WRITETHRU (UPDATED THROUGHOUT): It sounds as if Jeff Zucker wants to flip the switch at NBC and Universal, and scare the bejesus out of his Hollywood executives. Is it to divert attention from his own monstrous failure as their chairman?
I’ve learned he’s telling Hollywood privately that he’s planning to make moves at Universal, maybe before mid-July.
Zucker also told Hollywood privately yesterday that “there are changes and they’ll be imminent” at NBC. He implied that they involve Ben Silverman, whose job has transitioned to that of a “glorified ad salesman”. (See below).
This coincides with Silverman’s own private conversations, as recently as this week, playing coy and not denying rumors that he’s going to leave NBC and run Britain’s ITV. Those first surfaced around May 10th when the British press pointed to him as the “ideal” candidate. And they were denied to me back then by people around Ben. But now the rumors are back and much more intense, and those same people around Silverman are telling me a different story this time. “The only question is whether they can pay him enough money,” an NBC insider told me about ITV. “He mentioned to me a while ago that it’s real. Which I took to mean they’d contacted him and he was considering it. But he said, ‘They’d have to pay me a lot of money.'”
Tonight, NBC said in response to the ITV rumors that “Ben is under contract to NBC”. (Despite the fact that there has been no formal deal announced to renew Silverman’s contract, a source close to him confirmed to me tonight that Ben extended his contract “awhile back”.) But I am told that ITV has high-level head hunters and industry reps pulling together a list of candidates for the ITV chief executive job, “and they continue to put Ben’s name at the top of the list” because of his UK experience,” a source close to Silverman told me tonight. Ben, of course, worked in London for the William Morris Agency. Both as an agent and as a producer for the Reveille TV company he founded, Silverman brought UK show after UK show to U.S. network television, from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to The Office. He’s done the same at NBC. Meanwhile, NBC’s summer lineup has a distinctly British feel, as the UK press have noted. There’s the British drama Merlin airing in primetime on June 21st. The network already has the U.S. version of ITV’s reality hit I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! (even though it already bombed on ABC), the upcoming The Great American Road Trip from BBC Worldwide, and a 4th series of the UK format America’s Got Talent on June 23rd. Meanwhile, UK’s Shed Media will make Jerry Seinfeld’s new NBC show The Marriage Ref, while UK’s Power produced NBC’s 13-part series Crusoe, and UK’s Carnival Films made NBC’s The Philanthropist. And then there’s the British reality czar that Ben brought in from BBC Worldwide, Paul Telegdy. “I have always had an interest in the global production business and UK production, and I have a particular affinity and connection with British TV,” Silverman recently told the British press.
Of course, Ben may just be playing with everyone’s heads. But, this being NBCU, Silverman instead could wind up with a Peter Principle-style promotion. Zucker may make public what he’s already done in private: he quietly moved Silverman out of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios business and into NBCU corporate marketing to focus on advertising-related business. (FYI, I know that GE chairman/CEO Jeff Immelt has always been impressed with Silverman’s salesmanship abilities in the advertising arena ever since Ben personally convinced Madison Avenue to buy many millions of dollars more commercial time for NBC’s Beijing Olympics.) “No one will acknowledge it, but Ben is out of the [entertainment] picture,” one source explained to me. “He’s not involved in the day-to-day anymore. Instead, he’s doing marketing for the corporate side.” Agreed another of my sources, “He’s not involved in pitches, development, or scheduling. The running joke you hear often is that he’s a ‘glorified ad salesman’.”
No one believes Zucker would replace Silverman. Instead, the thinking is that he’d leave NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios under the control of Marc Graboff, who with Ben is Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Media Studios, and Angela Bromstad, President of Primetime Entertainment for NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Right now, Bromstad is hosting an NBC “programming retreat”. But Ben was in Washington DC today for a screening. And tomorrow he’ll be a guest at the White House.
Silverman told The New York Times in mid-May that he planned to stay at NBC because he’s “committed”. One source close to Ben emailed me tonight the same sentiment: “When Ben leaves NBC, it will be to work in an entirely different arena than television. He loves NBC and (as he has said before) it is like playing for the Yankees of television.” On the other hand, Ben has often told pals that, in terms of timing, this June/July would be best if ever he jumped or were pushed. “Right now, Ben is figuring out his next step,” an NBC insider just explained me.