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What will Ben Silverman think of next for NBC?

June 27, 2007|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

The first television show that Ben Silverman bought this summer after being named co-chairman of NBC Entertainment was "Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso."

Translation: "Without Breasts There Is No Paradise."

The popular Colombian telenovela is a story of a destitute young woman who sees bigger breasts as her salvation but after her augmentation becomes a prostitute involved with a drug dealer.

Silverman is on a mission to "bring sexy back" to the downtrodden peacock network. Two weeks into his administration, it's increasingly clear: This is not your daddy's NBC.

"It's Ben-B-C," said Howard T. Owens, who has worked for Silverman for nine years and is in line to become a partner of Reveille, the production company Silverman created that has produced such hits as ABC's "Ugly Betty" and NBC's "The Office."

Hollywood has been captivated by the sudden arrival of this charismatic 36-year-old party boy. The question for many is whether the corporate constraints of NBC will change the free-spirited Silverman or whether it will be Silverman who changes NBC.

"This will be either a spectacular success or a riveting failure," said one rival TV executive who asked not to be identified for fear of insulting Silverman. "There will be no middle ground."

After finishing three seasons in fourth place in the prime-time ratings and watching ad revenue fall by nearly $1 billion, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker decided Silverman was the tonic for his troubles. The stakes are high.

In his new role as CEO, Zucker must prove himself by turning around the network and increasing profit to NBC parent company General Electric Co. He liked Silverman's track record of buying rights to hit shows in foreign countries and modifying them to appeal to U.S. audiences. It worked with the BBC's "The Office" and with "Ugly Betty," another Colombian telenovela. Why should "Without Breasts" be any different?

"Ben brings a new way of doing business to NBC," Zucker said the day he hired him.

Silverman also brings a bigger-than-life Hollywood persona, a potential conflict of interest because of his financial interests in a program NBC will be competing against, and some new circadian rhythms.

For more than a decade, senior executives at NBC in Burbank have started their day with "the 9:30 meeting" to debate marketing plans or prime-time scheduling changes or simply to brainstorm. But Silverman, the self-proclaimed "Rock Star Chairman," isn't much of a morning guy and has shifted the meeting to 2:30 p.m. -- or later.

"I felt the conversation was all about last night's ratings, and as the fourth-place network that was a negative way to start the day," Silverman said in an interview Tuesday. "I wanted these meetings to be more forward-looking, and now they are."

Known for his effusive charm and his ravenous appetite, Silverman has a penchant for expensive sushi and for triple-booking dinners. It's not unusual for him to have a business meeting at the unorthodox hour of 9:15 p.m. After a few drinks, Silverman might bear-hug a top network executive and exclaim, "I love you, man." Even in the daylight hours, Silverman punctuates his e-mails with "Love U!"

"I'm pretty much a 24/7 guy," Silverman said. "I shut down the BlackBerry at 1 a.m."

Before NBC's Memorial Day weekend management shake-up that installed Silverman, others had come to court him. Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp was about to make a large investment in Reveille, valued at more than $50 million, that would have allowed the company to expand further.

Other major media companies, including Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., were in the hunt and discussed having Silverman join their ranks.

But Zucker swooped in and signed Silverman, pushing out NBC's previous top programmer, Kevin Reilly. Since then, NBC Universal has negotiated to buy out IAC's interest in Reveille and has been making arrangements to deal with his ongoing profit from Reveille's shows, including "Ugly Betty," NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and "Nashville Star," which plays on the USA Network.

To avoid any conflict of interest, Silverman's share of the profits from his current shows and those in the development pipeline will be put into a blind trust, NBC has said. He will not draw profits from Reveille shows initiated since he joined NBC.

"A blind trust is an acceptable way to deal with the generation of profits from these shows," said C. Kerry Fields, a business law and ethics professor at the USC Marshall School of Business.

But the real problem, Fields said, is that Silverman will decide which NBC shows compete with his successful "Ugly Betty." It runs on rival ABC in the lucrative 8 p.m. Thursday slot.

"It's an inherent conflict of interest, and I don't think it's setting the right example for the rest of the company," Fields said.

Silverman said that wouldn't be an issue. "Making NBC the No. 1 network is what I'm focused on, and Thursday is very important," he said. "I'm going to put a ton of energy into making that night work."

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