Another way of looking at this is that Brandon is a winner even after he is gone. His influence will always be part of network TV. He didn't just turn around a network; he saved the situation-comedy genre when industry insiders thought shows like "Real People" were replacing the sitcoms. Brandon changed that in September 1984 by putting "The Cosby Show" on the air.
People frequently retell Brandon stories because he was truly funny. One of my favorites comes from his book, "The Last Great Ride" (Random House, 1992). Here's the excerpt:
A network boardroom resembles a government war room. All the generals assemble to devise the strategies that determine who wins the ratings war and who becomes its prisoner.
This day, a subzero Sunday afternoon in 1978, the generals gathered on the fifth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center. The key members of the [Fred] Silverman Cabinet ringed the conference table, dressed in an assortment of relaxed winter casual. We had been summoned by Fred that morning, prompted by the continual dismal weekend ratings. Fridays were a disaster, due to the surging dominance of CBS' "Dallas;" Saturdays were a toxic-waste dump, due to ABC's "The Love Boat."
So there we were: Bob Mulholland, the head of the network; Irwin Segelstein, the executive vice president of NBC; Bob Butler, the head of finance; Ray Timothy, the head of affiliate relations; Bill Reubens, the head of research; and me-the whipping boy, the lucky person in charge of prime-time production.
Everyone's attention was fixated on Fred's programming board. It had a seven-night grid on which he was constantly placing and replacing his magnetic show cards.
Occasionally, he would whip around and bark a question to Bill Reubens, something about the compatibility between two shows, or the demographic appeal of one of the competition's formidable fixtures on a certain night . . .
About three in the afternoon this ritual was interrupted by the company butler, who walked up to Silverman with a silver platter, on top of which sat a simple white note folded in half.
Silverman looked at the note, then passed it to Bob Mulholland. After Bob perused it, Fred turned to him and said, "Tell News that we'll pre-empt Disney tonight, and they can go seven o'clock to eight o'clock. If they need more time, they can also have eleven-thirty, after the late news."
The solemnity of Fred's tone had us all concerned. Irwin Segelstein, being the ranking elder statesman and Fred's closest friend at NBC, occupied the head seat at the other end of the table. It was he who broke the silence.
"What's going on, Fred? Did something happen?"
Fred, already distracted by the magnetic cards, looked up and said, "Uh, the pope died."
When Irwin heard this, he rose from his chair, began pacing back and forth, wringing his hands and muttering over and over again, "This is terrible. Just terrible. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"
Fred was getting irritated. "Irwin, I told you what we're going to do. News'll pre-empt Disney, and then go again at eleven-thirty if they need to."
"I know that," said Irwin. "But what about after that? I just can't believe this is happening to us."
"Us?" exclaimed Fred. "What are you talking about, Irwin? The pope died. You're Jewish."
"Oh, the pope died. I thought you said [Bob] Hope died."
When Brandon was president of NBC Entertainment, he was expected to hold large development meetings in March with clients visiting from the East Coast. In spite of this being his busiest time of year while getting the development preview ready, he never missed devoting one evening to a dinner with my clients and me. These dinners were informative and fun. Brandon had a sense of humor about NBC's problem areas. He never claimed everything in development was terrific. He was honest and realistic. He also didn't do all of the talking! He made the time to hear what clients had to say.
At one of the March NBC program development meetings in Los Angeles, Brandon and Michael Eisner were at dual podiums while introducing the "Walt Disney Show" as an NBC candidate. I was standing next to his wife, Lilly, whom I had just met for the first time. Lilly looked at Brandon and Michael and said to me, "Those are the two smartest men in television." She certainly wasn't bragging or exaggerating.
Considering the fact that Brandon was a tireless, relentless, fierce competitor, it is amazing how much he was really liked by his competitors. His sense of humor made his fall presentations something very special. Veteran buyers usually are interested in only the schedule and the pilots at the fall announcements, but Brandon's quips and rationale made NBC's presentation different. The current entertainment heads certainly are professional and entertaining, but there was only one Brandon.
Brandon was a programming genius who gave us "Cosby," "Cheers," "Family Ties," "Miami Vice," Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law" and others. But, as is the case with all entertainment heads who decide who is cast and which shows get on the schedules, there are occasions where you might like to do it over.
We all know about the '83 season with "Manimal," "Bay City Blues" and "Mr. Smith," but few know that Brandon rejected a singer-dancer auditioning for the series "Fame" who later became known as Madonna. Or about the singer/model/actress who wanted the part of the older daughter on "Cosby." Her personal manager was one of my fraternity brothers. I set up a meeting with Brandon. Phylicia Rashad had a provision in her contract about singing, and after a great interview a teen-ager named Whitney Houston didn't get the part.
Brandon Tartikoff, however, had so many successes that a few blips hardly show up on the screen. And he also really cared about people. Everyone who met him came away impressed with his warmth, knowledge and personality. He gave the position of network entertainment chief celebrity status.
Many people in the TV programming business make judgments of what the viewers will watch. Brandon made his calls on what he would watch. He loved network TV and it showed.
When I was very young, Milton Berle was considered Mr. Television. That was in front of the camera. Few would argue that Mr. Television behind the camera (although he had some cameos) was Brandon Tartikoff. We will all miss him.
Mr. Schulman is president, Paul Schulman Co., New York, a subsidiary of