Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
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 went on when he took over as the chief programmer at NBC in 1981 when he was just 32 years old. He soon launched a series of critical and commercial successes that took NBC from a last-place network to the dominant network 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 very involved in the creation of a number of these shows, like convincing Bill Cosby to create a sitcom based on Cosby’s stand-up about his family or persuading Norman Lear not to walk away from Tartikoff’s idea for a spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes (one of the only hits NBC had when Tartikoff took over) called The Facts of Life (Tartikoff also made some mistakes, of course, like when he fought to have Michael J. Fox replaced on the pilot for Family Ties). Tartioff and Warren Littlefield (the top NBC programming executive under Tartikoff) were both known for coming up with high concept ideas that they then got TV producers to turn into TV series. Just last year in TV Legends Revealed, we took a look 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 where he simply wrote two words – “MTV Cops” and the rest is supposedly history.
Is that how it really happened, though?
Like most stories like this, the truth appears to lie somewhere in the middle. Tartikoff (who tragically passed away in 1997 after an over twenty-year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer) was extremely effective when it came to promoting himself as well as NBC. Few network executives had quite the public persona that Tartikoff did (CBS’ long time president Les Moonves is probably the closest we have to someone like Tartikoff today). 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 that the memo incident occurred, I do not believe it was the origination of Miami Vice.
Anthony Yerkovich, creator of Miami Vice, has long held that 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. He was initially struck by newspaper reports that a third of the unreported income in the United States moved through South Florida. In addition, he saw another report that talked 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 try to sell the idea as a TV series instead of as a movie. He teamed up with Universal Studios to try to sell his idea to NBC (he went with Universal executive Kerry McCluggage). At the time, he was calling the project Gold Coast. It is at this meeting with NBC that the fabled memo took place. And I can easily believe that Tartikoff heard Yerkovich’s idea and believed that it worked well with ideas Tartikoff had at the time about somehow hooking into the then-current MTV zeitgeist. So I can believe that he gave the memo to Yerkovich and asked him to specifically gear the show towards an MTV audience, which Miami Vice famously did with their use of popular music (and with Jan Hammer’s famous score for the series) and with fellow Miami Vice producer Michael Mann’s visual scheme for the show (he famously said of the show’s 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 series from Yerkovich early in the first season.
In his excellent book, Top of the Rock, Warren Littlefield tells the story as Tartikoff hearing the pitch and saying, “I get it, like MTV Cops!” So Litlefield agrees that Tartikoff did not come up with the “MTV Cops” idea before the pitch.
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…
Thanks to Warren Littlefield for the information and thanks to Ken Hommel for reminding me that Littlefield directly refuted this story in Top of the Rock.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.