies to more urban-based shows. The sitcom’s success – creatively and ratingswise – not the mention the arrival of the financial interest and syndication rules (known as fin-syn) barring the networks from owning studios and participating in the syndication business, led MTM to become one of the biggest independent producers in network television during the 1970’s. In 1972, MTM signed Chicago native Bob Newhart to do a sitcom set in his hometown, The Bob Newhart Show. More comedy hits followed, including Rhoda, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Phyills and a few critically-acclaimed but lesser watched shows (Paul Sand in Friends And Lovers.)

After producing exclusively for CBS, MTM sold its first series to ABC in 1974, the ill-fated sitcom The Texas Wheelers followed by the underrated Tony Randall Show in 1976.

MTM jumped into the drama business with the failed Three For the Road but struck gold with Lou Grant – a spin-off of Mary Tyler Moore which earned critical acclaim and won thirteen Emmy Awards, and The White Shadow, another critically acclaimed series featuring Ken Howard as coach of inner-city Carver High School’s basketball team in South Central Los Angeles featuring an integrated cast.

In 1980, MTM sold its first show to NBC, the groundbreaking drama Hill Street Blues. The business relationship led Grant Tinker to leave MTM in 1981 to become President and CEO of NBC, replacing Fred Silverman (who was CBS President when Mary Tyler Moore debuted on the network) in the role. With the critical success of Hill Street Blues, Tinker’s ties to his former production company helped bring another high-quality drama to NBC, St. Elsewhere in 1982, produced by his son, Mark Tinker.

During his tenure at NBC, he and network President Brandon Tarkitoff helped change NBC’s image from one dominated by the likes of Pink Lady And Jeff and Sheriff Lobo to high-quality series, even sticking with those who initially were struggling in the ratings, such as Cheers. In 1986, NBC finished first in the ratings for the first time in twenty years, going from worst to first in just two seasons, based on the strength of its Thursday night lineup, which would become the linchpin of success for nearly two decades.

Tinker stepped down from his role at NBC in 1986, later regetting taking the job as he missed out on syndication revenues by selling his stake in MTM. Later in the year, Tinker formed a new venture with USA Today publisher Gannett called GTG to produce television series.

The MTM logo, featuring Mary Tyler Moore's cat, Mimsie. The company was sold to TVS in 1988.

The MTM logo, featuring Mary Tyler Moore’s cat, Mimsie. The company was sold to TVS in 1988.

One show was the heavy-hyped USA Today: The Television Show (later renamed USA Today on TV), debuting on September 12, 1988. The magazine show was critically panned and to make matters worse, USA Today was buried in a overnight slot on CBS-owned WCBS-TV in New York and its premiere here in Chicago over NBC-owned WMAQ at 6 p.m. was delayed for three weeks because of the Olympics (WMAQ would downgrade the USA Today from prime access after just six months.) USA Today never gained ratings traction and was canceled in November 1989, which experts at the time dubbed “the most expensive failure in the history of first-run syndication.”

GTG did sell a few shows to the major networks including TV 101, Raising Miranda, and Baywatch. But none of them clicked and the venture dissolved in 1990 (Gannett has since spun off its TV operations into a separate company called Tegna.) Baywatch was picked up by another production company and relaunched into syndication where it became a huge global hit. Tinker more or less retired from the business by 1992, telling the Los Angeles Times he was no longer pursuing independent television production, saying the economics of it became “prohibitive”.

He would turn out to be right. The fin-syn rules – which were instrumental in the rise of independent studios such as MTM – were eliminated in 1995, paving the way for the major networks to merge with studios and to once again dominate the playing field in prime-time broadcast television.

As for MTM, the company was sold to British broadcaster TVS in 1988 for $320 million. MTM changed hands again in 1991, sold to the principals behind the Family Channel (now FreeForm.) The company entered into the first-run syndication business in 1990 with The Galloping Gourmet himself Graham Kerr returning to television with a cooking show. Later came a WKRP revival and a kids show called Xuxa. None of these three were successful.

MTM was sold again, this time to Fox Family Worldwide, a joint venture of News Corp. and Saban Entertainment  in 1997. MTM shuttered a year later after its assets were transferred to News Corp., which has since split with the TV operations becoming 21st Century Fox.

Grant Tinker is survived by his wife Brooke, and his sons, Mark (mentioned earlier) and John.

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