The future face of NBC

The future face of NBC
“I’m just trying to bring sexy back,” Ben Silverman says. (Mitchell Haaseth / NBC Universal)
WHEN you reflect on the management shake-up at NBC earlier this week, one thought keeps recurring: The network has finally buried Brandon Tartikoff.

Suddenly ditching its programming overseer Kevin Reilly for agent-turned-producer Ben Silverman, the fourth-ranked network finds itself a long way from its glory days under Tartikoff. The mastermind behind NBC's programming renaissance of the 1980s ("The Cosby Show," "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers" and others), Tartikoff died 10 years ago this August, but his spirit never really left the place. For nearly a generation, NBC has been guided by, and handsomely rewarded for, the optimistic and high-minded media principle Tartikoff tried to live by: Put top-quality shows on the air, and viewers will come. Aim up; riches will follow.

That may sound simple, but it's not a precept many executives in the culture businesses are brave enough to follow day in and out, and over time such a view guided NBC to an image of itself as exceptional. Even as the network deteriorated from No. 1 to a virtual shipwreck over the last few years, programmers still fondly, and hopefully, recited the mantra that carried Tartikoff and his boss, Grant Tinker, to the top of prime time: "First, be best; then be first."

Silverman, tapped earlier this week to turn around NBC Entertainment, has spent his first few days bucking up the troops in Burbank, and Lord knows they could use it. In a hasty and spectacularly sloppy palace coup that stretched over the Memorial Day weekend, Reilly, a Tartikoff acolyte who could be heard paying homage to The Master even on his way out the door, was dumped.

Silverman knows TV inside and out, but at 36 he's not a Tartikoff clone. And given the realities of today's network economics, a subject in which Silverman is even better versed than history, such a tack is probably irrelevant anyway. In a 200-channel, DVR-powered universe, it's a little naive to think that being "best" can necessarily, axiomatically, make you first. After all, NBC may be home to cool, critically beloved shows such as "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Friday Night Lights," but last place is last place, and it stinks to be there.

When I asked him what changes an average viewer might expect under his regime, the new co-chairman of NBC Entertainment reached not for Tartikoff or Tinker but rather for Timberlake, as in Justin, saying rakishly, "I'm just trying to bring sexy back."

Of course, Silverman also pays homage to the notion of quality; not many TV execs want their epitaphs to read: "He Put Crap on the Air." But the top bosses at NBC Universal and parent company GE made it clear to Silverman that he's expected to reverse the network's sagging fortunes, and he's taking an expansive view of that mission.

Track record

The Silverman résumé has two notable achievements so far. As an agent at William Morris, and later as the head of his own production company, Reveille, he has helped import and develop successful shows that started in overseas markets, including "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And, perhaps more important, he has openly courted advertisers eager for more creative input, including product placements, on prime-time shows, resulting in such sponsorship-laced outings as "The Restaurant."

Such "product integrations" have chagrined many in TV's writer-producer community, who worry that advertisers are usurping too much creative control. But the network business — which, unlike cable outlets and TV studios, depends entirely on Madison Avenue for its economic support — increasingly sees closer sponsorship ties as a solution to declining audiences and the waning influence of the traditional 30-second spot. Silverman's ascension makes it clear NBC intends to be the ad-friendly market leader.

Silverman told me, in as close to an admonishing tone as his innate charm will allow, that advertisers are "demanding" more input, and "we're going to work with the creative roster to deliver it."

Marc Graboff, a veteran lawyer and deal-maker who will serve as Silverman's co-chairman at NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, was even more blunt: "We are bringing advertisers into the process much sooner than ever before."

Graboff pointed out that even the critically lauded "Friday Night Lights" featured a tie-in with Applebee's restaurants. "Some show runners get it," he said. "They understand that to pay for the costs of their shows, we need to be doing these things. Some show runners just aren't interested in having that conversation. That's OK, but it may ultimately be a problem for them. The commercial value of their shows may be diminished if they don't have those integrations in them."

Of course, whether playing kissy-face with advertisers will halt NBC's slide remains to be seen. No matter what sponsor goodies are cooked up, a network still needs hits, giant ones, and NBC's recent track record is discouraging. Reilly gets credit for "Heroes," but he also backed many hip shows ("30 Rock," "Friday Night Lights," "My Name Is Earl") that far too few people watch. NBC has flash-in-the-pan reality shows that bolster ratings but not much else, like "Deal or No Deal." And it's lugging around expensive, Clinton-era dinosaurs it can't afford to give up, like "Law & Order" and "ER." The endless strategy-shifting ("We're super-sizing episodes!" "No, we're not!") and sloganeering seems to have left even true-believing NBC lifers glassy-eyed, dazed like disaster victims by the enveloping tragedy.

The GE question

For a network that has recently pinned its hopes on "class and mass," NBC has been left with neither. There's a fair amount of speculation that GE might look to sell all or part of the company if the network's problems can't soon be fixed, although executives have publicly denied this. After all, Tartikoff's success was the primary reason GE bought NBC in the mid-'80s.

And then there's the Zucker problem. Silverman's new boss, NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, is in many respects the anti-Tartikoff: relentlessly ambitious and impatient. He engineered the Reilly coup, and as it exploded into a PR nightmare, industry veterans reacted with off-the-record schadenfreude that barely disguised their long-standing contempt for Zucker, whose feelings seemed mutual (he declined to comment for this column). Not coincidentally, Zucker was Reilly's predecessor as entertainment president, and many blame him for the problems that bedevil NBC to this day. Zucker speaks of quality too, but he also joked about the crumminess of "Fear Factor" as it piled up big ratings. And he seems to take pleasure in his rap as a Prince of Darkness. Once, I joked that two junior executives had described him as a nightmare boss. Zucker murmured, "They're finally getting the message."

Then again, the entertainment business is famous for indulging tyrants and rogues, as long as they keep the numbers up. NBC isn't a fun place to work, but so what? That's not why what's going on at NBC matters. Everyone who cares about the media business and how it's changing should carefully watch what Silverman and company do in the next year, because the fate of much more than one network hangs in the balance. Simply put, the old version of the TV business is breaking down, and no one has a clue exactly what the new version will look like.

When asked about the perils of navigating GE and its massive inbred bureaucracy, Silverman told me: "I'm sure it's a learning curve for me. But I'm not going to change who I am. I'm a passionate guy. I have to hold on to that passion."

His feelings may change, however, if he has to wrestle with a reality that Tartikoff never encountered: That on today's crowded TV dial, sometimes your best isn't good enough.