EXCLUSIVE: I’ve been looking deeper at Ben Silverman and seeing that huge questions are now swirling around Jeff Zucker’s handpicked NBC Universal’s TV entertainment chief: Why does he want to inject his liberal politics into primetime programming? Why is he already making plans to leave the network? Why are his heroes Normal Lear and Horatio Alger and Cheech and Chong? Why doesn’t he care if his employees smoke dope on the weekends? Why hasn’t he yet taken his company-mandated drug test? Silverman, the co-chair of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, is already showing himself to be the most off-the-hook network executive that Hollywood has ever seen. On the other hand, bringing the network from fourth place up to first place may require not just out-of-the-box thinking but also out-of-the-box behavior. As Silverman himself told someone recently in a moment of self-analysis, “I hate the fact that I’m unapologetic about who I am.” The ultimate issue is how this plays out with his conservative corporate parent GE and his immediate boss Zucker. Right now, I’m told by an insider, “At this point in time, Ben has the complete backing and confidence of this company, both NBC and GE.” But Silverman was not included among the GE/NBC Universal executives who spoke before Wall Steet analysts for four hours yesterday.
Even after getting his NBC Universal TV gig, Silverman in conversations with people isn’t trying to hide his politics: he is open about being “fed up” with the current White House administration and “totally liberal … I’m as liberal as Norman Lear was.” Silverman likes to describe himself as “a Kennedy sort of guy”, fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This kind of ideological frankness is applauded in Hollywood. But it also tends to make network parent companies nervous since it opens them up to criticism that showbiz injects political messages into programming. I’ve written extensively about how the Big Media companies are conservative in their politics. It’ll be fascinating to see GE react to Silverman fulfilling his promise to put more progressive politics into his programming as an NBC suit. “I’m sure it makes me a target,” he already has acknowledged to people. He hero-worships All In The Family creator Norman Lear, the outspoken supporter of First Amendment and progressive causes. “I’m a huge fan and friend,” Silverman has said. “I value his counsel.” So much that Silverman wants to program “big bold TV shows” like Lear used to put on the tube. Ben has said he believes, for instance, that the continuing immigration storyline on his ABC show Ugly Betty is important because it can influence American attitudes towards illegal aliens and “shift the tidal wave.” At the same time, he likes to describe himself as a “big capitalist” who “celebrates self-determination, which is a conservative thought” and likens himself to Horatio Alger. Silverman doesn’t see his political activism conflicting with his role at NBC Universal. He has said the network “has been a bastion of high-minded intellectual programming” using The Cosby Show and St. Elsewhere as past examples, and that what he wants to do is “layer issues with a point of view and create a dialogue.”
Even though he has been quoted saying he always dreamed of running a network, Silverman is also openly talking about his future desire to leave NBC Universal TV and “organically plan” a run for public office. Not since David Puttnam has a newly named Hollywood mogul announced at the start of his tenure that he would be leaving the job before he started it. (Puttnam, Columbia Pictures CEO from 1986 to 1988, was a lame duck before he started greenlighting projects.) In Silverman’s case, he doesn’t specify which political office, but he appears committed to joining the “political landscape” and putting Hollywood behind him. I’m told that when his bosses heard about his plans, they tried to pin him down about how long he would stay at the network. “They asked me that question,” Silverman told someone. “I said, ‘I’m only 35 years old. I’m young.” (Actually, Silverman is supposed to be 37 years old on August 15; even for youth-oriented Hollywood, this is considered rather soon for an executive to start fibbing about his age.)
Finally, Silverman has also been candid about his liberal attitudes towards marijuana use. No network programmer in the history of television, and if my memory is correct few Hollywood executives, has ever openly discussed this issue. Because they, unlike presidential candidates, work for corporate parents. And GE is one of the most uptight corporations on the planet: it enforces its integrity policy, The Spirit and the Letter, by making every employee sign off on it, even the entertainment ones. But, again, Silverman is smashing the mold. When I first broke the news on May 25th that Silverman would be NBC Universal’s top TV creative post, I received many emails and calls wondering if Zucker knew about Silverman’s candor concerning marijuana use. Recently, I began receiving word that there has been an unexplained delay in Silverman’s taking his GE-mandated drug test, leading some NBC employees to suggest that the new exec was receiving special treatment and/or extra time to detox.
So here’s what I know. Yes, it’s true that, as of today, Silverman has not yet taken his GE-mandated drug test. The reason, I’m told, is that his deal with NBC Universal hasn’t been finalized yet so he isn’t officially an employee. Of course, Silverman certainly hit the ground running in his new job and is already acting like a full-fledged executive, hiring and switching key personnel (he moved his production company’s chief development exec to NBC), making changes (he just altered the name of NBC Universal Television Studios –since he used to joke about how apt was its acronym of NUTS — to Universal Media Studios) and announcing programming (his first major move was to develop the successful Colombian telenovela about a young woman determined to get bigger breasts in order to escape poverty and ends up involved with a drug dealer). Nevertheless, he and NBC Universal TV technically have not completed his “blind trust” legal unentanglement from his Reveille production company even if his executive contract with the network was done very rapidly. Sources tell me that the negotiations may drag on through Fourth of July, so he is not required to take the drug test until he’s officially on the payroll. But, by even the most conservative calculations, six weeks is ample time for marijuana use to no longer show up in a urine drug screen.
Of course, in the entertainment world, pot is no big deal. And what an exec does in his private life, if it doesn’t affect his professional work, is nobody’s damn business. But the world of GE isn’t the world of showbiz, even if it owns NBC and Universal. I’m told that “GE is not going to fool around with this, these are serious issues” regarding drug taking. My understanding is that Jeff Zucker heard rumors of the Peabody award-winning producer’s marijuana use only after the hiring. So the boss told the exec that couldn’t be tolerated. “Once you start being paid, you can’t do that, Ben. It’s illegal,” Silverman described the conversation to someone. In response, Silverman apparently offered to “pee into a cup” right there and then but wasn’t asked. This contrasts with Silverman’s own talk. He has readily claimed he never “did blow”. About marijuana, I understand he tells people that he’s “35, and single, and wears hemp sneakers and pot leaf designers, and has parents who were hippies, and loves Cheech and Chong.” I’m told he often describes marijuana use within the context of “a major member of the artistic community” and “the culture of fun in the creative community” on a par with being one of People magazine’s most eligible bachelors and having best friends who are actors and directors. He also points out that he lives in Santa Monica, which recently passed a bill to move marijuana smoking to the bottom of the police priority list, essentially decriminalizing it. At the same time, Silverman has said he “wouldn’t care if my employees smoked dope on the weekend instead of drinking a highball”. Silverman also likes to emphasize what a “profound manager” he is and stresses he’ll bring to NBC the “responsibility and accountability” he’s learned through his very successful production company. “I know more about running a business than anyone,” he has said repeatedly.
There’s no question about it: Ben Silverman is breaking all the rules as a network executive. Whether GE and NBC can tolerate his unorthodoxy will depend entirely on how successful he proves to be. In the TV business, money talks, or Ben walks.