It's Ten O'Clock. Do You Know Where Your Network President Is?
Ben Silverman, the brash, hard-partying new head of NBC Entertainment, says and does the things a TV executive isn't supposed to say and do -- and that may be just what it takes to resurrect his last-place network.
The fire marshal has seen enough. It's only 9:00 p.m., but he's instituted a strict one-in, one-out policy as the annual NBC pre-Emmy party at Spago in Beverly Hills devolves into a chaotic mess. Overbooked by at least four hundred, the crowd spills into traffic on North Canon Drive. Agents and executives jockey to get past the door while network talent like B.J. Novak of The Office and Katrina Bowden from 30 Rock stand respectfully in a line snaking down the block. Inside, Tina Fey -- whose mostly praised, largely unwatched 30 Rock will win the Emmy for best comedy tomorrow night -- is engaged in what the deafening noise level requires one to presume is sharp, observational dialogue. Her costar Alec Baldwin is holding court nearby, though he seems distracted. He's doing this thing with his eyes -- a quick glance across the room, then another, then a casual head turn. It's the I'm-not-looking look, and it's directed at the tall, slim figure fronting a semicircle of women near the dessert bar: Ben Silverman, the recently appointed thirty-seven-year-old head of NBC Entertainment. Baldwin's new boss.
Tonight's massive schmoozefest is ideally tailored to Silverman, a former producer and agent whose close relationships with talent and unapologetic 24/7 lifestyle are as integral to his success as his knack for developing hit shows. But Ben Silverman is unimpressed. "This is nothing, man," he says, dabbing sweat from his forehead toward the conclusion of a marathon three-hour tour through nearly everyone who has made it inside. "This is just an office party. More of a corporate thing. But man, last night..." He's referring to the private gathering he hosted with some nightclub promoters at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills to celebrate the twenty-four Emmy nominations earned by shows he produced before taking the network gig -- and, he says, to demonstrate that the cool kids now hang with NBC. The formal party featured bikini-clad girls dancing on rafts in the pool, the Hilton sisters, and a caged white tiger in the entryway. "It was sick," says Silverman, who greeted his six hundred guests in a silver Dolce & Gabbana suit and shut the place down around 5:30 a.m. "You looked around and saw so many beautiful women. But then you looked closer and it's like, Hey, that's Molly Sims. See what I mean? Just a totally sick party."
Silverman threw a sick party for an ailing network. The Big Four broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) are all struggling to redefine their business as the captive audience they once commanded continues to scatter among cable channels and the Web. This has forced them to spend extravagantly to make shows that rise above the clutter (and to fill out their lineups with cheaper reality shows instead of reruns). But while the cost of running a network has never been higher, ratings hit historic lows this spring and summer. And last season, the combined median age of the prime-time audience of ABC, CBS, and NBC rose for the first time to fifty years old. NBC, to borrow the title from one of Silverman's own shows, is the Biggest Loser. It has finished fourth for three straight years, a slump that has cost corporate parent GE about a billion dollars in ad sales.
By spring, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker had grown frustrated with last place, no doubt a result of NBC's subsistence on stale holdovers like Scrubs and ER, low-rated critical favorites like Friday Night Lights, and the lack of a monster-hit reality franchise like Fox's American Idol. Worse, after solidifying its image in the eighties and nineties as the purveyor of smart comedy, the home of The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends didn't bother to introduce a single new sitcom this fall.
Silverman had made his mark as an aggressive and charismatic agent who became rich selling foreign formats like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor to American broadcasters, and producing U.S. versions of The Office and Ugly Betty. When he indicated in May that he was looking for a new challenge, Zucker quickly hired him, even though he had just given NBC's then-president, Kevin Reilly, a three-year contract extension reportedly worth $6 million. (Reilly soon landed a top job at Fox.)
Silverman, who had no previous network experience, now shares the chairman title with Marc Graboff, a lawyer and business-affairs veteran, but it's clear that Silverman is the vision guy, ultimately responsible for digging NBC out of the cellar. To that end, Zucker has given him broad freedom not just to develop the network's prime-time slate but to oversee its production studio, marketing apparatus, and, perhaps most significantly, its evolving digital strategy. "He's the most successful television producer of his generation. He knows what registers with an audience," Zucker says. "And Ben woke up on the sunny side of the street. He believes that good things will happen. We need it."
