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Miami Beach — In accepting the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at NATPE on Tuesday evening, Modern Family creator and producer Steve Levitan recalled growing up in Chicago and being stunned when he watched two early 1980s television shows, Hill Street Blues and Cheers, both put on the air by Brandon Tartikoff, the late, legendary network programmer who ran NBC at the time.
He recalled the seminal show Hill St. Blues as a “gripping drama that made other cop shows seem fake,” and called the enduring comedy Cheers a show with “strong characters and real emotion.” Both were different from anything else he had ever seen and were among the inspirations that led him to a career in TV, which seemed an impossible dream to him as a child.
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“Brandon put those shows on the air and he stuck with them” until the audience discovered them and made them hits, he said.
“So, while I never had the pleasure of working with Brandon,” said Levitan, “I am deeply honored to accept this award that bears his name.”
Levitan was honored at the 10th annual edition of the awards along with COPS creator John Langley, BET Network CEO Debra Lee and Tele Munchen Gruppe chairman Herbert G. Kloiber before a standing-room crowd that included numerous top television executives of the past and present. Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush acted as emcee.
In listening to each of the stories of the honorees, which included introductions and videos, it was clear how great an achievement it was to consistently make great television and to do it over many years.
“The bottom line is making good television is incredibly hard,” said Levitan, “and you can’t do it without the help of good people like Brandon.”
Levitan then listed some of the many writers, producers and other people who have helped him on shows like Wings, Just Shoot Me, Back to You and, of course, the Emmy-winning hit Modern Family.
“I have drafted off their hard work,” joked Levitan, “and I say that here tonight because this is not televised and I don’t want it to get out.”
Levitan also praised Dana Walden and Gary Newman, co-chairs of 20th Century Fox Television, who were on-hand to present him with his honor. He thanked them for standing by him during his “long drought” between the hits Just Shoot Me and Modern Family when he said, “I had more expensive failures on Rupert Murdoch’s air than George W. Bush.”
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He saved his final thanks for his wife of many years, Krista. “It’s no picnic being the wife of a comedy writer,” said Levitan. “The hardest I’ve ever heard Krista laugh is when someone said it must be so much fun to be married to a comedy writer. She said it is, on paper.”
Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television, presented the award to Langley, who has overseen production of more than 900 episodes of the trend-setting reality show COPS in the past 25 years. Meidel said 2,300 other reality series had come and gone in that same time.
Langley told a story about two kids who asked him for a job, so he hired them to pick up dog poop off the beach while they were shooting a Dolph Lundgren exercise video. He said after a while, the two asked what it took to be in show business, and he told them: If you want to be a writer, write; a producer, produce; or a director, then direct. Later, they came up to him and quit, and he asked what they were going to do. They said they were going to go off and write and produce. He said the names of the two young men were Roger Avery and Quentin Tarantino.
“The lesson,” said Langley, “is if you want to succeed in this business, don’t get stuck picking up dog crap.”
Lee, who started at BET as a lawyer with two degrees from Harvard more than three decades ago, paid tribute to all the people who put in “all the hard work over the past 35 years” to “put the company on the map.”
She said the worst advice she ever got was not to change anything after she became CEO, and to leave BET primarily as a programmer of music videos and off-net fare.
“I had a feeling the multi-platform world was coming,” said Lee, adding that it would mean there would be a need for “more realistic images” and that it would be important to “put a stake in the ground and upgrade our programming.”
“Cable was changing, and it was clear original content was the way to go,” said Lee. “Luckily, change looks good on us. It’s working.”
NATPE’s first-year CEO Rod Perth, who has had a long career in every aspect of TV from local stations to syndication sales, introduced Kloiber, the German who built one of the world’s biggest broadcast empires.
Kloiber, speaking in perfect English, recalled not only building his company, but also being an early investor in many movies, TV shows and companies, including the modern Lionsgate.
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