Last year, Washington Post special correspondent Katherine Macdonald asked Grant Tinker for an interview on the future of television. Tinker, who was yesterday named chairman and chief executive officer of NBC, responded by saying, "Television has no future." Later, during the interview held in December 1980 in his Studio City, Calif., office, Tinker elaborated on that and other subjects. These are excerpts from that interview :
Well, that was a little extreme. No doubt something had just happened that caused me to say that. But, in truth, I'm discouraged about it, and depressed about it. Because so little that's good is even tried . . .
The networks are buying, and producers are selling, clones of whatever is working . . .
There's just been an erosion, and the good things, the quality things, things worth doing, worth watching, where you come away from having watched with a little something that you've learned or that was a little thought-provoking, I don't think there is much of that now. News and news-related things, sports, and the early morning shows -- beyond those things, there's nothing that would attract me to watching television. And that comes close to a national scandal. Somebody ought to go to jail for that.
Q: Who should go to jail? Network executives?
A: Yeah, probably. It's certainly not the producers, because we only sell what they'll buy. If you have to single out a villain, the networks step aside and throw up their hands and say, "That's what the people want to watch." But I don't quite buy that. I think if all of a sudden there was a law that people had to do better television, and all three networks did it, the viewing levels wouldn't drop at all. I think there's an appetite out there for better stuff. I don't think it has to be culturally uplifting, but just better television. There's just no excuse for six prime-time soap operas, which may become 12, for all I know. And a lot of the witless comedy is just a waste of viewer time . . . now we have these things -- which I certainly wouldn't identify -- that I call witless comedy, those sizzle things burning brightly. I just think we've been trending downhill in television for several years now, and that the fierce competition that the three networks are caught up in now, and have been for the last few years, militates for worsened television, just makes for the lowest common denominator, to go still lower.
Q: Let's say it keeps going downhill the way it's been going. Devise a sitcom for me that will be running 10 years from now . . .
A: I really don't know what that show will be. But I know this: There won't be as much audience there to see it, because of fragmentation. All of these other technologies -- cable, cassettes, just a whole range of things that will splinter off the audience. It won't. The network audience, I gather, will be more or less the same as it is now. Maybe slightly larger. But the total universe of all the audiences, commercial television and cassettes and whatever, will be substantially larger than it is now . . .
So we won't even be able to afford "Lou Grant" or "The White Shadow" or "Hill Street Blues" or whatever else . . .
I would think that what we'll be doing is dealing with lesser programming. The sum of the efforts of lesser people. It may not be bad, by the way. It may be, I mean, why should we spend a million dollars an episode to make the "Dukes of Hazzard"? If it costs 5 percent of that to put four people on a panel talking about something in that same hour -- I mean, whether you see that on cable, or on a cassette or perhaps even on commerical television, maybe that's an improvement. Maybe people would be scrambling around, being inventive and creative. I find myself watching those characters in Washington summing up the week on PBS. That's worthwhile. It may not be entertaining. But having the ability to afford to be able to just duplicate the "Dukes of Hazzard" or "Charlie's Angels," pick whatever show you want that's expensive to make -- it may not be so bad for that to become unaffordable.Or, at least, that we don't have three networks' worth of seven nights a week of that stuff. As long as we keep going in this witless way, we'll just get more of the same . . .
It is a business, after all. I don't want to sound like I've forgotten how it works . . .
There aren't enough talented people to schedule the three networks. Part of the reason television isn't so good as it should be is that we aren't talented enough. The reason MTM, for instance, is no longer a comedy company is because I just cannot find writers like Allan and Jim [Burns & Brooks]. And so you wind up, if you want to stay viable, gliding into an area where you can find someone. At the moment, that's in the dramatic area . . .
A: You don't enjoy what you do?
A: No, I don't. I've got this great frustration. That's what I've been talking about.
A: Why are you doing it?
A: Well, there's always tomorrow. We are trying to do some things. I didn't mean we've given up entirely. I mean it's hard to strike a balance between having some stuff that's crassly commercial and pays the bills and runs the company, and one or two other projects, whether movies for television or a series, that are something.
Q: In 1970, were you more optimistic about television, and where it would be a decade later?
A: Yes, And even more so in '60. The kind of program fare that should be on TV was on TV. Just look back at the schedule in the '60s. . . Today, that isn't the way it is at all. Now, while nobody is losing money, they're beginning to see that the golden goose is panting, breathing fire. . . So that competition I'm talking about is making everybody go for the biggest audience, and if "Dallas" gets the biggest audience, then let's do six more like "Dallas". . .
Everybody thinks there's a great big pot of gold, but it isn't here anymore.
It simply isn't here. And the point is that television cannot any longer afford the luxury of experimentation in programming. And more than experimentation, just willfully doing good programming. They just have to go for the hard-concept sizzle show that will get a 40 share, and for which they can charge P&G a lot of money.
A: What about "Shogun" and other successful mini-series?. . .
A: . . . Mini-series are kind of yesterday's newspaper. They are too espensive, they don't do well the second time around, and they just cost too much to make.
Q: What will the "Tonight" show be like in a decade?
A: I would say John will be gone. If I were at NBC right now I would just, the next time John wanted to leave, I'd say 'Okay.' I don't mean that I'd chase him out, but I think it's becoming almost unaffordable to keep him, and I would just plop David Letterman right down in that chair. . . Maybe I'd refresh it a little -- it has gone on for quite a while.
Q: Refresh it how?
A: I don't know, but I would go find the people who can. That's my function.