Saturday, May 16, 2009

While you wait for Fall Schedules....

This article from the New York Times goes into some detail about NBC's savior.

May 17, 2009

NBC Hired a Hit Maker. It’s Still Waiting.

WHEN NBC hired Ben Silverman in May 2007, he was the hottest executive in the television business, the man who had a hand in bringing reality shows and “The Office” to America. He also happened to be taking a job he had dreamed about as a junior high schooler hooked on television: the top programmer position at NBC.

Two years in, his dream job is significantly different. So is Mr. Silverman.

His assignment of reviving NBC’s long-troubled fortunes in prime time has proved heavier lifting than Mr. Silverman anticipated, thanks to a combination of external factors — like a writers’ strike and a battered economy — and internal factors, including some gossip-stoking incidents in his personal life and a few comments about others that he now acknowledges were ill-advised.

And as always, there is the issue of ratings.

While it has been a meager year everywhere for hits in the network business, NBC has for several years been all but desperate for a new breakout show — or two or three. Mr. Silverman’s first full cycle of programs has not yet produced anything fitting that description. The fall lineup was fallow; two spring entries have generated some great reviews but only hints of future ratings gold.

When the hits did not flow in the fall, it enflamed critics who were already disposed to find fault with Mr. Silverman over what they labeled as arrogance and a self-involved management style.

Some detractors, rooting for his exit, have suggested that he and NBC can’t wait to part company. But Mr. Silverman, who is 38, says he is staying put. “I am a happy worker at NBC,” he said in a recent interview in Manhattan. “I plan to stay at NBC as part of the NBC family. I’m there. I’m committed.”

Jeff Zucker, Mr. Silverman’s boss and the chief executive of NBC Universal, says he continues to value Mr. Silverman’s work. “Ben has a skill set that is incredibly appropriate for these times,” he said. “If we weren’t supportive of Ben, he wouldn’t be here.”

Still, the fact that there has been no formal deal announced to renew Mr. Silverman’s contract will probably set off speculation among Mr. Silverman’s critics that Mr. Zucker does not want to make a public endorsement of him.

As for his personal life, Mr. Silverman said he had taken steps to temper his social profile, which made him a frequent target in the Hollywood blogosphere. (He famously held a party populated by models in bikinis and white tigers in cages.)

“I am more conscious of how I’m being presented,” he said.

Not that he doesn’t acknowledge some missteps. He was quoted dismissing two network competitors as “D-girls” — or low-level development executives. “I should never have called them that,” Mr. Silverman said.

“Ben made some mistakes in his first year,” Mr. Zucker said. “The first year was a learning experience. He had to learn how to work inside a corporation.”

THE ratings — and Mr. Zucker’s expectations — have ratcheted up the pressure on Mr. Silverman to make something positive happen quickly, certainly within the next year. The programming team under him has been revamped and given wider responsibilities. And Mr. Silverman and NBC seem to have agreed informally that he will continue on a year-to-year basis after his initial contract expires in June.

Among NBC’s target audience — viewers ages 18 to 49 — this season’s ratings have been flat, not bad in a business of mostly consistent downward movement. But in its current position, still last among the major networks, NBC needs up, not flat; it also had the Super Bowl this season and it won’t next year.

So, to pick up that slack, it will require something (or several somethings) shiny and successful out of Mr. Silverman’s shop.

“We need better shows,” Mr Zucker said. “That is priority No. 1 right now.”

Ever confident, Mr. Silverman believes that he has the goods coming next fall.

Mr. Zucker said he expected better shows to begin to emerge more easily, mainly thanks to the realignment of duties he put in place at NBC Entertainment early this year. The principal change involved the replacement of Mr. Silverman’s hand-picked top lieutenant, Teri Weinberg, with a veteran NBC program development executive, Angela Bromstad.

One consequence of that change has been less day-to-day involvement for Mr. Silverman in program development decisions as well as the calls on which shows to “greenlight” into production.

Few naysayers are willing to go on the record because they still need to do business with him. One program supplier said Mr. Silverman has been marginalized, and focuses more on the marketing of shows than their creation.

But a supplier who is willing to go on the record has a different take. “Ben is always front and center, where he needs to be,” said Zack Van Amburg, co-president of Sony Television, who cited Mr. Silverman’s participation in the development of that studio’s comedy called “Community,” from the first cast reading of the script. (The series was selected for NBC’s fall schedule.)

Mr. Silverman said he remained a participant in decisions to greenlight shows, and he argued for patience before his programming grade is handed out.

“I’d like to think time will tell,” he said, “because you can’t really judge your programming skills in a strike-shortened, 18-month period.”

MR. SILVERMAN’S background is more high culture than pop culture. The son of an avant-garde composer, he forged his reputation in television as an independent — and untraditional — operator. In 1995, he became an agent at William Morris and relocated to London, then considered a show-business backwater.

It was there that he noticed a trend sweeping European television: reality programming. Mr. Silverman became a middleman in deals that brought shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” to American networks.

That led Mr. Silverman to create Reveille, a production studio. Reveille generated a string of successful shows on cable, like “Nashville Star” and “The Tudors,” but gained real prominence for its network shows. Two Reveille series, “The Office” and “The Biggest Loser,” remain the biggest hits on NBC.

