Brandon Tartikoff is the most powerful man in television. He has used that power this season to bring viewers kinky bondage scenes in two major films, "Favorite Son" and "Full Exposure: the Sex Tapes Scandal," as well as Geraldo Rivera's lurid and lavishly illustrated special on satanism.
Not surprisingly, Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, is now taking a shellacking in the press for his excessive bad taste. His reaction: "Why am I being picked on?"CBS puts on sleazy shows, too, but that network has also taken the high road with the magnificent Western miniseries "Lonesome Dove." ABC has had many lowly, squalid moments but also invested millions of dollars and 30 hours of prime time in the monumental miniseries "War and Remembrance."
"It's such a soft ball, it really is," Tartikoff says of the charge that NBC puts on trash while the other networks offer quality. "Sex Tapes" aired opposite the first night of "Lonesome Dove."
Tartikoff says it would have been foolish to put an expensive, prestige item opposite "Lonesome Dove." He says "Sex Tapes" was just good counter-programming. But no, he is not proud of the film.
"The only sin I think `Sex Tapes' was guilty of is that it was a rather pathetic movie," Tartikoff says. "I think the thing should have been fully sponsored by Sominex." But the film's sex scenes did not cause a major protest, Tartikoff says. "We got only 45 phone calls on `Sex Tapes,' and I think ten of those were people complaining about bad reception."
As for "Favorite Son," which included such scenes as a woman tying a man to a bed with lavendar ribbons, Tartikoff is more remorseful. "If I had it to do all over again, I certainly would have excised the three scenes in `Favorite Son' that got all the attention," he says.
One could look on the bright side and say that at least Tartikoff feels a certain embarrassment over the subterranean depths to which NBC has stooped. Of the "Sex Tapes" show he says, "It's over and it's done with. People write as if this kind of thing were never done before, and as if we're the only ones doing it."
After all, he says, one night's episode of "Lonesome Dove" had rapes and scalpings. "I've got to do it in Western garb. That's what I've got to do," he concludes.
If you really want to tick off Tartikoff (and why not?, the money he makes), just suggest to him that NBC, while still first in the ratings, has surrendered the mantle of "quality network" to ABC, which is doing more ambitious and unusual shows this year.
"I know that's what they're saying," says Tartikoff. "I look around and I give them (ABC) `Roseanne,' but that's it. What else is there? It's like Steve Allen. He's written one thousand songs - name one. Then I see the stuff they have that isn't working: `A Man Called Hawk,' `Murphy's Law,' `A Fine Romance,' `Studio 5-B,' and so on.
"They did `Roseanne' and now they've taken my mantle? How did they get my mantle with that?"
But, it is pointed out to Tartikoff, ABC also offers viewers such challenging shows as "China Beach" and "thirtysomething." He is not impressed. "I don't think `China Beach' is a good television show," he says. "`thirtysomething' is a very narrow show."
Tartikoff is asked why NBC hasn't done a movie or miniseries in a league with "War and Remembrance" or "Lonesome Dove." He says the forthcoming miniseries remake of "Around the World in 80 Days" will be "all-family entertainment," if hardly revolutionary.
"Is it breakthrough television? It will probably be as slow as `War and Remembrance,"' he jokes.
Tartikoff says NBC has quality programming ahead, including a new prime-time effort from the tirelessly imaginative Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. It will air at the beginning of April. NBC's "Dream Street," a new series about life in blue-collar New Jersey, will air in March; it was created by the producers of that "narrow" show, "thirtysomething."
Obviously sensitive to the charge that he's bringing more trash than class to television, Tartikoff says last year's writer's strike has made this a freak among television seasons. "We do some good things around here," Tartikoff says defensively.
So far, though, not enough of them.