IN 1988 THE LEGENDARY TV producer Aaron Spelling was thinking of leaving ABC after 12 years, so CBS owner Laurence Tisch flew in from New York to woo him at Chasen's, a formal, old-Hollywood restaurant, the sort of place where you'd see Nancy Reagan. The two men had barely sat down when the waiter began behaving ... strangely. He stuck his finger in the wine bottle, licked it and said, ""Mmm--pretty good.'' Then, ""Hey, you guys gonna order? I got a hot date.'' Next he started making remarks about CBS's prime-time schedule. Tisch looked shocked. Spelling squirmed. ""I couldn't wait to get out of there,'' he says. Finally, the waiter removed his mustache, goatee and glasses. It was Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC--which reeled in Spelling soon after.
Tartikoff, who ran the network's entertainment division for most of the 1980s, died of Hodgkin's disease on Aug. 27 at the age of 48. He was uniquely beloved in a tough town. His memorial service attracted throngs of people, and NBC aired a moving tribute. But three days later Princess Diana died. It was kind of like trying to counterprogram against the Super Bowl. And though this son of a Long Island, N.Y., clothing manufacturer was usually the smartest, funniest--and youngest--person in the room, not enough has been made of his importance in television history.
From the time he took over NBC Entertainment at the age of 31 until he was through nearly a decade later, Tartikoff reinvented network television, keeping baby boomers glued to the box. Many of the shows Tartikoff scheduled did more than win Emmys. They had a lasting impact: the quick-cut multiple story lines of ""Hill Street Blues'' live on in ""ER.'' The sophisticated ""Cheers'' led to other well-written comedies. (""Friends'' is ""Cheers'' without the booze.) The remote, stylized tone of ""Miami Vice'' and ""Midnight Caller'' informs ""The X-Files.''
Tartikoff also lent NBC some star power of his own. Before Hollywood ""power lists'' filled the magazine racks and Vanity Fair began running team photos of media executives at leisure in Sun Valley, people really didn't pay much attention to the guys in suits. But just as viewers were starting to follow the ratings and other industry ephemera, he became Hollywood's crown prince. Movie studios begged him to join them. The kind of shameless showman who'd do anything for a laugh, he even guest-hosted ""Saturday Night Live.''
Tartikoff was not about handing down so-called quality fare to the masses. The show that jump-started NBC in its sorriest days was the lite drama ""The A-Team,'' and Tartikoff loved talking about his train wrecks--like ""Manimal.'' In a world where covering up failure is high corporate art, he took special delight in his screw-ups. Like how he questioned the casting of Michael J. Fox for ""Family Ties'' by saying ""This is not the kind of face you'll ever see on a lunchbox.'' (Fox later sent him one.) In October of 1988 Tartikoff couldn't resist scheduling a Geraldo Rivera special on Satan worship. The lurid show got terrific ratings but horrible backlash: many thought it was outrageous to put Geraldo Rivera on network television at all (perish the thought!). Tartikoff, typically, played this to his advantage. At a news conference soon after, a ""priest'' made him swear on a Bible that ""I will never buy another special from Geraldo Rivera as long as I live.''
People forgave Tartikoff the dreck he put on TV not just because high-toned shows also were on the menu but because he let them share in the joke. Tartikoff was the first executive with a generational, post-""Saturday Night Live'' sense of irony. He tapped into what ABC's lame, banana-colored ""TV Is Good'' campaign is flailing away at a decade later. Tartikoff didn't apologize for his failures, because he appreciated that network TV was a many-faced gargantua, spewing out equal parts sublime and ridiculous. Unlike most executives, he actually watched. He'd call producers on other networks to tell them how much he'd enjoyed last night's episode. (Their own network honcho, of course, hadn't called, which Tartikoff knew would be duly noted.) Insanely competitive, he used to admit he couldn't enjoy football games on NBC because he'd find himself rooting for players to get injured, thus stopping the clock and causing viewers to miss the start of CBS's ""60 Minutes.''
The networks lost a huge share of viewers to cable during the last 15 years, but if Tartikoff hadn't transformed television, the carnage might have been a lot worse. Before Tartikoff, the top-rated shows were things like ""Three's Company'' and ""Dukes of Hazzard.'' The comedy empires of James Brooks (""Mary Tyler Moore''), Garry Marshall (""Happy Days'') and Norman Lear (""All in the Family'') were breaking up. ""M*A*S*H'' was winding down. People were writing ""Sitcoms Are Dead'' articles. The top drama was ""Dallas.''
A few years later the landscape was vastly different, because Tartikoff had managed to make prime-time television hip. The top shows included NBC's ""Cosby,'' ""Family Ties,'' ""Golden Girls,'' ""L.A. Law'' and ""Miami Vice.'' Other networks were emboldened to air ""Roseanne'' and ""Murphy Brown.'' And it was Tartikoff who put David Letterman on late night. Just as a whole generation was having kids and staying home, he gave them something to watch. By the time he moved on to Paramount Pictures in 1991, The New York Times had proclaimed what many knew to be true: that mainstream Hollywood was offering better entertainment on the tube than in the movie theaters. In this demographically slivered world, there's practically no such thing anymore as the One Big Tent--a place where the mass audience still gathers. Tartikoff was the impresario who kept it from collapsing.
Some high-minded critics sniffed at Tartikoff's pursuing Spelling, whom they considered a shlockmeister. But Tartikoff had a sincere reverence for Spelling's success. At NBC, he and Spelling produced a show called ""Student Nurses,'' but Tartikoff decided the title ""sounded like a porno flick'' so he changed it to ""Nightingales.'' He liked to say that Spelling's pitch ran as follows: ""The nurses are in Houston, it's hot, the air conditioning breaks and they sweat a lot.'' It was not television's finest hour, but Tartikoff was right that Spelling hadn't lost his fast ball: he went on to produce ""Beverly Hills 90210'' and ""Melrose Place'' for Fox. ""Nightingales'' was swiftly forgotten, just another jokey story for Tartikoff to tell on himself. But his run in prime time will be remembered for years.