Former NBC chairman-CEO Grant Tinker, a revered producer and executive who founded MTM Enterprises with Mary Tyler Moore and later rose to the challenge of taking NBC from last place to first, has died. He was 90.
Tinker died Monday at his home in California, according to a report Wednesday on NBC’s “Today.”
“Grant Tinker was a great man who made an indelible mark on NBC and the history of television that continues to this day,” NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said. “He loved creative people and protected them, while still expertly managing the business. Very few people have been able to achieve such a balance. We try to live up to the standards he set each and every day. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.”
The poised, avuncular Tinker’s television career spanned almost half a century, from its inception through the 1990s. He usually took the high road on most of his projects starting with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” through to “Lou Grant,” “WKRP in Cincinnati” and the dramatic home run “Hill Street Blues.” In an industry replete with behind-the-scenes machinations, his working relationships, both as a producer and an executive, were relatively strife-free.
Two of Tinker’s four children, sons Mark and John Tinker, are active in the TV biz as producers and directors.
“My father set the bar high both as a television executive and a father. I never heard anyone speak of him with anything other than respect and admiration. I’m proud to be his son and especially proud of the legacy he leaves behind in business and as a gentleman,” said Mark Tinker, who is an exec producer on NBC’s “Chicago PD.”
At NBC, Tinker was known for his famous dictum: “First be best, then be first.” That mantra was put into practice when Tinker and his legendary programming chief Brandon Tartikoff stayed the course with shows such as “Cheers” and “Hill Street Blues” even when they were at the bottom of the Nielsen rankings.
Tinker’s philosophy was to hire the top creatives and let them work without interference from the suits. Many latter-day multihyphenates including James L. Brooks and Steven Bochco got their start writing for him.
After years as a studio executive, he struck out on his own in 1970. Seeking to create a starring vehicle for Moore, whom he’d married in 1962, he formed MTM Enterprises. Moore was chair and Tinker president of the organization.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which debuted that same year on CBS, was ground-breaking in its sophistication and the manner in which it depicted the professional life of a single career woman. Tinker hired two of the industry’s best writers, Brooks and Allan Burns, and for the next seven years, the show was a highlight every season, commanding 67 Emmy nominations and winning 29, including three for best comedy series.
Attracting other creative talent such as Jay Tarses, Tom Patchett and Michael Zimberg, MTM began turning out other popular series such as “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran from 1972-78. In 1974, “Rhoda,” starring Valerie Harper, was spun off from “Mary Tyler Moore.” In 1975, another spinoff of “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Phyllis,” debuted and was a modest hit.
Under Tinker’s leadership from 1981 to 1986, the ailing NBC network was revived, paving the way for the sale of NBC and its parent company RCA to General Electric in 1986. Bob Wright succeeded Tinker as NBC chairman following the sale to GE.
Tinker replaced Fred Silverman at the top of NBC. NBC’s profits had been cut in half during Silverman’s three-year reign, and Tinker methodically and brilliantly turned it all around. He stuck by such slow starters as “Cheers” and “Family Ties” and nurtured them into profitable, long-running hits. In his first year, NBC’s profits jumped from $82 million to $108 million, even though the network was still in the ratings cellar.
The next year, NBC scored a major hit with Stephen J. Cannell’s action-drama “The A-Team” but also brought aboard “St. Elsewhere,” a hospital drama (produced by Mark Tinker) that took some time to catch on. Other winners were “Remington Steele” and “The Golden Girls.” The breakaway success, however, was “The Cosby Show,” which debuted in 1984. It reinvigorated the sitcom form and became one of the biggest hits in the history of television. Tartikoff, the master programmer and Tinker’s right hand, died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 48.
Other popular NBC shows during the Tinker era included “Highway to Heaven,” “Knight Rider” and “Miami Vice,” with its stylistic breakthroughs. NBC became the “boutique” network, attracting the ideal demographic of baby boomers with much disposable income.
By 1985, NBC’s operating profits were up to $333 million and by the following year, NBC was back in the No. 1 slot.
Meanwhile, MTM’s shows consistently made a lasting impression.
When “Mary Tyler Moore” ended at the height of its success, its departure was palpable on television, where quality sitcoms gave way to broader shows like “Three’s Company.” But the Tinker/Moore era wasn’t entirely over.
“Lou Grant,” a dramatic spinoff of the original series, was an immediate critical hit and eventually took off with audiences too. The one-hour series also tallied Emmys. After a couple of other sitcom missteps such as “The Betty White Show” and “We’ve Got Each Other,” Tinker hit pay dirt again with “WKRP in Cincinnati” and also had a modest performer in drama series “The White Shadow.”
The other series for which Tinker will be remembered, “Hill Street Blues,” came at the end of his stint at MTM, and was as ground-breaking in its way as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had been. Again he employed a talented young writer, Bochco. In its first season the show picked up an unprecedented 21 Emmys, winning eight, including best series. Whatever trepidations NBC had about its initial low ratings were soon forgotten as the acclaim built and audiences tuned in.
Tinker’s move to NBC coincided with his divorce after 18 years of marriage to Moore. In taking the reins of NBC, Tinker divested his interest in MTM, selling his shares to Moore and fellow MTM exec Arthur Price, thus missing out on a bonanza of future syndication revenues. MTM was sold to Pat Robertson’s International Family Entertainment in 1992 and ceased operations in 1998. The MTM library is now owned by 21st Century Fox.
After his stint atop NBC, Tinker struck out on his own again. He partnered with Gannett Co. to create GTG Entertainment in December 1986.
The company bought Culver City’s Laird Studios for $50 million and spent $45 million on the launch of the “USA Today: The Television Series” newsmagazine effort that had a short run. The relationship lasted until 1990 and produced “Baywatch,” but series such as “The Van Dyke Show,” “Raising Miranda” and “TV 101” did not succeed.
Tinker then unofficially retired. “I’m no longer pursuing independent production of television programs,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. The economics of independent production had become prohibitive. And the major networks in his opinion, “are not just at the beginning of the end, they’re sort of in the middle of the end, closer to the demise… as we have known them.”
Born in Stamford, Conn. in 1926, Tinker graduated from Dartmouth in 1949 and joined the NBC radio network as a management trainee soon thereafter. Upon completion of the three-year training course, he was appointed operations manager at NBC; he held the post until 1954, when he joined Radio Free Europe.
But he did not find the job to his liking and soon left to join McCann Erickson as director of program development in the days when advertising agencies created their own shows. In 1958 he moved over to Benton & Bowles, where he was named VP of television programming.
NBC hired him back again in 1961 as a general program executive in television and then, quickly, VP. He moved to Los Angeles to oversee West Coast production and remained there for five years. His return to New York was short-lived, however, since Tinker had become to acclimatized to California living.
He resigned in 1967 to join Universal as a VP and then moved to 20th Century Fox.
Not all of the shows MTM put out were hits. “Doc” and “Three for the Road,” a family drama, quickly vanished; “The Tony Randall Show” flopped; “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers,” “The Texas Wheelers” and “The Bob Crane Show” all failed to pass muster. But Tinker did not pass the buck: He took responsibility for the underachievers.
Tinker’s memoir “Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric” was published in 1994.
In 2004 he received a Peabody Award for “recognizing, protecting and fostering creativity of the highest order.”
In addition to sons Mark and John, Grant Tinker is survived by his wife, Brooke Knapp, a sister, two other children from his first marriage to Ruth Byerly, Michael and Jodie, and 10 grandchildren.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.