NEW YORK — Grant Tinker, who produced “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and other television hits in the 1970s and transformed NBC from a perennial ratings loser to a powerhouse of literate, sophisticated network programming that helped change America’s viewing habits in the ‘80s, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
To a generation whose tastes were shaped by the tube, Mr. Tinker was the unseen hand behind many of the most stylish, critically acclaimed sitcoms and dramas on television. He did it by giving his writers space to thrive, shielding them from those studio and network executives who said they liked the story, all right, but wanted to change the boy to a dog — and usually got their way.
As president of MTM Enterprises, a company he founded with his second wife, Mary Tyler Moore, in 1970, Mr. Tinker produced the show named for her, one of the first series to feature an independent career woman as the central character, as well as spinoffs such as “Rhoda” and the one-hour newsroom drama “Lou Grant,” which examined societal issues.
And as chairman and chief executive of NBC from 1981 to 1986, Mr. Tinker crammed prime time with many of television’s most imaginative, successful, and long-running series, including “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Family Ties,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Miami Vice.”
Besides runaway ratings and an avalanche of awards during Mr. Tinker’s tenure, NBC secured annual profits that soared to $500 million, from $48 million.
After decades of formula network programming that, with notable exceptions, had made a wasteland of television, Mr. Tinker changed the landscape, using ensemble casts and intertwined story lines, casting blacks and women in leading roles, and examining serious topical issues: life and death in a hospital for the poor; conflicts in a family or an impoverished police precinct.
After nurturing many writers and producers whose work dominated network television for years to come, Mr. Tinker resigned from NBC when General Electric took over its parent company, RCA, in 1986. With Gannett, the media conglomerate, he later formed GTG Entertainment and produced a news magazine for television and other shows, but he failed to repeat his earlier successes, and the company was dissolved in 1990.
Though relatively unknown to audiences, Mr. Tinker was a legend in television, especially to his writers. “Grant Tinker’s real unique gift is in creating an environment where people feel safe, nurtured, protected to do what they do best,” Steven Bochco, a creator of “Hill Street Blues,” told The New York Times in 1986.
Gary Goldberg, who created “Family Ties,” a sitcom about hippie parents from the ‘60s and their children in the ‘80s, including a conservative son, had no television experience when he arrived at MTM.
“Grant let me know a writer was special,” he said in 1987. “He said I was not there to find out what the networks wanted. He said what had to come through in my shows was my personality, my view of the world. Grant makes everyone he comes into contact with better.”
A native of Stamford, Conn., and a graduate of Dartmouth College, Grant Almerin Tinker went into advertising and for seven years developed programs for television — as ad agencies did then.
In 1961, Mr. Tinker joined NBC in Los Angeles, in charge of West Coast programming, and developed “Bonanza,” “I Spy,” “Dr. Kildare,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
He returned to New York as the head of programming in 1966, but quit in 1967 to return to California, where he developed television series for Universal and for 20th Century Fox.
Setting out as an independent in 1970, Mr. Tinker and Moore formed MTM to produce “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” for CBS. Created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the show had phenomenal success over the next seven years, which led to a host of spinoff hits and a growing stable of writers and producers eager to work in a creative atmosphere.
By 1981, when Mr. Tinker was hired to resurrect NBC, the network was in the doldrums, with dismal ratings, sagging profits, and defections by viewers, affiliates, and advertisers.
A harsh critic of programming, including NBC’s, Mr. Tinker seemed an unlikely savior. But by 1986, NBC had recaptured prime time and profits, while holding its own with the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw,” and Johnny Carson and David Letterman late night.