The kitten that roared

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

The kitten that roared

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

Wearing pyjamas and a robe, a man sits transfixed by the television set in a hospital psychiatric ward. After undergoing brain surgery, he has lost his identity and developed a TV addiction. Suddenly, while watching a rerun of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he has a revelation: “That’s it!” he exclaims, running out into the corridor. “I know who I am! I’m Mary Richards!”

That scene is from a recent episode of the hospital drama St. Elsewhere, produced by MTM Enterprises, the prestigious, independent studio featuring a kitten in its corporate logo. It shows just how far the MTM family has extended itself—to the point where some of its characters, including Mary Richards, have acquired a life of their own. Founded in 1969 to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM Enterprises has since created more than 10 successful television series, including such award-winning hits as Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues. Meanwhile, the privately owned company has grown into a 600-employee organization which owns half of the 40-acre CBS lot in Studio City, Los Angeles. Recently, it has suffered through a creatively lean period: in the past three years it has failed to produce any new shows that survived more than a season. Still, syndication rights guarantee the company’s financial health. And its reputation persists: in a recently published 308-page book, MTM, Quality Television, British Film Institute scholars termed it “the most innovative company in American television.”

MTM built its empire by breaking the most basic rules of prime-time TV. Said MTM president Arthur Price: “This company does not work like a factory. We work at our own speed and do what we want to do. They think we are certifiably insane at the networks.” MTM has become known as an oasis of quality in an industry that thrives on laugh-track comedy and car-crash drama. Its comedies favor character over slapstick; the dramas stress dialogue rather than stunts. Owned by Price, Moore and William Blumenthal, and with no shareholders to question its priorities, MTM has the freedom to take risks. In an industry ruled by ratings, the company commits unusually high budgets to programs that may take several years to find their audience. It shoots its situation comedies on costly film instead of lower-quality videotape in order to achieve a more realistic look. And unlike many other studios, which develop shows to fit rigid marketing strategies, MTM puts its writers in charge of the creative process: they serve as executive producers—a situation that most studios, according to former MTM writer Jay Tarses, would consider “tantamount to letting the lunatics run the asylum.”

Universal: The results are impressive. During its seven-year lifespan The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmys, the awards given by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—a record in television history. More recently, as MTM has expanded to drama, its Hill Street Blues has captured second place in the Emmy rankings with 26 Emmys. Because MTM provides alternatives to the mediocrity of so much popular North American programming, the CBC has consistently used its financial resources to outbid the competition for Canadian broadcast rights. Declared CBC TV network program director Roman Melnyk: “We have bought a lot of MTM shows over the years. They are intelligent and nonviolent. And they reflect easily accepted universal values rather than specifically American ones.”

Philosophy: The company’s creator was Grant Tinker, Mary Tyler Moore’s second husband. They have since divorced, and Tinker is now chairman of the NBC network. Although Tinker was bought out by partners Arthur Price and Moore herself for $300 million in 1981, his founding philosophy still prevails at the company’s well-groomed, campus-like lot in Studio City. “I gave the writers control,” said Tinker, “not because I am such a terrific guy but because that is the way you have to treat the best and most creative people.”

One thing that sets MTM apart is the craft it uses in manufacturing entertainment. When the pilot episode of St. Elsewhere failed to meet the producers’ standards, Price ordered it reshot at a cost of $700,000. The extra care appears to have worked: St. Elsewhere is enjoying its fourth successful season. The network considers the witty, multilayered drama a hit even though it is ranked 57th in the ratings, because it has what the networks call “a good demographic”—an audience of what St. Elsewhere producer Mark Tinker, Grant Tinker’s son, describes as “the white-wine spritzer crowd.” Advertisers are willing to pay high prices for commercial time—as much as $140,000 for 30 seconds, the same category as shows with a 30-per-cent greater audience share. The reason is that its viewers tend to be high-income, college-educated consumers, MTM’S Hill Street Blues also offers sponsors a select audience, attracting such strangers to prime time as Mercedes-Benz.

