It sounds like the premise for a reality show: Get a young, smart, cocky, rule-breaking guy and install him at the helm of a major but floundering network and see what he shakes out. But if this was Survivor: Network, then Ben Silverman's torch was just snuffed out.
Officially Silverman, the 38-year-old co-chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment, is leaving the network in the fall to start a new company with IAC, the media and Internet firm founded and headed by another colorful former TV executive, Barry Diller. But speculation has been rife about the fate of the much-storied Silverman since his two-year contract at NBC was not reviewed in June. NBC president and CEO Jeff Zucker had earlier made it clear that if Silverman were at NBC, it would be because NBC wanted him there. Presumably, the reverse is also true. Now NBC wants Jeff Gaspin, formerly in charge of NBC's cable division, in Silverman's spot.
For a guy who was neither a star nor a mogul nor a person caught up, Henry Louis Gatesstyle, in a controversial news event, Ben Silverman drew a lot of media attention. His job was to find or help create hit shows the kind of network position that usually brings power and wealth, but not notoriety. But Silverman's outsize personality big parties, big talk, big ideas and his youth made him a magnet for gossip, anecdotes and media speculation. Problem was, two years into his term, NBC had exactly zero hit shows. And people noticed.
Not all of it was Silverman's fault. For the first six months of his tenure, all the networks were hobbled by the writers' strike, meaning the winnowing process of creating and shooting pilots had to be dispensed with and the networks were forced to choose new shows on scripts alone. This year, the struggling economy hasn't helped matters.
But Silverman came in with a reputation as a hitmaker. His independent production company Reveille successfully translated The Office from a hysterical but oddball British show to a mainstream U.S. hit. It brought The Biggest Loser to American screens. The same year he was hired away from Reveille to NBC, two of the shows he had helped create, The Office and Ugly Betty, were nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, a rare feat. He had a hand in the genesis of such juggernauts as Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Most of those shows he discovered while he was a talent agent for William Morris in London. He built relationships there and figured out how to refine the ingredients of the European shows to appeal to the American viewing appetite. Some shows remained unpalatable: Kath & Kim, an archetypal Australian comedy, did not fare well. Neither did some of his other, more homegrown fare: a revamped Knight Rider, American Gladiator and Restaurant, a reality show that followed the fortunes of Rocco DiSpirito, an upstart chef not unlike Silverman.
Silverman's other innovation was to package programming and advertising together, so the entertainment would be inextricable from the marketing. His iteration of Knight Rider was sponsored by Ford. American Express was all over Restaurant, which, while not a lasting hit, was something of a marketing juggernaut. This kind of barrier-busting is what, officially, Silverman will be doing with the new company he's forming with Diller. It seems a natural fit and a no-brainer decision for both of them. But as Silverman learned the hard way at NBC, in entertainment, nothing is as easy as it looks.
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