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TELEVISION

Mr. TV (Executive Branch)

After enjoying success as programming chief of CBS and ABC, Fred Silverman leaped to NBC--and fell hard. He's back on his feet now and still full of ideas about what makes the tube tick.

July 28, 1996|Rick Du Brow | Rick Du Brow is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Once upon a time, he virtually ruled network programming. He was as famous as some of the stars whose shows he scheduled. The stock market jumped when he moved from CBS to ABC to NBC, where his fortunes fell and he suddenly found himself seeking a new career as one of Hollywood's countless independent producers.

Now, on this particular day, Fred Silverman, no longer a wunderkind at 58, sits at his desk in his sprawling ninth-floor production offices in West Los Angeles, contemplating the agony and ecstasy of a television career almost unparalleled for its tumultuous ups and downs in a quarter-century of prime-time exposure.

If not for three nightmarish years running NBC, it might all have been ecstasy for the programmer who was known as the man with the golden gut.

For even after he left NBC in 1981 and struggled through some short-lived programs, including a highly publicized late-night series with Alan Thicke, he eventually cut out a new arena for himself as producer of such shows as "Matlock," "In the Heat of the Night," "Perry Mason" movies, "Father Dowling Mysteries," "Jake and the Fatman" and "Diagnosis Murder."

"I've produced, at last count, over 800 hours of prime time," Silverman says.

He is still churning out shows. "Diagnosis Murder," a crime drama starring Dick Van Dyke, returns to CBS this fall. "Bone Chillers," a new children's series co-produced with Hyperion Studio, is also set for this fall, on ABC. "Bedtime," a late-night series about six couples around America as they are preparing to go to sleep, premiered on Showtime this month. And he is working on a live, daily, around-the-clock entertainment project for local cable outlets, "The Corner," which would offer the same format with different personalities in the top 50 markets. The programs would be a mix of community events, lifestyles, interviews, viewer phone calls and other topics of interest to people in each particular city.

If the channels become available, Silverman says, "The Corner"--aimed at the 18-to-34-year-old cable generation that thinks "Channel 2 is no different than Channel 62"--will be "the third act of my life" and perhaps "the last thing I do in the business."

He knows, of course, that questions about his reign at NBC are coming. But for more than two hours, he matter-of-factly replies on other subjects as well, with none of the volatility he has been known for.

"I think the move here [from New York in the early 1980s] made me less excitable. And having a heart attack six years ago certainly woke me up a little bit," says Silverman, who now has closely cropped, graying hair. "This is just a job; it's not a religious calling."

It wasn't quite the same when he broke into the network business as head of top-rated CBS' daytime programming at age 25 in 1963.

"The top management there was never satisfied," he recalls. "If I went to [CBS Chairman William] Paley and said, 'We have nine out of the top 10 shows in the daytime,' he would say, 'God, that 10th show. Isn't there anything you can do about that 10th show?' Good was not good enough. Great was not good enough."

The drive to win was also unrelenting in the late 1970s, when Silverman was riding high in the ratings at ABC with such shows as "Happy Days" and "Charlie's Angels." After years of being ridiculed as a second-class network by competitors at CBS and NBC, ABC walloped the big guys for the first time.

Silverman's taste in programming was often lampooned, but many rank-and-file workers at ABC were simply pleased that he had gotten the monkey off their backs.

He was, in fact, big enough for Time magazine to give him its Sept. 5, 1977, cover, with the words "TV's Master Showman." A trophy-like replica of the cover in Silverman's office catches a visitor's eye.

*

No other person in modern television history has ever been in the eye of the hurricane at all three leading networks--CBS, ABC and NBC--riding herd on the programming at each of them. (During TV's infancy in the 1950s, executive Robert Lewine had been appointed to top programming jobs at the three companies.)

At NBC, where Silverman ruled from 1978 to 1981, he was actually president of the entire network. But NBC, desperate to pull out of a lengthy nose dive, clearly hired him for his past programming successes, and there was no doubt of his iron hand.

At a luncheon of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society during that period, NBC programmer Brandon Tartikoff was asked: "Is it true that no one at NBC makes a decision without checking with Silverman?" Quipped Tartikoff: "Could I get back to you on that?"

Neither Silverman nor NBC could foresee the chaos that would unfold in those three years. It involved programming mishaps; personal bitterness, acknowledged by Silverman, that exists to this day from veteran executives of the historic network; and, among other unending crises, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which compelled NBC to decide not to broadcast the games.

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