EXCLUSIVE: After weeks of checking out rumor after rumor, I’m finally able to pin down details of the long-overdue shakeup that’s ahead for NBC when this fall’s primetime schedule shapes up to be an unmitigated disaster. Someone has to shoulder the responsibility, and both Ben Silverman and the Reveille development exec he brought with him to NBC, Teri Weinberg, now deservedly have big fat targets on their foreheads. Staying in charge will be Marc Graboff and Katherine Pope who both have been trying to keep NBC up and running while Weinberg continually fucks up and Silverman regularly goes AWOL. For instance, last Thursday was Ben’s first day in the office all month after attending the Beijing Olympics and guesting aboard Elisabeth Murdoch’s yacht. (Elisabeth’s Shine Group bought Ben’s Reveille productions which put $60+ million directly into his pocket). But a pressing issue has been Silverman’s partying ways, especially his excessive off-hours drinking and drug-taking, which has not only been visible to but also prompted complaints from Hollywood’s TV community. “When he’s around, he is totally engaged and focused and not in an altered state of consciousness. But that’s when he’s around. Literally, he has not been around from August 1st until August 28th, and you can’t run a network programming group and not be around for the month of August,” an insider tells me. So NBC is faced with two personnel problems simultaneously: Weinberg and Silverman.
Back in May 2007, I broke the story that NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker was unceremoniously firing NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, and surprisingly hiring Silverman to be partnered with Graboff as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio. It was a very risky move by Zucker, not helped by his cluelessness about Silverman’s drug and alcohol habits until it became a real question whether Ben could pass the mandatory corporate drug test for prospectve employees. But TV circles were just as confounded a week later when I scooped that Ben had hired his Reveille gal Teri Weinberg to be the new EVP of NBC Entertainment. She had been his glorified gofer until just a few years ago, then his Reveille development exec (and held other titles, like his co-exec producer on Ugly Betty). Now she was in charge of comedy, drama and everything below Silverman and Graboff at NBC Entertainment. At the time, Weinberg’s appointment was seen as a major mistake because she wasn’t ready for such a major gig. She also was described to me as a “world-class prima donna” – and, from the sound of things, she has lived up to that reputation.
I’m told by insiders that Weinberg has been a train wreck, and it shows in this fall’s terrible slate which bears her first imprint. “With Ben not involved in the day-to-day, Terry was too inexperienced to be thrown into the deep end of running a broadcast network with no experience. Yet Ben kept delegating it all to her. It became a huge, huge job, which she’s just not qualified for,” one insider explained to me. “I feel sorry for her. She’s just in over head.”
Weinberg’s contract concludes next summer. But it’s clear that NBC is now building a case to get rid of her. Last week, NBC took the unusual, almost unprecedented, step of cancelling an exclusive contract for a team of TV writer/producers, paying them off to the tune of millions of dollars, and letting them take back every one of their projects developed at the network. The reason is because one of the showrunners was Weinberg’s live-in boyfriend.
Here’s what I’ve been told by several knowledgeable sources: It’s not that Mark Abrams and Michael Benson weren’t qualified. They’d been writer-producers on both The Bernie Mac Show and Entourage. So that wasn’t an issue when Weinberg secured for them an exclusive multimillionaire overall deal at NBC. (This was far from the only insider dealing at NBC since Silverman himself kept buying Reveille shows for his network.) But Weinberg was specifically warned not to get involved in their business because of the personal relationship. Yet insiders tell me she did again and again (especially with their pilot Zip, which was shot and reshot at exorbitant cost). It got to the point that complaints came in from the TV community.
“Teri just couldn’t stay out of their business even though NBC had instructed her for months and months and months to do so,” one insider informs me. “Other TV writer/producers began assuming that every decision Teri made was influenced by her relationship with her boyfriend’s company. If she didn’t buy something of theirs, they complained she was protecting her boyfriend’s pitch. The truth is that this appearance of a conflict was really starting to hurt NBC’s business.” Echoed another source: “NBC couldn’t deal with the conflict of interest anymore, so Zucker told Graboff to terminate the deal. And the network last week wrote a fat check for the whole amount of the contract even though it still had a year and a half to go, and they gave the guys all their projects back which they’re now free to shop.”
The result is that this lack of judgment, combined with this fall’s weak schedule, has put Weinberg’s head on the chopping block. Especially because her mentor Silverman won’t be around much longer to protect her.
