NBC in the ’80s: From Worst to First Part V: ‘Miami Vice’-‘Miami Nice’ Lead Friday-Saturday
NBC in the ’80s: From Worst to First Part V: ‘Miami Vice’-‘Miami Nice’ Lead Friday-Saturday Resurgence
NEW YORK (AP) _ For many Americans, weekends mean ″Dallas″ on Friday and movie rentals on Saturday. NBC didn’t become first in prime time by interfering with those rituals; it just provided two more: ″Miami Vice″ and″Miami Nice.″
In its stylish cop show ″Miami Vice″ on Friday and its wise-cracking ″Golden Girls″ on Saturday, NBC had the final rungs in place for its climb to the top of the Nielsen ratings ladder.
They also made life easier for Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff. Before ″Miami Vice″ made crime-solving chic and ″Golden Girls″ made wrinkles funny, Tartikoff said phoning NBC research Sunday morning for Friday- Saturday ratings ″was like calling for bad X-rays.″
Three years ago, NBC was a respectable network 60 percent of the week. But when the MTM kitty meowed off the air Thursday nights after ″Hill Street Blues,″ NBC virtually went dark until Sunday.
As NBC’s chief programmer, Tartikoff had tried virtually everything against the CBS Friday lineup led by the formidable ″Dallas.″
In 1981, he brought Marshall Matt Dillon of ″Gunsmoke″ (James Arness) out of retirement to play a modern cop in ″McClain’s Law.″
The next season he was moderately successful with a talking car (″Knight Rider,″) which emboldened him to attack the Ewing mob with a menagerie. Fridays on NBC in 1983 featured a talking orangutan (″Mr. Smith″) and a man who turned into animals (″Manimal.″)
For 1984-85, Tartikoff tried a lineup to appeal to men: ″V,″ a sci-fi series about aliens; ″Hunter,″ a cop show starring former pro-football defensive lineman Fred Dryer, and the series Madison Avenue considered NBC’s weakest link, ″Miami Vice.″
″Vice″ started with a Tartikoff hunch. MTV, the music-video channel, was creating a stir in Hollywood. ″I pushed myself into a crash course of wall- to-wall MTV,″ Tartikoff said. ″It drove my wife nuts.″
Tartikoff wrote ″MTV-Cops″ on a slip of paper and handed it to Tony Yerkovich, a ″Hill Street Blues″ writer whose specialty was fruitcake characters. ″I basically was seeing Hill and Renko tooling down Collins Avenue,″ Tartikoff said.
Yerkovich wrote the first seven episodes, but it was executive producer Michael Mann who splashed Miami with rainbows and raised the volume. ″Never in my wildest imagination did I see Ferraris, white T-shirts and pastel jackets,″ Tartikoff said.
And he certainly didn’t see Don Johnson wearing those threads. ″I couldn’t believe we had the best pilot script in Hollywood and were going with a guy who had failed in six or seven other pilots,″ Tartikoff said.
Fortunately for NBC, Yerkovich prevailed. In its second season, ″Vice″ hit the Top 10 in ratings and the Top 5 in the demographic category advertisers love - women and men aged 18-34. Johnson and his ″Vice″ partner, Philip Michael Thomas, became the season’s prime-time cover boys.
Saturday posed a different problem for NBC. Few viewers stay home, and many who do rent movies. The networks had abandoned Saturday for second-rate kid comedies and the lonelyhearts duo of ″The Love Boat″ and ″Fantasy Island.″
Unlike the ″Dallas″ gang, Tartikoff knew Saturday’s competition was vulnerable - if NBC offered something special.
Nursing a cold at home one afternoon, he flipped on the 1953 movie ″How to Marry a Millionaire.″ The idea of three young women looking for Sugar Daddies interested Tartikoff but lay dormant until he watched two older actresses, Doris Roberts and the late Selma Diamond, kidding around at a preview session for NBC’s 1984-85 season.
There’s a new show set in Miami, Roberts and Diamond told the audience. They couldn’t wait - maybe they’d see some friends from Florida in the upcoming clip. Then Crockett and Tubbs exploded on the screen, Uzis blasting away. When the machine guns stopped, the wide-eyed actresses apologized: Sorry, they said, we thought it was called ″Miami Nice.″
A ″Miami Nice″ comedy, Tartikoff realized, was the way to do ″How to Marry a Millionaire.″ The way he saw it, ″A 25-year-old girl looking for a rich guy is offensive; a 50-year-old woman looking for a rich doctor is fun.″
The idea was given to Susan Harris, the creator of ″Soap″ and ″Benson,″ whose exclusive contract with ABC had just lapsed. NBC gave her a series commitment, rather than a pilot deal, so the producers could line up name talent. They got Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.
″It was the first time I was ever excited about a network idea,″ Harris said. Taking NBC’s concept of three older women sharing a house in Miami, she developed three funny characters and a tart-tongued, 80-year-old mother.
″Golden Girls″ defied the TV axiom requiring youth and beauty, so many ad agencies predicted failure for four old-timers with no kids underfoot.
But ″Golden Girls″ started in the Top 10 and never slowed down. The sitcom, appealing to older adults, their daughters and grandchildren, remains in the Top 10 with kids 2-11, women 25-54 and adults over 55.
″Golden Girls″ is the No. 1 new hit of 1985-86 and NBC’s first Saturday winner since ″CHIPs″ in 1979.
To win in prime time, NBC needed major weekend improvement. It’s only fitting that NBC’s Miami connection gave the network its sunniest season ever.