While at Reveille, Mr. Silverman became an eager spokesman for a vision of the network business built around international co-productions and partnerships with advertisers to get their messages directly into the content. For example, he created a reality show called “The Restaurant” with the backing of American Express; the company’s card was used exclusively in the show. He arrived at NBC prepared to carry out those plans.

“What I didn’t realize is, it’s really hard to have a vision running a network,” Mr. Silverman said. “You can have an agenda. But it’s almost impossible to have a vision because of the scale of the business and the entropy that already exists.”

In the spring of 2007, when Mr. Zucker turned to Mr. Silverman, NBC was starved for hits, especially the kind the network has been associated with for a generation: high-quality drama (“ER,” “The West Wing”) and classic comedy (“Seinfeld,” “Friends”).

Initially, Mr. Silverman couldn’t do much because he arrived after NBC’s fall slate was locked in. But he did have an early effect on one NBC product: he devised a deal with the satellite service DirecTV to keep the critically acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” in production through two additional seasons.

Once he was in full control, Mr. Silverman tried to revive some older franchises, both in reality (“American Gladiators,” which worked for one cycle of programs before fading) and drama (“Knight Rider,” conceived partly as a deal with Ford, which supplied the car that was the central character. It ran for this season and was canceled). In the wake of the writers’ strike, NBC did not have many pilots and bought some shows simply on the basis of scripts. None of those worked out. The most ambitious drama, “Kings,” which played as a biblical allegory, won positive reviews but puny ratings.

From the start, many of Mr. Silverman’s management decisions came under attack from some quarters of the Hollywood establishment. Ms. Weinberg, initially in charge of program development, became a lightning rod for anger from some producers who said she was too inexperienced and played favorites. Ms. Weinberg said on Friday that at NBC she was, “collaborative, smart, inclusive and easy to work with.”

Another focus of scrutiny about Mr. Silverman has been the deal to sell Reveille, completed in February. Critics suggested that while Mr. Silverman was being paid as an executive, it looked as if he was in a position to help build up his company before selling it for an estimated $200 million to Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch of the News Corporation.

Reveille certainly benefited when other shows it owned were added to NBC’s list. (Mr. Silverman imported one comedy, “Kath and Kim,” from Australia while he still ran Reveille.)

Mr. Zucker said that there was nothing improper in how Mr. Silverman dealt with Reveille. When he signed Mr. Silverman, Mr. Zucker said he agreed to a process in which he, and not Mr. Silverman, would have final say in ordering shows from Reveille.

Mr. Silverman said: “People didn’t even know it, but NBCU owned a piece of the deal. And they made all their money back on it already.” Mr. Zucker confirmed these details, saying NBC made an undisclosed profit. (Not as much as Mr. Silverman; he made an estimated $125 million.)

Ms. Murdoch, who runs the Shine Group, professes nothing but satisfaction — though she also happens to be one of Mr. Silverman’s closest friends. “We now have two powerful creative engines making hit shows in the two most valuable markets in the world,” meaning the United States and Britain, Ms. Murdoch said in an e-mail message.

Looking ahead, Mr. Silverman said he was feeling positive about the new season.

“I’m starting to get excited about it,” he said, pointing especially to NBC’s move of Jay Leno to an across-the-board slot at 10 p.m. weeknights.

That move was handled entirely by Mr. Zucker, though he credited Mr. Silverman with establishing a strong relationship with Mr. Leno.

“I’m really focused on what we’re doing right now, and on launching more shows off the Winter Olympics as well,” Mr. Silverman said. “That’s one reason I want to stay. I want to see this through. I really think we’ve got a little momentum.”

That sentiment comes easy at every network this time of year, when pilots for new shows are arriving. But Ms. Bromstad has received high marks for stabilizing NBC’s entertainment operation.

She described the new arrangement as a partnership that is working well. She said Mr. Silverman handles the larger strategy and also makes deals with talent and producers. She handles the day-to-day duties of taking pitches and ordering scripts.

“I love Ben,” she said. “We’re moving in different directions and doing different things.”

THERE is no doubt that in recent months, Mr. Silverman has altered his approach to both his personal and professional lives.

Mr. Zucker says he believes Mr. Silverman has made the necessary adjustments. He credited Mr. Silverman’s showmanship as NBC’s front man for presentations to advertisers this month. “The advertisers feel better than they have in years,” he said.

Mr. Silverman pitched a batch of new comedies and dramas, including two introduced this spring, “Parks and Recreation” and “Southland,” a police series that was the best-reviewed show on network television this year. They will be the first scripted shows in Mr. Silverman’s tenure to return for a second season. He also rejuvenated the “Apprentice” reality franchise.

And he continues to try to find ways to merge advertisers’ messages into the network’s programming. Eric Hadley, general manager of worldwide marketing for Microsoft, said the company had ambitious plans to place product messages in NBC shows.

“The way Ben thinks about shows, it takes in programming, advertising and what’s culturally relevant,” Mr. Hadley said.

“Those kinds of deals are what we have to do to drive the survival of our content base,” Mr. Silverman said. “At the end of the day if we’re still going to make the best programming in the world, we’ve got to find the funding for it.”

“I am resilient,” he said.

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