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Jeff Simon: Grant Tinker finally brought us great TV - and I helped

It's time I told you how I may have changed the history of American television.

It's the perfect time to do that because Grant Tinker, the man who actually did all of that, just died at the age of 90. Months before he made the jump from president of MTM to president of NBC, I wrote a column recommending that RCA Chairman Edgar Griffiths do just that i.e. send then-NBC president Fred Silverman packing and select Tinker to replace him.

When that happened, the huge creative possibilities that distinguished Tinker's open-minded tenure at MTM became the creative possibilities of the NBC network. Silverman's slavish devotion to rubbish and schlock as broadcasting's rigid business-as-usual ended forever. A new Golden and Silver Age of Television was on the way. It awaited only cable TV.

Great television in prime time not only became possible, it became an imperative. The guy in charge was capable of sticking with "Cheers" for almost a year while its ratings struggled out of the bottom.

Tinker proved that good, even great, television could make money. Gone forever was TV "thinker" Paul Klein's old insistence that people don't watch individual programs, they merely "watch television." With Tinker in charge, what you watched mattered. So did the writers who wrote it. And the actors who performed it. And everyone else who created it.

TV has never been the same. "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" -- out of MTM and NBC -- were like weekly Robert Altman movies. They were teeming, complex, shamelessly intelligent. The star of the shows was an IDEA -- that TV that good belonged on TV as surely as any sitcom.

It is to Tinker's example that we owe the practice of every good TV executive since. That's because he proved that such a radical idea could make money. The revelation of a large and excited weekly audience waiting for "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" was the revolutionary development that led right up through "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos" and "Homeland" to this weekend's finale of a show as creative and innovative as HBO's "Westworld."

At this point, you will no doubt have a few excellent questions: 1) Isn't such a claim for yourself megalomaniacal and delusional? 2) Why would the chairman of the board of RCA give a flying fig about a column written by a TV columnist in Buffalo?

I've never known whether any other American TV columnist in 1980 publicly recommended sending Silverman packing and replacing him immediately with Tinker. Back then, everyone wanted Silverman on the first "Super Train" away from NBC's executive offices. One good look at "Hello Larry" and what Jean Doumanian was doing to "Saturday Night Live" was enough to want that.

What will take research by a press historian is whether anyone else before me so baldly recommended the man who ran MTM as the perfect Silverman successor.

But why would NBC have cared what I wrote? It dates to 1975 when I first began a three-year turn as a Daily TV columnist. I was horrified by my first attendance at a network's "press tour" because it was my first experience with pack journalism. Not all newspapers treated their columnist's attendance the way ours did, as well as most of the other major papers. In other words, they actually let the networks pick up the tab for their employees' attendance.

The absurd summer camp atmosphere the networks had created around their ceremonial unveilings of drek seemed ridiculous and rife with corruption. It was a "junket" as ritual, to mask just how awful so much of the "product" was. But the access was irreplaceable. How else would I ever have sat at a lunch table with Tinker, his wife Mary Tyler Moore, and one other journalist (the late Art Unger of the Christian Science Monitor)?

My reports from NBC's unveilings were so insistent on the truth of their awfulness that the NBC folks were disturbed. Compounding the problem was my merriment at telling our readers exactly how awful "The Montefuscos" was. Such gleeful truth-telling seemed downright inappropriate.

So I was disinvited from the next NBC coastal press event. I found the executive who made the decision and quoted him in a column about it. Doug Smith, then of the Courier-Express but before that a News co-worker, wrote a piece in Variety about my "disinvitation" column which became a brief, minor cause celebre in entertainment journalism. People found the whole David and Goliath angle irresistible. I got "attaboy" letters from columnists and critics from all over the country. People included it in their own columns.

The fellow who banished me was, then, forced to call me, rescind my banishment and, in what must have been one of the more humiliating phone calls of his life, re-invite me. I must confess, I got to know the fellow a little after that and I rather liked him. He was just trying to keep a finger in the dike, lest an ocean of ridicule over its programming drown his network.

From then on, NBC had little choice but to pay attention to what I wrote -- so much so that NBC News publicity even sent legendary newsman Reuven Frank to Buffalo for me to interview. He must have done some other things while he was here but I know our marathon lunch, according to him and the publicist with him, was the center of his visit. Frank was the producer and inventor of the Huntley-Brinkley report and the man who virtually invented the modern style of political convention coverage.

By 1980, my weekly TV columns were so full of entreaties for NBC to deliver us from Silverman that my column earnestly -- and realistically -- suggesting Tinker as his replacement was bound to find readers up the chain to executives contemplating the whole matter.

Tinker, after all, was no crazy radical. He was a lifelong TV man. He had worked in advertising and in network executive offices before. He was a pro. It's just that he actually believed that creative people should be encouraged to create television so good that it correspondingly created an entirely new kind of TV audience.

Which is exactly what happened. It's the audience we still have in 2016.

It is us.

Who else had been with me at the beginning when I suggested it? I've never known. There may have been others. But when Tinker was actually hired to be the NBC president, I looked around to all the other figures I knew in the TV commentary trade to see if I had had any collaborators in Operation Tinker. I'm sure I could have looked more thoroughly at the time. Maybe we were legion.

But you know who else I saw back then writing so earnestly in Operation Tinker?

Absolutely no one.

Just thought you might want to know.


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