Proliferation: From the beginning, MTM has learned that patience pays. It was not until its second season that The Mary Tyler Moore Show began to build an audience. And after going into syndication in 1977, its 168 episodes have earned MTM $50 million. Since then, with the proliferation of independent stations, the potential for syndication sales has grown, and rights for a top-rated show may earn as much as $2 million per episode.

As a result, the company places a strikingly high value on its writers. Although MTM cannot compete with salaries that the major studios pay, the company compensates by giving its employees creative licence. Said Price: “We do something that from a business standpoint may not be the wisest thing to do. We develop things that we would like to see ourselves.” Explained Daniel Wilcox, executive producer of MTM’S Newhart: “In every company, there is always someone who says, ‘The network does not like this. Let’s change it.’ But here if you have a conflict with the network, MTM says, ‘Give it to us. We’ll fight it for you.’ ” In March, during a Hollywood writers’ strike, most studios locked the writers out—but MTM paid strikers full salaries, which for a weekly script writer can be as high as $10,500. Said MTM scriptwriter Paul Wolff: “It was unheard-of, but that is the way they do business.”

In the 1970s the studio’s liberal attitude often spilled over into its program content. Lou Grant, which starred Ed Asner as a crusading newspaper city editor, rankled both CBS and its sponsors with episodes attacking such targets as chemical pollution and torture by Latin American dictators. Then, in 1982, Asner, as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, gave a press conference on behalf of an El Salvador aid group. Three months later, after conservatives campaigned to boycott Lou Grant’s sponsors, CBS cancelled the show. That was a decision that some MTM producers privately deplore.

Meanwhile, MTM was undergoing difficult transitions. Lou Grant was the last of the spin-offs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a collection whose ranks once included Rhoda, Phyllis and The Betty White Show. After Moore left her old show in 1977, MTM went through an erratic search for a new identity. With WKRP in Cincinnati, a popular situation comedy about a rock radio station, the studio even succumbed to a prevalent sitcom style that network executives have nicknamed “jiggle television”—on WKRP, the jiggles belonged to Loni Anderson, who played a sexy blond receptionist. The show ceased production in 1982, the same season that the sobering St. Elsewhere premiered. Since then MTM has looked for a hit in vain.

Among its notable failures was Bay City Blues, a one-hour drama about a minor-league baseball team in a small California town, produced by Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco. NBC cancelled it after four episodes and MTM suffered losses of $2.6 million, including $400,000 it had spent to construct an actual baseball stadium for the show. Declared Price: "Bay City Blues was creatively one of the greatest gambles we ever took, and we would do it again.” MTM suffered another failure in 1984 with The Duck Factory, a short-lived sitcom about an animation studio starring Canadian actor-impressionist Jim Carrey.

Although MTM was founded to produce sitcoms, its future may lie in more serious pursuits. The studio has just developed six pilots, including Behind Enemy Lines, a Second World War drama series starring Hal Holbrook and David McCallum as agents of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. As well, it is filming a pilot on location in the south of France for an adult adventure show titled Riviera. The company is also diversifying. It recently set up a Nashville record company to produce country and western music, has co-financed four Broadway shows and is developing three movies.

Perfect: MTM grew up in the early 1970s when relevance was fashionable in television. Said James L. Brooks, part of the nucleus of MTM’S writing team, who defected from the company to join Paramount Pictures in 1977: “MTM was getting very big; the college was becoming a university. I cannot tell you how perfect it was there, and it could not stay that way.” Although the company remains an anomaly in Hollywood, it has learned to survive amid the slick, conservative styles of the 1980s. Its successful private-eye series, Remington Steele, is cotton-candy adventure in the small screen’s most escapist tradition. Even the new Mary show, as sophisticated as it may be, clones the safe legacy of its predecessors.

Despite the MTM legend, the company is not just a producer of television but a product of it. Television is a family affair—and the cute kitten in the MTM logo is trying to serve as the all-purpose family pet.