CULVER CITY, CALIF. -- Atop the graceful white colonial mansion is a sign that says "The Culver Studios." The house, which covers half a block, is surrounded by a formal Tudor-style garden with sculptured bushes and trimmed lawns. The only evidence of Gannett Co. Inc. is a blue and white USA Today newspaper box just outside the iron gate at the entrance to the grounds.

Yet the mansion, tiny bungalows and numerous stages behind that gate represent Rosslyn-based Gannett's newest business venture -- a multimillion-dollar push into Hollywood.

The same daring and tenacity that led Gannett to launch USA Today -- the controversial nationwide newspaper that made the media conglomerate the nation's largest newspaper publisher, measured by circulation -- now has led Gannett to join forces with former NBC chairman Grant Tinker to enter the lucrative but highly competitive world of television programming.

The Culver Studios, located on the old Laird Studios lot where "Gone With the Wind," "Citizen Kane" and "Lassie" were filmed, is the headquarters of GTG Entertainment, a marriage of Gannett's money and Tinker's talent.

Tinker, who resurrected third-place NBC and made it the top-rated network, wants to fashion GTG (Grant Tinker/Gannett) in the mold of MTM Enterprises, the highly successful company he created in 1970. MTM has produced a string of critically acclaimed prime-time television hits, including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere."

In addition, Tinker has hired former NBC "Today Show" executive producer Steve Friedman to head GTG East, a New York production arm that will produce "reality-based" programming for television. Friedman's first project is, perhaps not surprisingly, a syndicated television show based on USA Today.

Unlike the launch of the breezy and colorful nationwide newspaper, the start of Gannett's newest venture has not faced a loud chorus of skeptics and ridicule. Indeed, GTG generally is given better-than-even odds of success in the television industry, largely because of Tinker's reputation as a man with a golden touch, Friedman's hands-on experience and Gannett's image as a company willing to invest big bucks in a project and stick with it.

Only a year after opening its doors, GTG has network commitments for two series and for pilots of two other shows. CBS has picked up for next season a series entitled "The Van Dyke Show," which will star Dick Van Dyke and his son Barry Van Dyke, and the network has ordered pilots of "The Johnsons Are Home," a half-hour situation comedy written and created by comic Louie Anderson, and "TV 101," a comedy/drama about a high school newspaper. Meanwhile, ABC Entertainment has bought a GTG series for next season tentatively titled "Why On Earth," about a team of observers from another planet who come to Earth to study our culture.

GTG East has been equally fast out the gate. The "USA Today" show has commitments from 100 stations, seven months before its Premiere on Sept. 12. Jack Fentress, vice president of programming for Petry National Television, a national advertising sales representative and programming consulting for television stations, said that, given that "there is no pilot and nobody is quite sure what the show is going to be like," the commitments show that the television industry is putting tremendous faith in Tinker and Friedman.

So is Gannett. When John J. Curley, the company's president and chief executive officer, was asked why Gannett decided to take the plunge into television programming, he replied, "Grant Tinker was available."

Actually it was a little bit more complicated than that. Gannett had to fight its way through a gaggle of suitors to snag Tinker when he left NBC in 1986. His work at NBC and MTM had made him a hot property.

In addition, in an industry where egomania is common, Tinker has a reputation as a nice guy -- a low-key, classy fellow with a sense of humor. He recently greeted a visitor to his office shoeless, wearing bright red socks that matched his bright red sweater, both of which seemed even brighter next to his white hair and California tan.

He seemed a bit embarrassed when asked about the number of offers he received after leaving NBC, and he joked that he used a lottery to make the final choice.

In bidding for his services, Gannett was at a slight disadvantage at the beginning because Tinker knew little about the company. "I knew they were a big media company. I knew that because I kept reading four times a year that they had a better quarter than the quarter before," Tinker said, smiling.

Tinker knew he would need a company with deep pockets. He was well aware that setting up a production company in 1987 would be a far more expensive undertaking than setting one up in 1970, the year he started MTM Enterprises.

What clinched it was a series of meetings he had with Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth, Curley and other Gannett officials. He liked the way they did business, and he liked what they told him: that they would provide the money and let him run the production company.

Furthermore, Gannett did not blink when Tinker discussed dollars with them. For instance, the media company quickly agreed to buy the studio facilities in Culver City for $24 million because Tinker wanted his own production studios, and to spend another $15 million on renovations.

