Behind-the-Scenes Of NBCU's Lies To Me: The Ben Silverman Experiment Ends, Pt 4

First mea culpa. I was fast asleep when the announcement that Ben Silverman, the gift that kept on giving to me for all his NBCU screw-ups, was finally letting boss Jeff Zucker off the hook for a hiring decision that will go down in the annals of television entertainment as one of the worst. Sure, my phone started ringing at 6:08 AM PT. But I blissfully ignored it because I wanted my full 8 hours. But here’s the thing: I knew back on June 24th that Ben was engaged in a desperate search for another job or financial backing to leave NBC so he could make it look like he’d jumped before he was pushed. I also knew Ben was telling Hollywood between July 21-23 that he’d be leaving NBCU “in 2 or 3 weeks”. Just one problem: Ben had done that, and said that, several times before in recent months. It was like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling: eventually, it turned out to be true. But I owed this to DHD readers: it was more important for me to be right rather than first. It wasn’t until late Friday that Barry Diller’s name was whispered to me as Silverman’s savior (Diller helped bankroll Ben’s Reveille start-up, too.) And each and every time I contacted NBCU, executives there lied to me. Jeff Zucker lied to me. Ben Silverman lied to me. They had their PR lie to me. (NBCU’s claim now is that the deal came together “quicker than expected” and “only this past weekend”, and then Silverman, IAC, and NBCU “scrambled to get this together” before the market opened today.)

So here’s how this went down:

I can pinpoint almost exactly when NBCU was fed up with Ben. It was the night of May 13th when I received a late night 10 PM email from NBCU PR about 8 hours after I’d posted VIDEO: Ben Silverman Sings In A Towel:

Hi Nikki,
It is [Flack X]. I wanted to make an off the record request to take the video of Ben down. I know you were very respectful in your item and I appreciate that.
I will give you a ring tomorrow to discuss.
[Flack X]

I said no. The flack pushed. I pushed back. And the video stayed up. I found out the next day that the order to get the video taken down from DHD had come from Jeff Zucker himself. The reason became clear that Sunday: Zucker was terrified that mention of the video, or god forbid the actual video itself, would be in Bill Carter’s major article on Ben Silverman set for publishing on May 17th and posting online the day before.

It wasn’t. So, once again, NBCU’s spin control on the Silverman Screw-Ups had worked its magic on the mainstream media. Everything I’d been reporting since I broke the news that Kevin Reilly had been fired and Ben hired by Zucker two years ago that May 2007 had been ignored by the major newspapers and magazines: the drugs and drunkeness, the missed meetings and appointments, the unprofessional AWOL periods, the schlock programming, the conflict of interests with Reveille and his former Reveille employees, the expensive flops, and so on. But on May 17th, not even Zucker, a boss who could never admit that putting Ben into the top programming post was a huge error in judgment, ignored the NYT headline that Sunday: “NBC Hired A Hit Maker. It’s Still Waiting.”

It took two years, but finally not even mainstream media could ignore the truth any longer.

Meanwhile, I had been banned, unbanned, banned, and then unbanned by NBCU all this time on direct orders of Zucker. The same guy who’d frozen out The Hollywood Reporter after the trade had tried to report about the GE-NBCU-Oama story and argumentative GE shareholders meeting. Then again both Zucker and his boss GE chairman Jeff Immelt keep trying and mostly succeeding to stifle other media’s coverage of their company. Even if it means lying.

On June 24th, the end game for Silverman was in sight. That’s when I reported that Jeff Zucker Is Privately Pledging “Imminent Changes” At NBC And Universal. Zucker told Hollywood the day before that “there are changes and they’ll be imminent” at NBC. He implied that they involved Ben. As I posted at the time, Zucker already had quietly moved Silverman out of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios business and into NBCU corporate marketing to focus on advertising-related business. (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’.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have alerted NBCU. But I thought it responsible to make a warning call to NBCU that I was going with a story saying Zucker was telling Hollywood that Ben Silverman was out. Yes, I intended to write a much stronger story than what finally — after 3 updates incorporating NBCU comments off-the-record — appeared. I also was going to report that Ben had been desperately seeking financial backing on Wall Street for a new start-up — only to be turned down almost everywhere. And that he’d been desperately seeking a job anywhere: with ITV in the UK, with Elizabeth Murdoch who now owned his Reveille, with anyone.

