What will Ben Silverman think of next for NBC?
The first television show that Ben Silverman bought this summer after being named co-chairman of NBC Entertainment was “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso.”
Translation: “Without Breasts There Is No Paradise.”
The popular Colombian telenovela is a story of a destitute young woman who sees bigger breasts as her salvation but after her augmentation becomes a prostitute involved with a drug dealer.
Silverman is on a mission to “bring sexy back” to the downtrodden peacock network. Two weeks into his administration, it’s increasingly clear: This is not your daddy’s NBC.
“It’s Ben-B-C,” said Howard T. Owens, who has worked for Silverman for nine years and is in line to become a partner of Reveille, the production company Silverman created that has produced such hits as ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and NBC’s “The Office.”
Hollywood has been captivated by the sudden arrival of this charismatic 36-year-old party boy. The question for many is whether the corporate constraints of NBC will change the free-spirited Silverman or whether it will be Silverman who changes NBC.
“This will be either a spectacular success or a riveting failure,” said one rival TV executive who asked not to be identified for fear of insulting Silverman. “There will be no middle ground.”
After finishing three seasons in fourth place in the prime-time ratings and watching ad revenue fall by nearly $1 billion, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker decided Silverman was the tonic for his troubles. The stakes are high.
In his new role as CEO, Zucker must prove himself by turning around the network and increasing profit to NBC parent company General Electric Co. He liked Silverman’s track record of buying rights to hit shows in foreign countries and modifying them to appeal to U.S. audiences. It worked with the BBC’s “The Office” and with “Ugly Betty,” another Colombian telenovela. Why should “Without Breasts” be any different?
“Ben brings a new way of doing business to NBC,” Zucker said the day he hired him.
Silverman also brings a bigger-than-life Hollywood persona, a potential conflict of interest because of his financial interests in a program NBC will be competing against, and some new circadian rhythms.
For more than a decade, senior executives at NBC in Burbank have started their day with “the 9:30 meeting” to debate marketing plans or prime-time scheduling changes or simply to brainstorm. But Silverman, the self-proclaimed “Rock Star Chairman,” isn’t much of a morning guy and has shifted the meeting to 2:30 p.m. -- or later.
“I felt the conversation was all about last night’s ratings, and as the fourth-place network that was a negative way to start the day,” Silverman said in an interview Tuesday. “I wanted these meetings to be more forward-looking, and now they are.”
Known for his effusive charm and his ravenous appetite, Silverman has a penchant for expensive sushi and for triple-booking dinners. It’s not unusual for him to have a business meeting at the unorthodox hour of 9:15 p.m. After a few drinks, Silverman might bear-hug a top network executive and exclaim, “I love you, man.” Even in the daylight hours, Silverman punctuates his e-mails with “Love U!”
“I’m pretty much a 24/7 guy,” Silverman said. “I shut down the BlackBerry at 1 a.m.”
Before NBC’s Memorial Day weekend management shake-up that installed Silverman, others had come to court him. Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp was about to make a large investment in Reveille, valued at more than $50 million, that would have allowed the company to expand further.
Other major media companies, including Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., were in the hunt and discussed having Silverman join their ranks.
But Zucker swooped in and signed Silverman, pushing out NBC’s previous top programmer, Kevin Reilly. Since then, NBC Universal has negotiated to buy out IAC’s interest in Reveille and has been making arrangements to deal with his ongoing profit from Reveille’s shows, including “Ugly Betty,” NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and “Nashville Star,” which plays on the USA Network.
To avoid any conflict of interest, Silverman’s share of the profits from his current shows and those in the development pipeline will be put into a blind trust, NBC has said. He will not draw profits from Reveille shows initiated since he joined NBC.
“A blind trust is an acceptable way to deal with the generation of profits from these shows,” said C. Kerry Fields, a business law and ethics professor at the USC Marshall School of Business.
But the real problem, Fields said, is that Silverman will decide which NBC shows compete with his successful “Ugly Betty.” It runs on rival ABC in the lucrative 8 p.m. Thursday slot.
“It’s an inherent conflict of interest, and I don’t think it’s setting the right example for the rest of the company,” Fields said.
Silverman said that wouldn’t be an issue. “Making NBC the No. 1 network is what I’m focused on, and Thursday is very important,” he said. “I’m going to put a ton of energy into making that night work.”
Some industry executives have wondered why Silverman would walk away from Reveille just as it was turning a big profit.
“If I was all about money, I would have taken the job that Goldman Sachs offered me when I was 22 and I would be very rich,” Silverman said. “But it’s not all about the money. I’m still living in a two-bedroom rental. A very nice two-bedroom” (on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica).