Up to now, it’s been only Silverman’s salesmanship, not his executive or programming skills (and certainly not his childish stunts like reviving the NBC chimes), that has helped the 4th place network. I’m told NBC was impressed that his relationships with advertisers put “several hundred millions of dollars” of additional revenue into the network’s 2008/2009 upfront sales. But that doesn’t offset the fact that Silverman is widely seen as a major disappointment. “If only NBC could take the good of Ben and ignore the bad of Ben,” one insider tells me.
The laundry list of Silverman’s faults reached critical mass after Ben began negotiating to sell Reveille and knew he would soon have the proverbial “fuck-you money” to tell Zucker et al to take the NBC job and shove it. The whispers about Silverman’s off-duty behavior became loud chatter when he was drunk and disorderly at this year’s SuperBowl where he notoriously made a fool of himself with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That capped a period during which Ben began missing meetings and cancelling appointments and forgetting callbacks because of too many late nights where he had partied hearty. For some time, Endeavor talent agency owner Ari Emanuel had been counseling his pal to tone down this over-the-top behavior – even last spring when both men were attending a cancer benefit dinner where Silverman was widely observed “high as a kite”. During the fundraiser, Emanuel reminded Silverman that scheduled the very next morning was a big meeting about an important piece of Marvel Studios business between Endeavor and NBC, and Ari warned Ben not to be late. But the next day, Silverman was a no-show. Though Endeavor does 75% of its TV business with NBC, Emanuel didn’t hesitate to complain directly to Zucker — and the conversation focused on Silverman’s over-indulgence of alcohol and drugs. Alarmed, Zucker instructed Universal boss Ron Meyer to determine if Silverman still wanted to work at NBC. As it happened, Meyer took Silverman to lunch at the studio at the same time Emanuel was there with Uni film chief Marc Shmuger. In full view of everyone, a shouting match ensued: Ben belligerently blamed Ari for getting him in trouble with his boss, and Ari aggressively shot back that it was justified, and neither man backed down. Meanwhile, at lunch with Meyer, Silverman said he wasn’t interested in quitting despite his new-found fortune. So Meyer reported back to Zucker that Ben claimed to still want to be onboard. Silverman by all accounts shaped up and buckled down for weeks after. But then his work ethic became erratic again.
To be fair to Silverman, attending the Beijing Olympics was a command performance for all NBC and GE brass. But almost every other top TV executive would have hurried back after a week, tops, to supervise production of the fall schedule especially at a network where the new shows are already having problems before they’re even on the air. There’s general agreement that the one NBC scripted show which looks good is Kings, and the rest are going to be ratings disasters. It’s thought to be the result of NBC forgoing pilot season and instead announcing series off scripts. Adding to this notion that the network’s primetime is in creative freefall are repeated reshoots (like on Kath & Kim, the U.S. knockoff of the Aussie sitcom) and showrunners stepping down or pushed aside (like on My Own Worst Enemy, the Christian Slater series), none of which ever bodes well. That Silverman chose to stay away despite all this speaks volumes about his lack of commitment to his job. And that he was vacationing with Elizabeth Murdoch was like a shout-out to the TV community that he’s looking for a graceful way out.
I’m told that NBC is hoping that Silverman jumps before he is pushed. And several sources have information to believe there is every reason that Ben is a short-timer. His contract, like Weinberg’s, expires next summer. But already Ben’s posse is letting it be known that he may start negotiating his out with an eye to exiting before December. His reasoning, according to insiders, is that, if by some miracle this fall’s primetime schedule succeeds, he’d like to go out “a hero”. And if it tanks, he doesn’t want to go out “a failure” and get fired. However, office morale slumped on Thursday when Silverman returned after a month away and kept giddily telling everyone how newly “engaged” he feels. What a ridiculous statement and sentiment, only underscoring how wrong for the gig Ben really is.
One faction at NBC believes that, after Silverman and Weinberg exit, there may be no need to bring in new people because the existing network/studio team of Katharine Pope, Katie O’Connell, Jeff Ingold, and Erin Gough (as well as the team under them) is “rock solid”. However, others believe USA Networks chief Bonnie Hammer would be a good leader if she’d even take the job. There’s also talk that Zucker should put the entire NBC Universal entertainment unit under the administration of Ron Meyer, who after all has both a movie and TV background and was originally hired as prez/COO of Universal Studios to be in charge of both.
As for Silverman’s future, pals expect him to partner with Elisabeth Murdoch or, somewhat more unlikely, his best friend Ryan Seacrest. (Ben was providing exclusive but asinine live reports from the Beijing Olympics for Ryan’s syndicated Los Angeles-based morning radio show…) It doesn’t really matter what Silverman does as long as he quits sooner rather than later. Because Jeff Zucker isn’t man enough to admit a huge mistake and fire him.
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