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NBC executive has been hit and miss

Times Staff Writer

Ben Silverman, NBC’s chief programmer, has described himself as a “next generation, rock star” television executive.

Last weekend he was in New York: dining with actress Brooke Shields, popping up on the set of the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” and hobnobbing with advertisers at an NFL game.

Silverman spent much of August abroad, attending the Olympics in Beijing, meeting with foreign TV executives and then celebrating his 38th birthday in Europe with Sting, Billy Joel and the head of Britain’s Conservative Party.

In his 15 months at the network, Silverman has set off more chatter about his lifestyle, job status and time away from the office than buzz about his upcoming shows. In addition, agents, producers and even NBC executives have been aggravated by his chief deputy’s aggressive promotion of her live-in boyfriend’s proposed TV show -- a conflict of interest that was becoming an embarrassment for the network.

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Resolution came with a price tag: NBC recently paid $1.75 million to buy out the remainder of her boyfriend’s contract so the project would go away, according to a person close to the situation. It followed Silverman’s own entanglements with conflicts of interest, which led him to sell his production company that was supplying shows to the network.

NBC’s new season, which kicks off Monday, will help determine whether NBC Universal extends Silverman’s employment beyond June, when his two-year contract expires. That is, if Silverman doesn’t decide to leave first.

“Ben is young and rich; he’s not doing this because he is hungry,” said USC communications professor Jonathan Taplin, who worked with Silverman when he was a TV producer. “Sure, he wants to be famous, but at the end of the day, he can take this job or leave it.”

Indeed, his job -- co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and its TV production studio -- is to fix the network’s five-year ratings slide. With few breakout shows in the last four years, NBC desperately needs a new hit, or two. The network’s prime-time shows once were a moneymaking machine. In 2004, NBC earned $900 million in profit from prime-time alone. But, by 2007, with ratings sinking, it barely topped $100 million.

Silverman has won praise within NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co., for saving money through co-production deals on big-budget shows and by increasing revenue by inviting advertisers to pay to get their products plugged into story lines.

“Ben has done a fantastic job. So far he’s exceeded all of our expectations and the financial targets that we’ve set,” said his boss, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. “We’re talking about him being with us for a long time to come.”

When Silverman joined NBC, one of his first actions was to reschedule the morning staff meeting to a later hour, 2:45 p.m. He often parties into the night and rolls into the office after 11 a.m., according to several colleagues who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Silverman rejected criticism that he has not been engaged in the job. He is always working his BlackBerry. As for his casual office hours, he responded: “My work ethic is exemplary.”

He said that he sought an unusually short, 24-month contract -- three- to five-year deals are typical -- because it would give him greater leverage in renewing if he was successful. He thought he would fix the peacock’s broken wings within two years -- a remarkably short span given the holes in the program schedule.

“I am enjoying the job and I love NBC Universal,” Silverman said. “I’m doing this because I’m really excited by the opportunity to transform our business model and reinvent how we finance our entertainment.”

NBC has spent the last several weeks tamping speculation, and Internet brush fires, that Silverman was on his way out. Although he and NBC have had preliminary discussions about extending his contract, both sides are waiting to see how the new season unfolds before negotiating further.

Zucker said that Silverman deserved a share of the credit for helping NBC exceed expectations by selling $1.9 billion in prime-time advertising for the coming TV season. Among his initiatives: Reviving the 1980s NBC camp hit “Knight Rider,” which starred a Pontiac muscle car. Now the car is a Ford -- and Ford is a sponsor.

“The shows that we have for this season are more commercial than any programs that we’ve had in the past four years,” Zucker said.

Silverman has not been preoccupied by the traditional network pursuit of searching for the next hot writer such as Aaron Sorkin, who created sophisticated and pricey shows such as “Sports Night” and “West Wing.” Instead, he has pursued A-list talent but also less costly fare, such as the weight-loss contest show “The Biggest Loser,” which he produced for NBC. The series may not win an Emmy, but it contained a whopping 4,364 product placements during the first half of this year, according to Nielsen Co.

Zucker dismissed gossip about Silverman as sniping by those who feel threatened by change.

“He is not bound by the old rules of doing business, and that scares a lot of people in Hollywood,” Zucker said.

Zucker has a lot riding on Silverman. Fifteen months ago, Zucker made a big bet by hiring the former talent agent and TV producer who had made a name for himself by reworking such British shows as “The Office” for American audiences.

NBC was in need of a shake-up. Riding high on “Friends,” “Frasier,” “West Wing” and “Law & Order,” NBC four years ago was attracting 11 million viewers a night. Last season, which was disrupted by the writers strike, NBC mustered an average of 7.8 million viewers nightly.

Of course, all the networks have struggled to hold on to their audiences amid rising program costs, increased competition from cable channels and the proliferation of new entertainment devices. The Internet and digital video recorders have fundamentally altered how people watch programs as well as the economic underpinnings of the business.

But management issues at NBC have been a distraction.

Only a few months into the job, questions arose that Silverman was using his position as chief programmer at NBC to increase the value of the production company he continued to own, Reveille, by steering its shows to NBC. Those concerns prompted Silverman in February to sell the firm, a major supplier to NBC, to Elisabeth Murdoch for $125 million. The deal came after NBC ordered 13 projects from the company, including “American Gladiators” and “Kath & Kim,” a remake of an Australian comedy about a mother and daughter’s love-hate relationship that premieres next month.

NBC said it avoided any potential conflict because Zucker had final authority to approve projects from Reveille.

More recently, another relationship has caused problems at the network. Silverman appointed as his No. 2 executive at NBC his programming assistant, Teri Weinberg, from Reveille. By picking Weinberg, he elevated someone who had no experience at a network or managing a large staff to oversee the development of comedies and dramas. He gave her key duties, including taking pitches, reading scripts and working closely with advertisers.

Silverman also awarded Weinberg’s boyfriend and his writing partner a lucrative producing deal with NBC’s television studio. And although Weinberg promised not to get involved, she made her staff and others uncomfortable by pushing for her boyfriend’s pet project, a comedy called “Zip” about a down-on-his-luck con artist, according to three people familiar with the situation who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

Weinberg declined to comment.

“This was not the first producer deal that a television studio has paid off before it ran out,” Zucker said of last month’s settlement. Weinberg has been doing a “fantastic” job, he said.

Advertisers expect NBC to perform adequately in the fourth quarter thanks to the strength of returning series such as “Heroes,” “The Biggest Loser” and “Sunday Night Football.”

But once the football season ends, “there are a lot of question marks,” said David Scardino, a TV programming analyst for Santa Monica advertising agency RPA.

In addition to “Knight Rider” and “Kath & Kim,” Silverman has championed “Crusoe,” an action-adventure spin on the classic tale, and “My Own Worst Enemy,” starring Christian Slater, about a man who leads two lives and is at war with himself. Last month, with production well underway, NBC hired a new producer for “Worst Enemy.”

“That’s never a good sign,” said Jason Maltby, president of national broadcast for MindShare, an ad-buying agency.

“If you look at NBC’s fall schedule, it doesn’t seem like they have anything that will break out.”

Maltby noted that, because last winter’s writers strike delayed development for the fall season, NBC was bringing back middling shows such as “Life” and “Lipstick Jungle” that might have been axed in a more typical year. NBC has promised to preview its new series to advertisers, but with only weeks left before they premiere, advertisers are still waiting.

“They have the most potential of any network, but that potential could go in either direction,” Scardino said. “It could either be fascinating to watch a whole new way of doing business -- or it could be the fascination of seeing a car crash.”

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meg.james@latimes.com


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