Says his longtime lieutenant Owens: “He’s wanted this job at NBC since he was 12 years old.”
That was in 1985. The son of an avant-garde chamber music composer and a TV executive, Silverman was enthralled by a cover story in New York magazine about Brandon Tartikoff, then programming wunderkind at NBC. Running NBC became Silverman’s career ambition.
After graduating magna cum laude from Tufts University, he drove to Los Angeles in 1992 in an un-air-conditioned Volkswagen to pursue his dream. He soon shifted his career onto the fast track, working briefly at CBS, Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment before joining William Morris Agency as a talent agent.
While at William Morris in London, Silverman secured the rights to several British shows, including “Weakest Link” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Disney bought “Millionaire” and the show became a mega-hit for ABC.
In 2002, Silverman left William Morris to launch Reveille. His first big bet, “The Restaurant,” quickly established him as a Hollywood producer. Silverman recruited chef Rocco DiSpirito and television’s biggest reality show producer, Mark Burnett, to make a program that would pull the curtain back on the chaotic opening of a New York restaurant.
Instead of divvying up ownership with the other producers, Silverman shrewdly held on to it.
“Ben knew how to control those rights, and that set up Reveille as more than just another production company making money off license fees,” Owens said. “Ben built an independent studio, and we had the template for the next deal.”
That experience also proved to advertisers that Silverman would feature their products prominently in his shows.
“He’s very user friendly for advertisers,” said Bill Cella, vice chairman of media buying firm Draftfcb. “He’s got great creative skills and he thinks about how to sell products. I think he’ll be great for NBC.”
Already, Silverman has electrified the network, according to several NBC executives. They say that Silverman possesses good instincts and the self-confidence needed to take the big swings necessary to get NBC back into the game. He is as comfortable producing reality shows as he is scripted programs like the Emmy-winning comedy “The Office.” He also has been a leader in adding Internet elements to his programs, an increasingly important knack these days.
Silverman also has the backing of the top brass at NBC Universal and parent GE -- something predecessor Reilly lacked. NBC reorganized its structure to eliminate turf battles, giving Silverman more power. He and co-Chairman Marc Graboff are in charge of programming for both the broadcast network and the TV production studio.
“Now there is some clarity over there, NBC feels energized,” said Chris Silbermann, co-president of talent agency International Creative Management.
It comes down to infusing the place with positive energy, Silverman said. He also likes to take care of people, according to Owens.
Take the case of Buddy Jewell, the winner of “Nashville Star,” a singing competition. The terms of Jewell’s recording deal were quite restrictive, so he called to complain. Some at Reveille weren’t sure what to do.
“Ben told us to make it work for Buddy,” Owens said.
Said Silverman, “It wasn’t fair and he needed to feed his family, so I changed some assets around. I live in a world driven by values, and those values don’t change because I’m running a business.”
Some say, however, that Silverman’s challenge will be to curb his penchant for pleasing people. One lawyer joked last week that Silverman had already told so many producers to bring him their projects that “NBC now has enough shows to fill five schedules.”
Silverman says he has plenty of discipline. “I only do what I say that I’m going to do,” he said, adding that within GE’s tight-fisted culture, “I want people to know that NBC is the best place to go if they want creative and commercial opportunities.”
He is a master salesman.
But Greg Daniels, the writer and executive producer who adapted “The Office” for NBC, said it was more complicated than that.
“He presents himself in such a way that you might be skeptical that he will follow up on all of the big things he says,” Daniels said. “But then you see that he is incredibly smart and has very good tastes and ideas.”
It was Silverman who wanted to land Steve Carell as the star in “The Office,” Daniels said.
Silverman has acknowledged he’s more of a big-picture guy who doesn’t get bogged down with such details as poring over scripts after a show goes on the air. “I’m not going to be giving out page notes,” he said.
That hands-off approach might win him even more friends among the writers.
“The job of a senior network programming executive is to place bets on the right horses, not to show the horses where to run,” said Dana Walden, a president of 20th Century Fox Television. “We as an industry have micromanaged the process to too great of a degree. Working with someone who will give great creators some freedom will be a welcome change.”
Even before Silverman settles into the job, Hollywood has been busy building the lore of its latest leading man. Everyone, it seems, has a favorite Silverman story, many of which involve his signature eyebrows, which amazingly arch and flutter.
Owens told about a business dinner where they first met country music singer John Rich. Rich, who later became an advisor on “Nashville Star,” was initially “freaked out” by Silverman’s eyebrow action.
“He was staring at them all dinner long. He thought Ben was the devil,” Owens said, quickly adding, “But now, they are really good friends.”