But here are some of the NBCU emails I received in response to my calls. All of these were approved by Zucker and/or Silverman, and their info came from Zucker and/or Silverman:

“OFF THE RECORD — Spoke to Zucker. He said to me that Ben is here to stay for the foreseeable future. No changes afoot. Said he thinks it is ITV rumors and discussions as well as maybe something he referenced in the FT interview? He said folks have been asking him about that but I don’t think it was about TV. I need to pull it up. Maybe someone got signals crossed?
Still waiting to see what Ben says about ITV. Keep u posted.

i was talking about phone calls Zucker has had with people THIS WEEK!
not some article… some people just contacted me and said he’s also talking about making changes at Uni around mid-july.

Wow. Good sources.

“Ok here’s the latest I know.
First u can confirm that nbc says in response to the itv rumors Ben is under contract to nbc.
From a friend of Ben’s u can say that 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.
For background: I am told that ITV has high level head hunters and industry reps pulling together a list for the ITV role. They continue to put Ben’s name at the top of the list.
I hope this helps u Nikki. Be kind to Ben :)

but i thought ben’s contract EXPIRED without renewal, re NYT story

Off the record not true.

so he’s signed up until when?

I think u can say a friend of silverman’s confirmed that he extended his contract awhile back.

Also if u r updating u can put he was in wahsington for a screening and tomorrow he will be a guest at the white house!

Oh, and if The New York Times was wrong to report, “Still, the fact that there has been no formal deal announced to renew Mr. Silverman’s contract…” then 1) Why didn’t NBCU request a correction on such a major point about one of its top executives? and 2) Why didn’t that contract extension prevent Silverman from leaving now just as it would have prevented him from leaving to go to ITV?

When I contacted NBCU last week to ask about what Ben was telling Hollywood pals — that his imminent departure  was “in 2 to 3 weeks” — the company claimed it was old news. Even though it was true.

Talk about bullshit (which I thought Sarbanes-Oxley was supposed to help cure).

But here’s what’s not bullshit. That Zucker never did his due diligence on Ben Silverman before putting him in the big NBCU job. I can tell you that Zucker had NO IDEA Silverman was a well-known Hollywood drug-taker and drunkard. In fact, after I first reported June 15th, 2007, on Silverman’s party-hearty ways (Ben Silverman Is Breaking All The Rules), Zucker dispatched a top level NBCU exec to ask around if it were true. When the answer came back ‘Yes”, Zucker gave Silverman a stern talking-to along the lines of “I never want to be embarrassed by anything you do.” Of course, all Ben did during his tenure was to embarrass Zucker over and over.

Then, I reported on August 18th, 2007, MAJOR MESSY NBC SHAKEUP AHEAD: Network Wants To Fire Teri Weinberg & Hopes Ben Silverman Quits Very Soon. The story was so dead-on describing Ben Silverman’s year-long abominable behavior that Zucker demanded a search for the NBCU leaks be done pronto. The next day, an internal kudo-email went out to NBCU under the names of Silverman and Graboff congratulating themselves and the staff on, well, nothing significant. It was merely meant to tell the leakers, sub rosa, Ben has heard your complaints.”

Next Zucker assembled a roundtable of mainstream media, all of them Los Angeles-based  journalists, for an off-the-record session to ‘counter” my story. Counter — but not deny. The reason for that is because NBCU was told that if they tried to deny Silverman’s excessive drug and alcohol consumption, I had proof positive. (Indeed, several journos called and asked me about my sourcing for that stuff. To which I replied, “Has NBCU denied it?”)

There followed rounds and rounds of positive press for Ben Silverman — in The New York Times, in Fortune, etc. (When Vanity Fair‘s latest Hollywood issue included Bruce Feirstein’s cynical look at next season’s NBC nighttime schedule, one show was supposed to be titled, “Where In The World Is Ben Silverman?” — for obvious reasons. But editors changed it cuz Ben is Graydon’s pal…) None of the pieces ever mentioned any of the problems I cited.

Anyway, at that roundtable discussion (to which I was not invited and which NBCU told me was “an oversight”), Zucker said something really strange. He told the journalists that lots of excellent executives have used drugs or alcohol to excess. He didn’t specify Ben, but the implication was clear. Silverman laughed off the allegations, telling the New York Television Festival that month that, “I may be the Paris Hilton of NBC, that’s what our head of HR says, but the fact is, I am so committed to the job…”

Later, Silverman added: “The unrelenting press attention was something I didn’t expect, and I don’t think I managed it as well as I could,” Silverman added.” Later, Ben noted: “I am unapologetic, and I think that is unusual,” Silverman said. “We live in a world where our politicians lie to us, our celebrities lie to us and our CEOs lie to us.”

You betcha, Ben.

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