Tinker said Gannett has agreed to invest "as much as it takes" to make GTG a success. "If we have a lot of good luck and do our work well and relatively quickly, it will be some millions of dollars," he added. "And if we do it more slowly and stumble a bit as we begin, it will be some millions of dollars more.

"I saw a quote of Al's {Neuharth} somewhere not too long ago when, in answer to the question, 'How much will it take before the company is up and running?' he said, 'I don't know. Maybe $100 million over five years.' Well, that's not a bad number," Tinker said. He quickly added, "I would hope we don't get anywhere near it. I would hope we're paying our way before that."

Those might be hefty numbers for some companies, but Kevin R. Gruneich, an analyst with First Boston Corp., said the amount of cash GTG is likely to require is "pretty minor" for Gannett, which last year had revenue of $3.1 billion and a net income of $319.4 million -- and was willing to lose $450 million, before taxes, on USA Today in the five years before it turned a profit.

Gannett's decision to go into television programming stems from its operation of 10 TV stations, including WUSA-TV (Channel 9) in Washington. With the price of programming for the stations escalating, Gannett figured that it could profit from doing programming itself, according to company executives.

That profit, however, will not come quickly, according to Tinker.

Producers of prime-time television shows figure on losing money for several years before they have a chance to make any back -- and then only when a show is syndicated to stations after its network run.

"Even with success, it's still a deficit matter for several years," Tinker said. That's because it costs more to make a prime-time television show than the networks will pay for it.

A half-hour situation comedy, for instance, normally has a deficit in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $100,000 per episode. Hour-long shows can run deficits of $200,000 to $300,000 an episode, Tinker said. Gannett will have to cover GTG's deficits for at least four or five years until the shows go into syndication.

"Everything is outgo for some period of time," Tinker said. He smiled faintly. "It's really kind of depressing."

Nevertheless, Tinker argues that Gannett is getting a good investment for its money. Many others in the broadcast industry agree, especially given the top-flight talent that Tinker has hired to produce the type of quality, hit shows that put MTM on the map.

Among the 18 producers, writers and creators Tinker has brought to GTG are Jay Sandrich, the Emmy-award winning director of "The Cosby Show" and "The Golden Girls," who will direct "The Van Dyke Show" and "The Johnsons are Home"; Donald Todd, a writer-producer who came from the staff of the NBC series "Alf" and will be the executive producer of "The Van Dyke Show," which he created; Gordon Dawson, a writer for "The Rockford Files," who will be executive producer and writer for "Why on Earth"; and Michael Kozoll, cocreator of "Hill Street Blues," who will develop and produce new series for GTG.

In addition, Tinker has a kind of insurance policy from CBS, the closest thing to a sure thing that an independent production company can have from a network. CBS has agreed to buy a certain number of prime-time programs over a certain number of years in return for the opportunity to get first crack at GTG's prime-time offerings.

Tinker won't disclose details, and in fact plays down the specific numbers, saying they are "meaningless" because CBS is not going to air any series it dislikes. But he said the CBS deal will help GTG get right to the network executives who make programming decisions. "We'll jump right into it," he said. "We won't have to have the sort of mating dance that goes on" when production companies want networks to consider their shows.

Tinker's goal is to get four or five prime-time shows on the air and a number of others in development, with teams of about seven writers and a couple of producers and support people working on each project. "That would be enough to keep us busy and happy and profitable," he said.

"At this point, we're nothing but an expense for Gannett," Tinker said. "But if we do our jobs as we should, at some point we'll not only be pulling our own weight, but making a good, solid contribution to Gannett's fortunes."

Tinker said he wants to keep GTG small, in the tradition of MTM. "I like to feel somewhat connected to the things we're doing," he said.

GTG will be strictly a television production company -- it has no plans to get into the movie business. "I don't know anything about the movie business," Tinker said. "It's even stranger than the television business." GTG would probably only consider making a movie if "some creative person we have as part of our company came to us with a movie that he or she really wanted to make."

Tinker also professes to know little about the news and information business, and as a result, he said, he is leaving the GTG East operation in Friedman's hands.

Friedman, who was executive producer of NBC's "Today Show" for seven years before joining his former boss at GTG, is currently putting together GTG East's staff of 150. That includes 11 anchorpersons and correspondents, whom he declines to identify, for the "USA Today" program. The show will have bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London and Rosslyn.

