Granted, the TV networks have always been the killing fields for creativity, but camaraderie usually governed the treatment of its executives. So the brazen brutality with which NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker gave his entertainment president the bum’s rush was the talk of the town all Memorial Weekend, especially because he tried to keep it secret and couldn’t. Oops. I spoiled Zucker’s best-laid plans by first reporting here last Friday that he was negotiating with 36-year-old prolific producer Ben Silverman in private to take over NBC’s showbiz duties all the while keeping Kevin Reilly in the dark about his imminent ouster. Hollywood fumed that the well-liked Reilly, who just signed a new three-year contract in March, didn’t even know he was losing his job until he read it in my blog. Then I updated here on Sunday to explain that Silverman would get the bigger job of NBC Universal West Coast chairman of something or other (similar to that enjoyed by the network’s last Hail Mary hire, Don Ohlmeyer, back in the ’90s) and share the title with Zucker’s Burbank capo Marc Graboff who would be promoted to run the business side of things. Finally, today, NBC announced that Silverman and Graboff were named co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio.
On the surface, this seemed to neatly solve the problem of Hollywood naysayers wondering whether Silverman has the right stuff to be a network suit knowing what they do about Ben’s high-flyin’ lifestyle. (His moveable frat is his fancy private jet. And his ex-William Morris Agency colleagues still talk about the time he partied so hearty that his office looked ransacked, with empty beer bottles strewn all over and desk stuff dumped on floor. Silverman later told management that someone broke into his office.) But a deeper look shows that Silverman is way more fiscally responsible than Graboff is. As insiders tell me, one of the myriad problems at NBC is that their answer to every problem is to throw gobs of money at it and build convoluted management structures – and Graboff is a chief architect of that failing system. “The irony here is that Ben, as crazy as he is, is extremely cheap when it comes to business. He refuses to pay anything for rights or writers. He is infinitely more responsible with money and deals than Graboff, which is an open secret inside NBC,” a source explained. “Graboff no doubt is a good guy and very personable, and for that people like working with him. But he also makes the worst deals in town, throwing money away like crazy and focusing only on the short-term impact. For this, agents and lawyers like him because they know he can be easily worked.”
The TV networks have been known to use psychics to set their primetime schedules. But I’m convinced that, to save his embattled fourth-place NBC mired with a 2007/2008 primetime schedule that sucks, Zucker is trying to channel the ghost of the late Brandon Tartikoff, the network’s best and boldest programmer, by hiring his protégé. (Silverman got his big break working for the TV legend when Tartikoff ran New World Entertainment in the early 1990s.) Just as NBC turned to thirtysomething Brandon in 1981 to bail it out of its bottom-feeding when there was turmoil in the executive ranks, a writer’s strike looming and no shows — absolutely no shows – in the Top 20, so is NBC turning to thirtysomething Ben now to bail it out of its bottom-feeding when there is turmoil in the executive ranks (involving Reilly’s No. 2 Katherine Pope, and Angela Bromstad, president of NBC Uni TV Studio: Katherine Pope Asking Exit?), a writer’s strike looming and few shows in the Top 20. As a long-time friend of Tartikoff’s, I remember him boasting about Ben. “He’s good for the Jews.” Funny, that’s also how Silverman was describing his soon-to-be NBC ascent: “It’s good for the Jews.”
Silverman has been a member of NBC Universal’s extended dysfunctional family since launching his Reveille production company in 2002 after he left his post as a top TV agent at WMA. From London, Silverman trend-spotted British shows that he thought could work in the U.S., like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire which jump-started ABC’s single season climb from last to first place. But he also tried to bring over the sitcom Couples, which despite a ton of hype became one of NBC’s most visible failures. Based at Barry Diller’s USA Entertainment in its first few years and one of those rare suppliers working across all genres, Reveille was restructured in 2005 following NBC’s merger with Universal. In February, Silverman signed to stay put at NBC Universal with a new rich two-year deal for Reveille. (Under the seven-figure pact, the network and its cable offspring have a first look at all scripted and unscripted projects from the hot producer of such series as NBC’s Emmy-winning The Office and ABC’s Golden Globe-winning Ugly Betty in exchange for development funds. Silverman continued to own the international distribution rights on Reveille’s unscripted series that included NBC’s The Biggest Loser, USA Network’s Nashville Star, FX’s 30 Days and Bravo’s Blow Out.) Last fall, Reveille launched a film division, which had a first-look deal at NBC’s Universal Pictures.
I heard from a lot of Hollywood insiders all weekend who thought Silverman would come to his senses and not take the job since it was like a gig on the Titanic. But one reason 30 Rock and Burbank were roiled by my scoop is that Zucker had to speed up the final negotiations with Silverman. But other damage had been done: Zucker looked like a putz for the way he’d treated Reilly. The entertainment prez came to NBC as the celebrated FX programming chief responsible for the edgy Nip/Tuck and The Shield. But from the start of his tenure, Reilly found that all the network wanted to do was save money after pouring too many dollars down the drain on shoulda-woulda-coulda development that didn’t garner ratings. Within a year, repeated rumors that Reilly was about to get canned were emanating mostly from Zucker’s office. They finally stopped only in March when Reilly was re-upped. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to stay unless they took really good care of him,” a source told me at the time.
As for NBC’s miserable 2007/2008 primetime, when I saw it I thought: if NBC thinks it’s going to get to No. 1 with this schedule, it’s delusional. For the most part, the shows are way too safe — especially when CBS’ Nancy Tellem is developing edgy programming, and ABC’s Steve McPherson campy programming, to keep their networks on top. The very idea that there’s no new NBC comedy on the schedule this fall, after eight comedy pilots were ordered, and only one midseason, demonstrates NBC’s reluctance to roll the dice. Not to mention repackaging the lame Bionic Woman or pacting with alum Jerry Seinfeld to air 20 “minisode” shorts which are nothing more than movie promos and yet NBC has to pay for them. This is suicide considering all the cheap shlock airing at 8 pm (soon, a Singing Bee crapfest) per Zucker’s orders. Instead of new shows, NBC is stockpiling old ones: 30 episodes of The Office, 25 eps of My Name Is Earl, 30 eps Heroes and its spinoff. This is partly out of strike fears and partly to reduce the number of audience-losing repeats which is at least a solid strategy to fix this past season’s biggest beef among viewers. Needless to say, Madison Avenue responded badly to the sked.
Zucker needed a fall guy in more ways than one. Ergo Reilly’s ouster. As a high-placed TV agent told me, “Jeff’s been a total dick to him. All you can ask of a network entertainment president is a hit a year. Kevin got full credit for My Name Is Earl and fell on his sword to keep The Office. This year, he has Heroes.” Meanwhile, the churlishness Zucker showed Reilly in recent years was childish even on the network playground. Showbiz reporters often found themselves caught in the middle of “he said, she said” debates between their dueling publicists Corey Shields (Zucker’s protector) and Rebecca Marks (Reilly’s gatekeeper) – an unheard-of situation inside the same entertainment company. Looking back, Reilly predicted his own demise at his May upfront presentation to advertisers when a projection screen behind him showed the words ”Big fat disappointment” to describe the horrible season it had been. Here’s hoping that, soon enough, NBC’s parent company General Electric will be saying the same about Zucker’s fatally flawed tenure.