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TV URBAN LEGEND: Miami Vice originated as a two-word brainstorming memo: “MTV Cops.”
Few network executives have ever experienced the sort of hot streak that Brandon Tartikoff did when he took over in 1981 as the chief programmer at NBC when he was just 32 years old. He soon launched a series of critical and commercial successes that took the network from last place to dominating broadcast television for the rest of the decade in both ratings and in awards.
The number of shows that developed under his leadership is astonishing — award-winning dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law and hit comedies like Family Ties, Cheers and The Cosby Show. Tartikoff was closely involved in the development of a number of these shows, convincing Bill Cosby to create a sitcom based on his stand-up about his family, or persuading Norman Lear not to walk away from Tartikoff’s own idea for a spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes — one of the few hits NBC had when Tartikoff took over — called The Facts of Life. (Tartikoff also made mistakes, of course, like when he fought to have Michael J. Fox replaced on the pilot for Family Ties).
Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield (the top programming executive under Tartikoff) were both known for coming up with high-concept ideas that they then got producers to turn into series. Just recently in TV Legends Revealed, we looked at how Littlefield took the joke idea of “Miami Nice” and turned it into The Golden Girls. Similarly, a longstanding television legend is that the hit cop drama Miami Vice began as a brainstorming memo by Tartikoff in which he simply wrote two words, “MTV Cops,” and the rest is supposedly history. Is that how it really happened, though?
As with most stories like this, the truth appears to lie somewhere in the middle. Tartikoff, who tragically passed away in 1997 after an over 20-year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was extremely effective when it came to promoting both himself and NBC. Few network executives had quite the public persona that Tartikoff did (CBS’s longtime president Les Moonves is probably the closest we have today to someone like Tartikoff). He even hosted Saturday Night Live! So Tartikoff helped foster the memo story, repeating it in many articles about the success of NBC in general and Miami Vice in particular. However, while I do believe the memo incident occurred, I don’t believe it was the origin Miami Vice.
Anthony Yerkovich has long held he was developing the concept that eventually became Miami Vice for years, even while he was still working on Hill Street Blues (where Yerkovich was a writer and producer in the early years of the series). He planned it as a movie screenplay about two vice cops in Miami after he was struck by newspaper reports that a third of the unreported income in the United States moved through South Florida. He saw another report about cops in Miami using seized property to help fight crime. That formed the backbone of his idea.
He elaborated his ideas about Miami to Time magazine in 1985 (when Miami Vice received a cover story):
I thought of it as a sort of a modern-day American Casablanca. It seemed to be an interesting socioeconomic tide pool: the incredible number of refugees from Central America and Cuba, the already extensive Cuban-American community, and on top of all that the drug trade. There is a fascinating amount of service industries that revolve around the drug trade — money laundering, bail bondsmen, attorneys who service drug smugglers. Miami has become a sort of Barbary Coast of free enterprise gone berserk
Yerkovich then decided to pitch the concept as a TV series instead of as a movie, and teamed with Universal Studios to try to sell it to NBC (he went with Universal executive Kerry McCluggage). At the time, he was calling the project Gold Coast. It’s at this meeting with NBC that the fabled memo took place. And I can easily believe Tartikoff heard Yerkovich’s concept and thought it worked well with his own ideas about somehow hooking into the then-current MTV zeitgeist. So I can believe he gave the memo to Yerkovich and asked him to specifically gear the show toward an MTV audience, which Miami Vice famously did with its use of popular music (and with Jan Hammer’s score) and with producer Michael Mann’s visual scheme for the show (he famously said of its look, “no earth tones”). Mann, who was brought in by Universal Studios to co-produce the series with Yerkovich, actually ended up taking over the running of the show early in the first season.
So did Tartikoff play a significant role in the development of Miami Vice? Definitely. But the legend is that he essentially gave Yerkovich the idea for the show with his memo, and that just doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
So the legend is …
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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!