Silverman is all smiles as he makes his way to a patio table overlooking the golf course at the Hillcrest Country Club, where he's been spending far less time since giving up the cushier schedule of an independent producer to take the lower-paying, time-intensive network job. He moves quickly in a dark pinstripe blazer over a white V-neck T-shirt and jeans, stopping for an energetic handshake with a few familiar faces along the way. Other than a hairline that exhibits the beginnings of a recession despite a daily Propecia regimen, he's boyish, with a near-perpetual grin and circus-big-top eyebrows. Silverman is known for triple- and sometimes quadruple-booking business meetings, and when the waiter arrives, he orders only an iced tea and explains that he's scheduled a second lunch shortly with Warren Littlefield, who headed NBC Entertainment in the nineties and will soon wait patiently in the lobby. Silverman removes his blazer and greets the NBC publicist that the network insisted accompany its candid new chief.
"The industry hasn't seen an executive like me in a long time," Silverman says. "Traditionally, development executives rise through a specific subsection of the TV business -- prime time, network, scripted programming. They're basically D-girls," he says, using the derogatory industry slang for cute young development execs with little power. "That's what [ABC Entertainment president] Steve McPherson is, that's what [Fox Entertainment president] Kevin Reilly is. That's bad vernacular, but they're all D-girls."
It's rare in Hollywood for top executives to call one another out by name, but Silverman still prides himself on being an outsider in the network-TV world.
"What's clearly unique about me is I'm an entrepreneur," he continues. "I'm a businessman who's taken a lot of risk, and I've worked all around the world developing every genre of content you can think of. I had my own distribution company, so I know how the value is created off the shows. It's not consistent with the way the process normally works, but it's so much more of a valuable background."
Silverman decided early on that he'd have a career in television. He grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side with a TV-executive mother and composer father and spent a lot of time home alone watching television. He cites NBC's The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Knight Rider as childhood favorites (though one wonders if that list would have included Three's Company if he were currently running ABC). When he was twelve or thirteen, Silverman came across a New York magazine profile of Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's star programmer. "I came home from work one day, and Ben said 'You know what, Mom, this is my channel and I'm going to run it when I get big,'" Mary Silverman says.
"It's always what I've wanted to do," says Silverman. "I wanted to run NBC. I didn't want to run CBS or ABC -- I wanted something specific. And if you have that goal from age ten, you probably have a good chance to get there if you're continuously thinking about it." Mom, who had worked for the BBC and USA networks, helped Ben get internships at Warner Bros. while he was in college at Tufts, then gave him a copy of her Rolodex when he headed to L.A. after graduation. He landed a job with a producer and was promoted almost immediately, briefly working under his idol Tartikoff. In 1995, Silverman, then twenty-five, joined the William Morris Agency. He volunteered to move to its London office, where he quickly developed a niche repackaging European formats like Big Brother for American broadcasters. "Ten years ago, there wasn't this reality or unscripted TV. Ben was one of the first to recognize their value," says William Morris CEO Jim Wiatt. "In my almost thirty years of doing this, Ben is one of the smartest guys I've seen -- a great salesman, with a great eye for material and an entrepreneurial mind."
Eager to go his own way, Silverman returned to L.A. and in 2002 launched Reveille, an independent production company named for the military bugle call, he says, as a daily motivation for employees. After early successes creating reality shows, the company's first attempt at scripted TV, an adaptation of the UK hit Coupling, bombed on NBC. But he convinced the network to take another chance on a reworking of Britain's The Office, which he had seen and loved when he lived in London. Ratings for the first six-episode miniseason were terrible, but then-president Kevin Reilly liked the show and decided to bring it back.
"The Office had no business being on the air," says Steve Carell, its star. "A lot of the push, the bargaining, and the deal making to keep us on came from Ben. He never gave up on it." Now in its fourth season, The Office scores only decent ratings, but its audience is prime time's most affluent and the DVDs and downloads are among NBC's best sellers. More important for Silverman, it showed that Reveille could make the kind of sharp comedy NBC used to be known for, an effort he expanded on with bigger ratings for ABC's Ugly Betty, based on a Colombian telenovela he'd been trying for years to sell, and the period drama The Tudors for Showtime.
Few doubt Silverman's talent as a dealmaker, but critics wonder if that's all he is, if his skills are limited to peddling formats rather than developing good shows from scratch. They also say he's little more than an effective networker and promoter, mostly of himself, and that the party boy who is rumored to have trashed a William Morris colleague's office on a drunken bender (true, he says) and who supposedly delayed his GE-mandated drug test to flush his system (not true, he insists) isn't mature enough for a network's top job.
