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NBC shakes up entertainment team: Jeff Gaspin up, Ben Silverman out

Gaspin will oversee all of NBC Universal's TV properties, including the troubled NBC television production studio. Silverman will launch a new company with Barry Diller.

July 28, 2009|Meg James

One of Hollywood's juiciest television dramas came to a close Monday when NBC Entertainment chief Ben Silverman said he was leaving the network after two tumultuous years.

In the end, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker's big gamble to hand over the keys to NBC's storied legacy to an aggressive young television producer who vowed to revolutionize the network backfired.

Silverman, a self-described "rock star" TV executive who frequently grabbed headlines with antics including calling a rival a "moron" and being featured on a YouTube video wrapped in only a towel and singing the blues, is departing to start a company backed by Barry Diller, the former Hollywood mogul turned Internet entrepreneur. Silverman leaves the peacock network, a onetime powerhouse with such hits as "Seinfeld," "Cheers" and "Law & Order," struggling to reverse course in the head winds of an advertising recession.

As part of a sweeping management overhaul unveiled Monday, Zucker elevated one of his most trusted lieutenants: Jeff Gaspin, a low-key executive who started on the financial side of the TV business before becoming a programmer. Gaspin has overseen NBC's strongly profitable entertainment cable channels and was put in charge of all of NBC's television units.

The latest NBC shake-up comes at a critical juncture for the 44-year-old Zucker, who went to work at NBC in 1986 as a researcher for the Olympics, the beginning of his steady march up the corporate ladder. The network is preparing to undertake another risky move he has championed -- bringing comedian Jay Leno to prime time in September.

Across the sprawling company, Zucker faces other challenges. TV viewers' increased use of digital video recorders is jeopardizing the mainstay 30-second commercial, which has long underwritten the high cost of producing TV shows. Advertising sales have been sluggish for NBC's television outlets, signaling further choppy financial quarters ahead. As troublesome, the once reliable Universal Pictures movie studio has stumbled badly at the box office this year with a string of flops that has dismayed executives at NBC's parent company, General Electric Co.

In an interview, Zucker described Silverman's exit as a resolution that "made sense for everybody," while at the same time praising him for a fresh perspective in dealing with advertisers.

"Ben wasn't a traditional choice, he didn't do the job traditionally, but he brought us a lot of new ways of thinking about the business," Zucker said. "Although that wasn't readily apparent, it was very helpful to us."

With Silverman out of the picture, Zucker on Monday said he was consolidating all of the NBC television units into one group managed by Gaspin. Well regarded by GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, Gaspin won a coveted GE leadership award earlier this year -- for his management of the cable division that includes the channels USA Network, Bravo and SyFy, which now produce a large portion of NBC Universal's operating profits.

This isn't the first time that Zucker, when in a jam, has turned to Gaspin. The two met when both were executives at NBC News. In 2001, when Gaspin was at Viacom's VH-1 cable channel, Zucker wooed him back to NBC to help him jump-start NBC's stalled reality TV business.

"We had a lot of success together in that world with 'The Apprentice,' 'Fear Factor' and 'Average Joe,' " Zucker said. "I trust him implicitly."

Now Zucker is hoping that Gaspin will come through again.

"None of us are happy with the position that NBC is in," Gaspin said. "We have to make progress, and during the next few months I will spend a lot of time and put a lot of energy into getting NBC ready for the fall launches so we can make it shine once again."

Besides overseeing NBC's cable channels, Gaspin will continue to manage the company's Spanish-language network, Telemundo.

Many of NBC's current programming problems go back to May 2007, when Zucker roiled the network by eliminating the job of then-chief of programming Kevin Reilly, who had developed NBC's most recent hits "The Office," "Heroes" and "30 Rock" -- to make way for Silverman. But during the last two years, the network has tumbled further in the ratings and found itself in a deeper hole. It has not fielded a new hit show, and Silverman's pet projects, including "Kath & Kim" and "My Own Worst Enemy," became high-profile flameouts.

Then, late last year, Zucker began slowly to shuffle the deck once again. In December, he combined the management of NBC's television network and its in-house production studio, a move that eliminated more than 30 executive positions, including that of Silverman's handpicked programming deputy. NBC executives conceded that the deputy lacked the experience necessary to run a major TV network.

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