NBC has a big job for ‘Office’ exec

Times Staff Writer

In 1985, when Ben Silverman was in junior high, he told his mom he needed to stay home from school to watch TV.

“He said, ‘Brandon Tartikoff’s mother let him stay home from school,’ ” Mary Silverman recalled in an interview Tuesday, referring to the legendary NBC entertainment president. “From the age of 10, Ben always wanted to be the head of NBC.”

So after graduating from Tufts University in 1992, she said, he headed for Los Angeles “with one wool suit and an un-air-conditioned Volkswagen in what was the hottest summer on record.”


Now her son is about to really feel the heat. The 36-year-old just became co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and of the NBC Universal Television Studio, sharing the newly created top job with Marc Graboff, 51, a lawyer and NBC Universal’s top TV executive on the West Coast.

Their mission is to hoist the once-proud peacock out of the ratings cellar and make it relevant in the Internet age.

Silverman, a former William Morris talent agent, seems to have the TV-show chops: His production firm, Reveille, is behind some popular properties, including NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” He’s executive producer of several reality shows, including “Nashville Star” on USA Network, “Blow Out” on Bravo and “Date My Mom” and “Parental Control” on MTV.

The Silverman-Graboff announcement, made Tuesday by NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, came three months after the company extended NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly’s contract for three years. Reilly was pushed out to make room for Silverman.

“Ben is a force of nature, and a great creative force,” Zucker said in a conference call with reporters. He said that he had long wanted to hire Silverman but that the timing hadn’t been right until two weeks ago, when they began talking seriously.

Silverman was considering selling part of Reveille, so “we had to move quickly and decisively,” Zucker said.

Silverman said Zucker “came at me really aggressively,” though it was probably an easy sell.

“It was a dream job for me,” Silverman said in an interview.

The timing of the shake-up is awkward. Just two weeks ago, Reilly unveiled NBC’s fall schedule for advertisers in New York. The network’s sales force is about to start selling the bulk of the ad inventory for the fall season, an annual ritual that last year brought in nearly $2 billion in prime-time commitments.

“This is definitely going to change how people think about NBC,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president at the ad agency Starcom. “Is this a lame-duck schedule or not?”

NBC executives said it wasn’t. They called producers Tuesday to assure them that, even without Reilly at the helm, their projects would be well cared for.

“I don’t think somebody’s going to come in suddenly and change everything that’s working,” said Greg Garcia, who created “My Name Is Earl,” which Reilly championed. “I’m looking forward to meeting the new guy.”

Some advertisers were optimistic, particularly because Silverman has been eager to display advertisers in shows. Chili’s restaurants and Apple Inc.'s iPods, for instance, have been featured in “The Office.”

Jim Wiatt, William Morris’ CEO, said Silverman was right for the job for other reasons. “He’s a great salesman and he’s got terrific instincts,” Wiatt said. “He’s someone who gets old media and new media and how to blend the two.”

For NBC, a lot will be riding on the Silverman-Graboff team. The network, which in the days of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Seinfeld” crushed its rivals, has finished fourth in the prime-time ratings for the last three seasons. During that time, its prime-time ad sales fell about $1 billion.

“It was almost like NBC couldn’t buy a break,” said Jason Maltby, an executive at ad-buying firm Mindshare. “Sometimes you’ve got to shake things up.”

Graboff said the primary mission of the TV studio -- acquired three years ago when corporate parent General Electric Co. bought Universal Studios -- would be to develop shows for NBC. The studio now also makes shows to sell to other networks, including “House,” one of the biggest hits on Fox. Zucker said Angela Bromstad would leave her post as head of NBC Universal Television Studio for another job.

Zucker said he fashioned the partnership between Silverman and Graboff -- one of Zucker’s closest friends in the business -- after the old Warner Bros. team of Bob Daly and Terry Semel and the NBC Universal duo of Marc Shmuger and David Linde, who run Universal Pictures.

In the interview, Silverman recalled how long he had been grooming himself for his new job.

When he was a high school senior, he wrote a math paper on TV ratings. When he was a senior at Tufts, he crafted a creative writing assignment around a tale of an ambitious young man who headed to Hollywood to meet Brandon Tartikoff.

“And on the first day that he met Brandon Tartikoff, in the commissary of the network, this young man got promoted,” Silverman said. “And he became so successful that he didn’t even return Madonna’s calls.”

Silverman hesitated, then added: “Madonna, please call.... I will return your calls.”

Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Martin Miller and Matea Gold and Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.