"Bring it on," Silverman says. "I'll play any game -- intellectual, physical, or otherwise -- with anyone who would ask me [the maturity] question. I'll go on Jeopardy! with them. I will play Trivial Pursuit. I'll sit down with the chairman of Citibank with them. Whoever they want me to meet."
Silverman skeptics wonder whether he will favor shows produced by his former company (his deal with NBC allows him to benefit financially from shows Reveille has already created, but not from anything greenlit after he took the job). Silverman has already pushed forward at least one Reveille show, the Australian import Kath & Kim, which failed to gain traction under the previous regime. NBC says any potential conflict issues on Reveille shows will rise to Zucker.
Questions have also been raised about Silverman's treatment of Kevin Reilly, who, two years after significantly boosting Reveille's profile by saving The Office, lost his job in what some believe was a coup. "We were friends," Silverman says of Reilly. "But he's been shockingly lacking grace. Everyone knows that somebody doesn't show up and say, 'Hey, I want that job.' That's not how it works. You get pursued." Though Silverman isn't shy about questioning some of Reilly's decisions. "The more I'm inside it," he says, "the more I recognize how things could have been done better. Like, how can you order a Studio 60 and a 30 Rock? How could you ever order two shows about the same subject matter and put numbers in their titles? That's so transparently flawed to me. And why would you put on Martha Stewart and Donald Trump at the same time under the same brand [The Apprentice] twice a week? I would never have done that."
The anti-Silverman contingent certainly includes ABC's McPherson, Reilly's best friend and Cornell fraternity brother, who told reporters at a summer gathering of TV critics that Silverman should "be a man" and address his role in the regime change. McPherson also said that Silverman was "either clueless or stupid" for courting ABC actor Isaiah Washington before he was officially dropped from Grey's Anatomy for making a gay slur.
"He's a moron," Silverman says of McPherson, his voice raising. "I delivered him a huge hit that he didn't want: Ugly Betty. He hated the show, he didn't want America Ferrera, he didn't understand why I pitched it to him seventeen times and wouldn't stop. Then it delivered despite that. And every time we would do well, he'd try to find some issue with it. I think he wishes he had been a producer. He's a sad man, like a miserable guy stuck operating as an executive. And it probably makes him nuts that this kid who's five years younger than him is producing hit shows and then goes and gets his job in an end run -- and a much bigger job than he has." (McPherson and Reilly declined to respond; an ABC spokeswoman says Silverman's Ugly Betty story is inaccurate and distorts the way the pitch process works.)
Silverman has his enemies, but he attributes his quick ascent at least in part to his wide network of friends. He boasts that he has completely merged his personal and professional lives. "Having relationships with talent is key. I like actors, writers, and directors -- they're people I want to hang out with. They read, they're cultured, they travel. None of the other network heads do this." He likes to hold business meetings in bars or clubs (he co-owns Socialista in Manhattan) at hours when other network execs are reading Goodnight Moon to their kids. One of his hobbies, he says, is walking the streets in foreign cities, asking locals what TV and movies and books they like. This summer, he joined buddy Ryan Seacrest for a few days in St.-Tropez and partied in Majorca with seventies TV icon Norman Lear, whom Silverman recently gave a development deal.
Silverman surrounds himself with loyal friends, like NBC's new head of series development Teri Weinberg, whom he first hired at Reveille after dating her roommate. Many of the industry pals he's had good times with over the past fifteen years are now stepping into positions of power, a fact he relishes. These include the young actors he's helped launch, like Ugly Betty's America Ferrera and The Office's John Krasinski and B.J. Novak, who all consider Silverman a friend and reject the idea that he's nothing more than a slick salesman.
"We were putting together the opening credits and there were all these boring shots of watercoolers and office supplies," says Novak, also a writer of The Office. "Ben zipped in and said, 'This is a show about people! I want to see people in the credits!' So from the beginning, his instincts defined the direction of the show. And then he left and probably went to some party with a tiger."
