Ben Silverman, the Consummate TV Executive

ben silverman getty Ben Silverman, the Consummate TV Executive“I plan to stay at NBC as part of the NBC family. I’m happy there. I’m committed.” So said Ben Silverman, the much-maligned former NBC Universal Entertainment co-chairman, in an interview with The New York Times published this past May. Now, just three months later, he has parted ways with what was his dream job (the story goes that, as a child, Mr. Silverman only wanted to become president of NBC, eschewing such conventional boyhood pursuits as astronaut or cowboy) to join up with Barry Diller at IAC, where he’ll run a multiplatform production company. Folks who feel that shows like The Biggest Loser have ruined our culture may cheer, but it’s worth taking a moment to evaluate Mr. Silverman’s entire reign at the Peacock. Was it really that bad?

It’s easy enough to see why the soon-to-be 39-year-old Mr. Silverman became the bête noire of the blogosphere during his choppy 18 months on the job. Embodying the worst parts of Ari Gold, George W. Bush and seemingly every Hollywood cliché (really, must you be photographed so often wearing sunglasses?), Mr. Silverman, from the moment NBC Universal’s president, Jeff Zucker, hired him in May 2007, could hardly go a week without doing or saying something ridiculous. There was the Marie Antoinette–like soirée he threw to celebrate the 24 Emmy nominations his production company, Reville, took home in 2007, which featured a bunch of scantily clad models and at least one caged tiger (no surprise this came to be known as his “White Tiger Party”). He famously feuded with his fellow network executives, Fox’s Kevin Reilly and ABC’s Stephen McPherson, labeling them “D-girls” (a derogatory term for young, powerless female development executives) in an interview with Esquire in 2007, and also calling Mr. McPherson “a moron.” Best of all, there was the batshit YouTube video that made the rounds in May. (Just Google “Ben Silverman half-naked singing harmonica” to see what we mean.)

Frat-boy persona aside—pre-NBC, Mr. Silverman even once drunkenly trashed a William Morris colleague’s office, as if he was starring in his own personal remake of PCU (Google that too, if you don’t know what we’re talking about)—Mr. Silverman’s job performance got him the most flak. Show after show came and went in a flash of embarrassment: quarterlife, My Own Worst Enemy, My Dad is Better Than Your Dad, Crusoe, Kings, Lipstick Jungle, Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, Kath & Kim, American Gladiators. For an executive who was once considered a hit maker—Reville, under his power, found successes with shows like The Office, Ugly Betty and, yes, The Biggest Loser—Mr. Silverman has left behind a cult hit in Chuck, and, well, not much else.

A closer look at his résumé, though, finds some method to his perceived madness. Kath and Kim, for instance, was a hit Australian comedy, repackaged for American audiences and featuring a beloved former Saturday Night Live funnywoman (Molly Shannon). In a world where Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are comedy superstars, and The Office is considered a success, was it such a leap of faith to bank on Kath & Kim working? In hindsight, rebooting Knight Rider and Bionic Woman look like terrible decisions, but when viewed through the same prism that finds ABC getting ready to bring back the much less popular V—a cult science-fiction miniseries from the ’80s—were they that far off base? Even American Gladiators, a brand-name competition show that ran its course, doesn’t seem like any more of a fool’s errand than ABC resuscitating a prime-time, Regis Philbin–fronted version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire later this summer. The NBC shows didn’t work, ultimately. But it’s fairly easy to envision a parallel universe in which they might have.

 

THERE WAS ALSO the matter of Mr. Silverman’s patience, a virtue not usually associated with television executives. Regardless of his capability (or lack thereof) to develop successful programs, Mr. Silverman proved very good at keeping the few assets available to him on the air. Granted, 30 Rock, one of the Peacock’s more “popular” offerings—popular being a relative term here, with network ratings down across the board from the halcyon ’90s—was on the planned fall schedule before Mr. Silverman even took over, but at least he had the vision to stick with the series when the ratings yelled, ‘Cancel!’ (Lest we forget: Ms. Fey’s sitcom was destined to go the way of Arrested Development during its first and second seasons; now the multiple Emmy winner seems poised to anchor NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup for years to come.) Similarly, with both Friday Night Lights and Chuck, Mr. Silverman found ways to keep critical darlings alive—via partnerships with DirecTV and Subway, respectively—despite an extreme lack of viewership. (These creative maneuvers are surely what caught Mr. Diller’s eye.)

And how about Mr. Silverman’s promotion of female talent? No one will ever accuse him of being a feminist—hello, “White Tiger Party”!—but by surrounding Ms. Fey with people like Ms. Poehler, Ms. Shannon and, soon, Mindy Kaling (the actress-writer-star of The Office signed a development deal with the network back in the spring), NBC has been the only network to really highlight female comedians. At a time when most networks are kicking their female-centric shows to the curb—not to harp on ABC, but Samantha Who? was unceremoniously canceled and Ugly Betty could be on the way out as well; meanwhile, Fox and CBS are almost exclusively boys’ clubs—NBC embraces it’s feminine side. Calling rival executives “D-girls” might not be forward-thinking, but at least Mr. Silverman seemed to realize that there is a whole other gender out there waiting to have programs sold to them.

Regardless, the negative perception of the “Ben Silverman Experiment”—as Deadline Hollywood Daily’s Nikki Finke has titled it—will reign supreme. The man made too many enemies and had too many losses associated with his name to have it read any other way. And, frankly, that’s probably deserved: Considering he actually thought putting a show like Celebrity Circus on the air was a good idea—if you ever wanted to see celebrities perform circus acts, here is your chance!—there is probably a space reserved for him in the deep recesses of Hollywood Hell. But, think of it this way: Mr. Silverman took over a fourth-place network and kept it in fourth place, by doing what every other television executive does; he went with established brands and/or familiar situations and hoped they would stick (for reference to this programming ideal working, take a peek at the entire CBS prime-time lineup). In the end, the most disappointing part of his tenure was just how incredibly normal it turned out to be. Ben Silverman always wanted to be a television executive, and that’s exactly what he ended up becoming.

editorial@observer.com