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The future face of NBC

New chief Ben Silverman vows to stem a slide, and ads will play a big role.

June 02, 2007|Scott Collins | The Channel Island column usually runs on Mondays in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at

WHEN you reflect on the management shake-up at NBC earlier this week, one thought keeps recurring: The network has finally buried Brandon Tartikoff.

Suddenly ditching its programming overseer Kevin Reilly for agent-turned-producer Ben Silverman, the fourth-ranked network finds itself a long way from its glory days under Tartikoff. The mastermind behind NBC's programming renaissance of the 1980s ("The Cosby Show," "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers" and others), Tartikoff died 10 years ago this August, but his spirit never really left the place. For nearly a generation, NBC has been guided by, and handsomely rewarded for, the optimistic and high-minded media principle Tartikoff tried to live by: Put top-quality shows on the air, and viewers will come. Aim up; riches will follow.

That may sound simple, but it's not a precept many executives in the culture businesses are brave enough to follow day in and out, and over time such a view guided NBC to an image of itself as exceptional. Even as the network deteriorated from No. 1 to a virtual shipwreck over the last few years, programmers still fondly, and hopefully, recited the mantra that carried Tartikoff and his boss, Grant Tinker, to the top of prime time: "First, be best; then be first."

Silverman, tapped earlier this week to turn around NBC Entertainment, has spent his first few days bucking up the troops in Burbank, and Lord knows they could use it. In a hasty and spectacularly sloppy palace coup that stretched over the Memorial Day weekend, Reilly, a Tartikoff acolyte who could be heard paying homage to The Master even on his way out the door, was dumped.

Silverman knows TV inside and out, but at 36 he's not a Tartikoff clone. And given the realities of today's network economics, a subject in which Silverman is even better versed than history, such a tack is probably irrelevant anyway. In a 200-channel, DVR-powered universe, it's a little naive to think that being "best" can necessarily, axiomatically, make you first. After all, NBC may be home to cool, critically beloved shows such as "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Friday Night Lights," but last place is last place, and it stinks to be there.

When I asked him what changes an average viewer might expect under his regime, the new co-chairman of NBC Entertainment reached not for Tartikoff or Tinker but rather for Timberlake, as in Justin, saying rakishly, "I'm just trying to bring sexy back."

Of course, Silverman also pays homage to the notion of quality; not many TV execs want their epitaphs to read: "He Put Crap on the Air." But the top bosses at NBC Universal and parent company GE made it clear to Silverman that he's expected to reverse the network's sagging fortunes, and he's taking an expansive view of that mission.

Track record

The Silverman resume has two notable achievements so far. As an agent at William Morris, and later as the head of his own production company, Reveille, he has helped import and develop successful shows that started in overseas markets, including "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And, perhaps more important, he has openly courted advertisers eager for more creative input, including product placements, on prime-time shows, resulting in such sponsorship-laced outings as "The Restaurant."

Such "product integrations" have chagrined many in TV's writer-producer community, who worry that advertisers are usurping too much creative control. But the network business -- which, unlike cable outlets and TV studios, depends entirely on Madison Avenue for its economic support -- increasingly sees closer sponsorship ties as a solution to declining audiences and the waning influence of the traditional 30-second spot. Silverman's ascension makes it clear NBC intends to be the ad-friendly market leader.

Silverman told me, in as close to an admonishing tone as his innate charm will allow, that advertisers are "demanding" more input, and "we're going to work with the creative roster to deliver it."

Marc Graboff, a veteran lawyer and deal-maker who will serve as Silverman's co-chairman at NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, was even more blunt: "We are bringing advertisers into the process much sooner than ever before."

Graboff pointed out that even the critically lauded "Friday Night Lights" featured a tie-in with Applebee's restaurants. "Some show runners get it," he said. "They understand that to pay for the costs of their shows, we need to be doing these things. Some show runners just aren't interested in having that conversation. That's OK, but it may ultimately be a problem for them. The commercial value of their shows may be diminished if they don't have those integrations in them."

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