The door opens and a row of identical charcoal suits parades out of Silverman's second-floor executive suite at NBC Universal's drab West Coast headquarters in Burbank. It's a contingent from a major car company, here with their agents (yes, carmakers now have agents) to meet with the T-shirt-clad Silverman about new product-placement opportunities on NBC shows. Silverman has just greenlit an update of Knight Rider, to be developed by Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, and he promises the show will be full of big-budget action and that the talking car, KITT, will change shapes like the vehicles in Transformers -- a perfect opportunity for a big auto sponsorship deal. The meeting finished, Silverman rushes back to his computer to return a few e-mails and nibble on strawberries before a lunch meeting with an agent friend. His office isn't fully decorated yet, but he's brought in artwork, including a painting of P.T. Barnum and a framed photo of Ted Williams. (Despite the New York heritage, he loves both the Red Sox and Yankees and thinks Theo Epstein, Boston's general manager, is "the other luckiest young Jew in America.") He takes a seat opposite the orange, worn-in, NBC-issued couch he promises will be replaced soon with something a little more his style. This time he is joined by two publicists.
Inserting sponsors' products into shows is one of the areas of potential revenue growth that executives like Zucker love because it's not affected by viewers' increasing ability to bloop through commercials. "Digital delivery, whether it's called TiVo or DVR or whatever, is going to change our business." Silverman says. "So I started developing relationships with advertisers who still want to get their message out. Why don't we integrate it [into the show]? It's an old philosophy. It's how television started. Texaco Star Theater, live studio-based variety shows. How do we do that a little more elegantly? Because if the soap guys stop buying ads on our air, we stop making TV shows. It's not something I want, it's just the reality of a changing form of delivery." Silverman touts placement deals for some of his reality fare and The Office, on which Chili's restaurants and Apple paid to feature products in story lines. But these intrusions into the creative process are despised by some of the top talent Silverman so heavily courts.
"We only did product integration a few times," says Office show runner Greg Daniels. "And I found it pretty impossible to balance the desires of the ad agencies and their clients with the creative needs of the show, so we are not doing any more. Despite being disappointed, Ben supported the show in our decision."
NBC's digital strategy presents another tough balancing act. The networks are all looking with a combination of fear and opportunism to the day when TVs and PCs merge, but until then they're using their shows to try to drive viewers and advertisers online -- and vice versa. Silverman boosted exposure for NBC's fall schedule by streaming the premieres free (with ads). But ratings for the new slate aren't great. And although downloads of Heroes and The Office have sold well on iTunes for $1.99 an episode, NBC pulled its shows from the service in September, because it wants Apple to pay higher wholesale prices. Silverman is confident the dispute will be resolved, but he's trying to develop other cross-platform strategies that don't involve Steve Jobs. One successful model is what NBC has done with The Biggest Loser, the weight-loss competition Silverman created. "We built the show to be a lifestyle brand," he says. "It delivers on the ratings and pretty much dominates with young women. We then built an online subscription service on which you can get more detailed information from doctors and trainers. We then built a book series on nutrition. We then did exercise videos. They're huge. We then take that formula and sell advertising against it. And we take that format and sell it all over the world."
NBC is developing original content for the Net and has joined with News Corporation, owner of the Fox network, on an Internet video channel called Hulu.com that it hopes will become a controlled, ad-supported alternative to sites like YouTube and iTunes. Of course, that site's value -- and Silverman's job -- will ultimately depend on whether he can create shows people actually want to watch, whether Ben Silverman's taste turns out to be America's taste.
It's early, but Silverman's vision for NBC is already starting to take shape. Phenomenon, that paranormal-themed reality show, is his. Other new projects, fast-tracked because of the looming writer's strike, include scripted adaptations of Robinson Crusoe, a button-pushing UK comedy called Father Ted, and a Colombian telenovela about a flat-chested girl who becomes a hooker to pay for a boob job. (The title translates to "Without Tits There Is No Paradise.") And he's stocked the reality pipeline with a celebrity version of The Apprentice and a prime-time remake of American Gladiators hosted by Hulk Hogan. "I like comfort food and I like foie gras," Silverman says. He nibbles on another strawberry and checks the time. "I like candy and I like fastballs and I like big, fun, popular entertainment. But then I like sharp, smart comedy, truth, and documentaries. I think most people do."
Next to the Emmy and Peabody awards on Silverman's cluttered desk is a small plaque that reads, "Unbridled Ambition Is the Last Bastion of a True Failure." It's an odd slogan given Silverman's carefully plotted ascendancy through an industry he targeted as a child. Maybe it's an ironic admonition from one of his creative-type friends, or something Mom sent her hotshot son along with sincere advice not to jump the canyon before the creek. Either way, it's a sign that Silverman is aware that there's more to his new gig than the networking and the clubbing and the white tigers in the entryway. But before he can be asked about the plaque, Silverman glances at the time, smiles big, and is out the door, bounding down the hall, jacket draped over his arm, toward his first lunch of the day.