Friedman's Manhattan office still is in disarray, as workers paint, wallpaper and hammer away. Debris is piled in corners and the studios are empty shells. But come the show's planned debut on Sept. 12, Friedman said, everything will be ready to roll.

"USA Today," which will consist of a half-hour show each weeknight and an hour-long weekend edition, will be based on the four sections of the USA Today newspaper: News, Money, Sports and Life. Each section will have its own anchor, and the order in which the sections appear will rotate each night. In the middle of each program there will be a 4 1/2-minute cover story, possibly based on one of the four cover stories that will run in the newspaper the next day.

The show is billed as tomorrow's USA Today tonight. But Friedman insists it will not be just another news show. "It will be a program that deals heavily with what Al Neuharth calls the 'journalism of hope,'" Friedman said. "It is not going to be a show that accentuates the negative."

And just as USA Today does not duplicate other daily newspapers, "we're going to complement the network news," Friedman said. "The last thing anybody needs is another half hour of news." For instance, while the network news shows ran straightforward stories about former basketball star Pete Maravich's death after a pickup basketball game, "we might come on at 7:30 p.m. and say: 'He died -- does that mean you shouldn't play pickup basketball games?'" Friedman said.

"It's a program of the '90s for people born after World War II," he said. "It's going to be quick, it's going to be fast. It's going to be up," with more creative use of graphics.

The idea of a "USA Today" television show has received some of the same criticism as the newspaper, which at its debut was nicknamed "McPaper" by critics who saw it as lightweight, fast-food journalism. Friedman said he anticipated such criticism.

"A lot of people are going to criticize us because we're dealing with the journalism of hope," he said. "If people criticize us, they're saying, 'Well, you know, this isn't a news show, it's entertainment.' Well, they're right, but it's information, and there are different ways to do information."

"USA Today" will cost Gannett $40 million. But Tinker predicts the show could be making a profit in 18 months.

The 100 TV stations already signed up to run the show cover 70 percent of the nation's households, the minimum level needed to attract national advertising, according to some television executives. And Bob Jacobs, president of GTG Marketing, which sells the show to stations, expects to pick up dozens more outlets. But he conceded that GTG has not yet signed up a station in the all-important New York City market.

Many television industry executives are enthusiastic about the new show. Mike Levinton, vice president of programming for Blair Television, which represents 135 television stations in national advertising sales and advises clients on programming, said the viewing public's news and information appetite has been heightened by the proliferation of talk shows and such programs as "Entertainment Tonight," "Nightline" and "PM Magazine."

"There's a good, strong growing young adult audience that has an appetite for that," he said.

Fentress, of Petry Television, said, "Generally speaking, we're favorable to the program." He said GTG's success in signing up stations is unusual given that the show has yet to be produced. "They've done a hell of a job in marketing what is, at this point, smoke and mirrors," he said.

But John von Soosten, vice president of Katz Television Group, which represents 190 stations, is more cautious about the show's chances. "My main concern is that Tinker is an expert in network hits and that Friedman is an expert in early morning talk shows. But that does not necessarily translate into success for syndication," he said. Von Soosten added that creating a show from scratch in one year will be far different for Friedman than his previous job of fine-tuning an established show.

Jacobs said selling the show to stations was made a lot easier because Gannett "has the money and the nerve to go forward with this kind of project." Production companies normally try to find out the level of interest for a proposed syndicated series before commiting large sums of money.

Gannett did not. It approved the plan and told Friedman to get started, long before salespeople started banging on doors.

Station managers "were shocked that Gannett would sink $40 million into this without knowing what the initial level of interest would be," Jacobs said. He argued that such a commitment assured stations that Gannett would not cancel the series if it were not an overnight success.

Friedman said he is already thinking about what GTG East can do next. "Music and sports are always interests of mine," he said. "And certainly afternoon needs a show. I think a lot of people are amazed that Oprah {Winfrey} is doing Phil {Donahue}, and Phil's doing Oprah. If you're not already depressed, two minutes of them and you might get depressed."

But he said there was not much point talking about anything else until "USA Today" is successfully launched.

"I liken it to a doctor who's operating on Al's favorite son. The son dies on the operating table. The doctor comes out and says, 'Do you have any daughters?'" Friedman said. "So I think it's useless to talk about the future unless it includes a successful 'USA Today' program."