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At NBC, new bosses lasso Isaiah

July 17, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

The two new faces atop NBC took center stage at the annual summer television press tour Monday -- but one of the first questions was about an old face.

Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, new co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, were brought aboard after former NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly was ousted in late May. "I only arrived -- all I can say is we're really excited about what we're doing today," Silverman said about the departure. Graboff quickly made clear that Reilly wasn't "fired" but that the former executive realized "that there was no role for him at the company and decided to move on" after Silverman was hired.

That remark drew one of the louder laughs of the hourlong executive session at the Beverly Hilton, at which both men talked about their new jobs: Their duties overlap on many networks issues, but generally Silverman oversees programming, scheduling and marketing, while Graboff supervises administration and business dealings. Together, the two said, they are out to chart a new course in the fast-changing world of television, where they currently reside in fourth place in the Nielsen ratings.

"This was not an arranged marriage," said Silverman. "This is a relationship that is very easy."

It's "very organic," added Graboff.

The new team, while standing by the four Reilly-approved fall pilots, nevertheless announced a series of creative deals and scheduling changes. Most surprising was the news that Isaiah Washington, who was written out as a major character on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" after publicly using a homophobic slur, has been written into NBC's new fall show "Bionic Woman."

The controversial actor, who has been attacking his former network as racist for firing him, will appear in five of the first six episodes. Silverman said he was elated to land the actor, who became the butt of national jokes earlier this year when he entered a Malibu rehabilitation center for anger issues.

"He's a wonderful actor," said Silverman, who kept repeating that phrase when asked about Washington and claimed not to understand all the furor. "He's really talented." (For his part, Washington issued a statement Monday through his publicist: "I am grateful and honored by NBC's belief in me, and I am looking forward to getting back to work.")

Despite NBC's assurances to advertisers during the executive upheaval in late May that the fall schedule was stable, Silverman and Graboff nevertheless shuffled around several programs. To capitalize on its summer success, the precision karaoke reality show "The Singing Bee" will join the fall lineup on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. That show will be preceded on the same night by the reality-based weight loss show "The Biggest Loser," which will pack on an extra half-hour.

Other tweaks included switching the Friday schedule. "Friday Night Lights" has been moved from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m., "Deal or No Deal" will be at 8 p.m. and "Las Vegas" will take the 10 p.m. slot. And on Mondays, to capitalize on its similar themes with the hit "Heroes," the new dramedy "Chuck" will kick off the network's fantasy night at 8 p.m.

Silverman also revealed a new mind-over-matter program called "Phenomenon," featuring Uri Geller and "mystifier" Criss Angel. The show will pit 10 "mentalists" against each other; viewers will select the winner.

"We had goose bumps watching the show," said Silverman.

Despite declining ratings, NBC also renewed a celebrity version of "The Apprentice" for midseason. The celebrities, who would be competing for charity, have yet to be announced, but Silverman and Donald Trump are interested in a high-profile talk show host who recently came on the market.

"I think it'd be great to get Rosie [O'Donnell] on 'The Apprentice,' " joked Silverman. "Donald told me to extend an invite" to her. (Contacted later, O'Donnell's spokeswoman nixed that notion: "It will never happen in this lifetime or beyond.")

Silverman also reiterated his commitment to "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights," two shows that were critically acclaimed last year yet languished in the ratings.

The 36-year-old wunderkind executive said he hopes "Friday Nights Lights," centered on a small-town high school football program, will receive its share of Emmy nominations, which will be announced later this week. Meanwhile, in a boost for the Tina Fey comedy about a late-night sketch show, Jerry Seinfeld will guest star as himself in "30 Rock's" second-season premiere.

"We're hoping that what happened with 'The Office' will happen with '30 Rock,' " Silverman said.

Silverman signed a deal with producer Norman Lear, whose "All in the Family" changed prime-time sitcoms, to produce an hourlong dramedy about a single mother who reenters the work force on Wall Street.

NBC is also launching an initiative in the fall when its programming will highlight environmental themes.

"Additionally, Marc and I will be carpooling," joked Silverman.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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