In Honor of Tartikoff

Because he was so far in front of his television peers, it’s hard to believe that it has been 16 long years since Brandon Tartikoff worked at NBC and more than a quarter century since he began there as the network’s president of entertainment.

Maybe it seems like less time because what Tartikoff set in motion transformed NBC from the doormat of the industry in 1980, when he got the job, to the most powerful broadcast network in the business when he left in 1991. (Tragically, Tartikoff died in August 1997 from Hodgkin’s disease, when he was just 48.)

He didn’t just change NBC. He changed television, and in the process left behind hundreds of friends who he helped with his ideas, his creativity, his sense of humor and—sometimes a rarity in this business—his decency. Along the way, he helped nurture a cadre of television producers and executives who learned from him and taught others.

The Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards are chosen annually by the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) and the editors of Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and Variety. The awards recognize the power of innovation in television.

NATPE President/CEO Rick Feldman explained it best when speaking of why producer Stephen J. Cannell is receiving an award this year: “We look to honor independent thinkers, people who sometimes buck the system as need be, maybe zigging when other people are zagging.”

Tartikoff certainly did that, keeping hits like Hill Street Blues on the air even when that groundbreaking cop show was a drag on NBC’s already rotten ratings.

Hill Street creator Steven Bochco noted when he received a Tartikoff Award last year that he told Tartikoff he would do the show only if “you absolutely leave us alone.” Of course, Tartikoff instantly agreed. That was his style: He let creativity flower without watering it down. Before too long, Tartikoff’s faith in Bochco paid off: Hill Street Blues won eight Emmys in its first season, in 1981, a record for a new drama.

This year’s honorees share the spirit the television industry adored about Tartikoff. They have boldly taken the medium to new places.

Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi Channel and USA Network, bet big when she okayed 2002’s Sci Fi miniseries Taken and turned it into an even bigger platform for growing that channel.

Since 1999, producer Harry Friedman has kept venerable prime-access vehicles Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune running just as strong as they did decades ago, by bending the shows without breaking them.

Anthony Zuiker, who thought up CSI, was a tram worker at the Mirage in Las Vegas when inspiration hit, and like a skilled gambler, he was able to land the big deal. Stephen J. Cannell was a TV-script–writing machine before Tartikoff got him to make The A-Team. But like Tartikoff’s, his mind is never in the off position.

These honorees, profiled on the pages to follow, would have made Tartikoff proud. They have made television better—much better—just as he did.