Grant Tinker, a revered producer and executive who founded MTM Enterprises with Mary Tyler Moore and former NBC chairman-CEO who took the network from last place to first, has died at 90.
Tinker died Monday at his home in California, according to a report Wednesday on NBC’s Today, Variety reports.
Tinker’s television career spanned almost half a century, from its inception through the 1990s. His TV projects began with The Mary Tyler Moore Show through to Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati and the dramatic hit Hill Street Blues.
Two of Tinker’s four children, sons Mark and John Tinker, are active in the TV business as producers and directors.
“My father set the bar high both as a television executive and a father. I never heard anyone speak of him with anything other than respect and admiration. I’m proud to be his son and especially proud of the legacy he leaves behind in business and as a gentleman,” Mark Tinker told Variety. Tinker is an executive producer on NBC’s Chicago PD.
“Grant Tinker was a great man who made an indelible mark on NBC and the history of television that continues to this day,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke in a statement. “He loved creative people and protected them, while still expertly managing the business. Very few people have been able to achieve such a balance. We try to live up to the standards he set each and every day. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.”
At NBC, Tinker was known for his famous saying: “First be best, then be first.” That mantra was put to use when Tinker and his programming chief Brandon Tartikoff stayed the course with shows such as Cheers and Hill Street Blues even when they were at the bottom of the Nielsen rankings.
Under Tinker’s leadership from 1981 to 1986, the ailing NBC network was revived, paving the way for the sale of NBC and its parent company RCA to General Electric in 1986. Bob Wright succeeded Tinker as NBC chairman following the sale to GE.
Tinker replaced Fred Silverman at the top of NBC. NBC’s profits had been cut in half during Silverman’s three-year reign, and Tinker methodically turned it all around. He stuck by such slow starters as Cheers and Family Ties and grew them into profitable, long-running hits. In his first year, NBC’s profits jumped from $82 million to $108 million, even though the network was still in the ratings cellar.
The next year, NBC scored a major hit with Stephen J. Cannell’s action-drama The A-Team but also brought aboard St. Elsewhere, a hospital drama (produced by Mark Tinker) that took some time to catch on. Other hits were Remington Steele and The Golden Girls. The breakaway success, however, was The Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984. It revitalized the sitcom genre and became one of the biggest hits in the history of television. Tartikoff, the master programmer and Tinker’s right hand, died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 48.
Other popular NBC shows during the Tinker era included Highway to Heaven, Knight Rider and Miami Vice. NBC became the “boutique” network, attracting the ideal demographic of baby boomers with disposable income, Variety reports.
By 1985, NBC’s operating profits were up to $333 million and by the following year, NBC was back in the No. 1 slot.
Meanwhile, MTM’s shows consistently made a lasting impression.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended at the height of its success, its departure was palpable on television, where quality sitcoms gave way to broader shows like Three’s Company.
Lou Grant, a dramatic spinoff of the original series, was an immediate critical hit and eventually took off with audiences too.
The other series for which Tinker will be remembered, Hill Street Blues, came at the end of his stint at MTM, and was as ground-breaking in its way as The Mary Tyler Moore Show had been.
Tinker’s move to NBC coincided with his divorce after 18 years of marriage to Moore. In taking the reins of NBC, Tinker divested his interest in MTM, selling his shares to Moore and fellow MTM exec Arthur Price, thus missing out on a bonanza of future syndication revenues.
In 2004, he received a Peabody Award for “recognizing, protecting and fostering creativity of the highest order.”
In addition to sons Mark and John, Grant Tinker is survived by his wife, Brooke Knapp, a sister, two other children from his first marriage to Ruth Byerly, Michael and Jodie, and 10 grandchildren.
READ MORE: Variety