When he was chief programmer at NBC, Brandon Tartikoff once said that a
quality television show was best defined as one "that starts with low ratings
and ends with a cat meowing."
He was, of course, referring to the programs made by MTM Enterprises, an independent production company founded in 1970 as the supplier of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Anyone who watched TV in the 1970s and 1980s is familiar with the MTM kitten that meowed at the end of such slow-to-get-started but critically acclaimed series as "The Bob Newhart Show," "The White Shadow," "Lou Grant," "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," and "Newhart" and that became the trademark for TV's most respected brand name.
MTM was founded by Grant Tinker, his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore, and Moore's manager, Arthur Price. Although Tinker, the soul of the company during its formative first decade, was more an administrator than a creative type, he made MTM a place that allowed creative people a degree of freedom atypical of television at the time. He hired outstanding writers, producers and directors, and then let them go off and do what they did best. Whenever network executives attempted to interfere with the creative process, Tinker was on hand to tell them to back off. The result of this setup was a company that attracted the best young talent available and produced a steady output of truly excellent programming. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," MTM's first effort, won an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards before leaving the air in 1977.
Like "M*A*S*H" and "All In the Family," which would also debut in the early '70s, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was part of a CBS strategy to make its programming more "relevant" to contemporary viewers who had just been through the social upheaval of the previous decade. MTM, however, was willing to go places where even CBS feared to tread.
The creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," James Brooks and Allan Burns, had originally conceived the main character of the series as a recently divorced woman. Industry legend holds that a CBS researcher nixed the idea, saying that their were four types of people the mass audience would not accept in the leading role of a sitcom: Jews, New Yorkers, people with mustaches, and people who had been divorced. The degree to which MTM changed the medium's rules, however, can be seen by looking at "Mary Tyler Moore's" first spinoff, "Rhoda." Rhoda Morgenstern was a Jewish New Yorker who divorced her husband in the third season.
Early in the run of its first series, MTM had established a distinctive and identifiable style. The MTM style seems commonplace now, since it has been imitated so many times, but it was quite revolutionary back in the 1970s. That style was characterized by three major elements. The first was the "workplace family."
While most sitcoms during this period centered around biologically or matrimonially related people who usually cavorted around the living room sofa, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" focused more on characters drawn together at their place of employment by institutional ties. Although glimpses of home life were often shown, most of the later MTM series continued in this tradition with settings in a radio station, a high school, a city newspaper, a police station, a hospital and a Vermont inn.
A second feature of the MTM style was its self-awareness. Many of the series were either about TV itself or related media institutions. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was a TV show about a TV show, and its final episode was about a final episode. "The Betty White Show" followed the behind-the-scenes activities at a TV cop show; "WKRP in Cincinnati" took place at a radio station; "Lou Grant" was set in a newsroom; "The Duck Factory" (starring then unknown Jim Carrey) featured the activities in an animation studio; and "St. Elsewhere" had more inside jokes about old TV shows than even a confirmed couch potato could identify.
Finally, the MTM style usually showed one or more "normal," competent people trying to "make it after all" in a crowd of crazies. Mary Richards had to put up with incompetent egotists like Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens; "The Bob Newhart Show"'s Bob Hartley had to deal with a gang of lunatics both on and off his psychiatrist's couch; Andy Travis worked at WKRP (W-crap), a low-rated radio station run by a clueless manager and a news director who missed the revolution in Iran because he was giving a hog report; Coach Reeves on "The White Shadow" was constantly trying to keep his ne'er-do-well basketball team on the straight and narrow; and the cops and doctors of "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" both operated in decaying urban neighborhoods.
The MTM style didn't spring up from nowhere, however. Its chief ancestor was one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Mary Tyler Moore, of course, had co-starred in that series as Laura Petrie, and Grant Tinker was the sponsor's ad executive in charge of the show. Tinker's interest in the program became even greater after he married Moore at the end of the first season. For the next four years, he claims, he was present at the filming of nearly every episode. Finally, Allan Burns, co-creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," was such a fan of "Dick Van Dyke" that he had once applied for a position on the show's writing staff.
Since three of the five principal players in MTM's early development were intimately tied to "The Dick Van Dyke Show," it should come as no surprise that all three of MTM's major themes could be found in the earlier series. Although "Dick Van Dyke" did feature a traditional sitcom nuclear family (Rob, Laura and Ritchie), it also included a workplace family (Rob, Buddy and Sally). The comparative competence of Rob's writing team played off the egotistic bluster of Mel and Alan Brady, and, like "Mary Tyler Moore," the main character of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" made television for a living.
MTM employed its unique style with impressive results for nearly twenty years, breaking ground and pushing envelopes, first in the sitcom and then in the social drama and the strikingly innovative and realistic comedy-drama.
By 1988, however, the company's distinguished history came to a close. Tinker had left years ago to become the head of NBC, and most of the best producers and writers had already gone on to -- or were about to -- continue the MTM style at other production companies. In 1988, MTM was sold to TVS Entertainment, a British company that was subsequently sold to Pat Robertson.
The MTM name is still visible on new programming, but, as Grant Tinker claimed in his recent autobiography, it now "signs off product the original company would not have watched, much less made."
Just before the sale of MTM, however, the producers of "St. Elsewhere" got in one last joke worthy of the old regime. Regular viewers of MTM series will remember that the meowing cat at the end of each episode was altered to fit the specific series. The cat at the end of "The White Shadow," for example, bounced a basketball in its paw, and the one at the end of "Remington Steele" had a Sherlock Holmes-style cap and pipe.
The cat on "St. Elsewhere" usually wore a surgeon's mask, but after the final episode in the fateful year of 1988, the poor thing is shown splayed out on a stretcher attached to a machine that monitors its heartbeat. The machine emits a steady beep all through the ending theme, but just as the music (and the series) ends, the monitor flatlines with a steady tone.
The MTM kitty had died, just as the original company was about to.
MTM's legacy was not to be forgotten, however. Not only did the company supply some of TV's finest moments, it also had been the major training ground for writers, producers and directors who would eventually leave the company and go on to radically improve the overall quality of the medium.
In the 25 Emmy Award presentations since the debut of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," series that were either made at MTM or by people who started out working for the company have been recognized 13 times in the Best Comedy category and 13 times as Best Drama.
The list of high quality series boasting major creative staff members that trained at MTM is an astounding one which includes: "Murder One"; "Chicago Hope"; "er"; "Friends"; "NYPD Blue"; "Frasier"; "Late Show With David Letterman"; "Homicide: Life on the Street"; "Civil Wars"; "Brooklyn Bridge"; "Twin Peaks"; "Northern Exposure"; "thirtysomething"; "L.A. Law"; "Moonlighting"; "I'll Fly Away"; "Law & Order"; "Equal Justice"; "The Simpsons"; "China Beach"; "A Year in the Life"; "Frank's Place"; "The Tracey Ullman Show"; "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"; "Miami Vice"; "The Cosby Show"; "Buffalo Bill"; "Family Ties"; "Cheers"; "Cagney & Lacey"; and "Taxi."
Network television is as good now as it's ever been in very large part because of the innovations and transformations brought about by MTM from 1970 through 1988.
ROBERT J. THOMPSON, in addition to being an associate professor at Syracuse University, is the author of 3 books on television. His book, Good TV: The ST. ELSEWHERE Story, is now available in bookstores everywhere.
UltimateTV's Classic TV articles are reprints which first appeared in CLASSIC TV Magazine and used with permission.